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Freestate Challenge Graduation day

Freestate cadets celebrate the changes they have undergone

Graduating cadets at Maryland Guard's last-chance high school celebrate the changes they've undergone

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 14, 2009

Cadet Jamal DuCote Peters walked into the barracks office and took off his cap and gown. He hoisted his black backpack, from which his boots hung, and grabbed the white padlocked duffel bag holding his gear. And he began to say his goodbyes.

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"Sir," he told Cpl. Christopher McFadden, "thank you."

"All right, Peters," McFadden said. "All right, buddy. Be safe, hear? Congratulations."

Then Peters, 18, of Northeast Washington, clad in a white dress shirt, gray necktie and black pants, walked out the door of Building 4220 into the parking lot and the bright morning sunshine and started toward his mother's car.

"Free," he said with a smile, "free at last."

Peters and 100 other "at-risk" teenagers from Maryland and the District had just returned from the base theater, also at Aberdeen Proving Ground, where they graduated as Class 33 of the National Guard's Freestate Challenge Academy.

For 22 weeks, they voluntarily endured the residential academy's military-style regimen of tough discipline, physical training and intense classroom work to secure a high school equivalency degree and a second chance at life.

Many had been steered to the academy by the juvenile court system, where their troubles had landed them. Some were former gang members. Others came from shattered families or were on the verge of homelessness. Most were unemployed high school dropouts on the road to nowhere. And some, like Peters, were just aimless and unmotivated and knew they needed a change.

There had been 170 in the beginning, when they arrived at the sprawling Army base northeast of Baltimore on July 12. This was the scene: a drill sergeant bellowing instructions from an upper-story barracks window as they sat on the macadam in the broiling sun attempting to eat lunch.

Scores left because of discipline problems, homesickness or violations of the stringent barracks rules.

Despite the hollering instructors, the 5:30 a.m. wake-ups, the unbending discipline and the lack of contact with the outside world, most survived the Freestate challenge. Many thrived. To maintain their gains, the program will continue the graduates' relationship with their community mentors for a year.

District teenagers attended via the D.C. National Guard's Capital Guardian Youth Challenge Academy, which sends students through Maryland's program. Seventeen Washington youths graduated.

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