D.C. Teen Discovers Transition at Freestate Challenge Is Trying

At-risk teenagers who have struggled in traditional high school try to make it through tough academic and physical rigors of the strict military-style school Freestate Challenge Academy at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.
By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 3, 2009

Second of three articles.

Dawn Harvey began to cry as she stood in line to the supply clerk's office.

She had been at the base only a few hours and already had been chewed out in front of everyone for having "a smart mouth."

Harvey was 19, and she was looking to change her life. She had left home at 15, been in trouble with the police for fighting and destruction of property, and dropped out of high school. People told her that she had problems with anger.

She had found this National Guard high school program on the Internet. It seemed perfect. She could get discipline, a diploma and classes in conflict resolution. Plus, it was free. Yet here she was on day one, with her name tag and backpack, and tears running down her face.

Harvey, of Northeast Washington, was one of 170 young women and men from the District and Maryland who last month enrolled in the National Guard's Freestate Challenge Academy at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County, Md.

The residential program is designed for at-risk students ages 16 to 19 who have dropped out of high school or may have run afoul of the law. Intense classroom instruction lasts for five months and is followed by a year-long mentoring period.

Rigid regulations and a spartan dress code are enforced by a team of no-nonsense drill instructors. Girls and boys are segregated on separate floors in a brick and cinder block building on the base.

"It's not the Girl Scouts!" one female instructor barked to newly arrived young women.

Nor is it summer camp.

The transition from "the street" to the barracks can be harrowing. "These kids think they're tough," said David Marsh, the academy's lead counselor. But most are not ready for the regimen or the mind-set.

Reveille is at 5:30 a.m. Physical training is constant. There are no TVs, and no cellphones, makeup, jewelry, money or profanity are allowed. Parents are not permitted to visit for eight weeks. Fighting is forbidden. Those who break the rules can be expelled -- "self-inflicted elimination," or SIE, the instructors call it -- and over the past few weeks dozens of applicants were.

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