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FREESTATE CHALLENGE A Milestone

Newly Minted Cadets Celebrate Accomplishment

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Teenagers at Freestate Challenge Academy work through tough times during the first two weeks of the program, some crossing over to become cadets while others are sent home.

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By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Last of three articles.

They marched like heroes across a scuffed stage floor, beneath a ceiling with peeling paint.

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Carrying small gold chevrons and tiny American flag emblems they had earned during the past few weeks, they roared in support of each other and leaped from their seats when every name was called.

Monday was "Crossover" day at the Freestate Challenge Academy -- the day that marks the transformation of the school's students from candidates to cadets.

It was a spartan ceremony held in a tattered auditorium at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground, northeast of Baltimore, where the school is based.

There were no parents, no balloons, no bouquets.

It was just 128 boys and girls from Maryland and the District -- youngsters who had been told they were failures -- marking in many cases their first triumphs and those of their fellow cadets.

"They love me," said Aquilla Harper, 16, of New Carrollton, who received a thunderous ovation from her peers when she crossed the stage. "It makes me want to cry. It's overwhelming."

Their achievement was modest, yet momentous.

They were the survivors of the 170 or so teenagers who had signed up to attend the rugged high school program the National Guard runs for youngsters who have dropped out of school and need a second chance. Some had been in trouble with the law. Others had been expelled from their old schools. A few had been incarcerated.

All had withstood the two-week, boot-camp initiation course called "Hard Core" that starts the challenge's five-month academic semester. Hard Core began July 12 and ended July 26.

Plenty of other candidates didn't make it. Some were sent home for fighting. Others got homesick. One kept falling out of his bunk bed. Another went home because his mother missed him.


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