PIERCE, Idaho (AP) — Maddi Young had a choice to make after living a life fueled by drugs. She could either be charged with a felony or enroll in the Idaho Youth Challenge Academy.
The teen had been in and out of jail. The now 17-year-old said it was an easy lifestyle.
She didn’t want to go to a military-style school, but that’s just what she did.
Without it, she’d be in prison for sure, she said.
“Before here, I was in jail like two months at a time. I kept going in for the weekends. I didn’t care,” said Young, of Lewiston. “It’s like jail is easy — you eat, sleep and read. Who wouldn’t want that? But now, I want something better for myself.”
The Idaho Youth Challenge Academy — located in the small, rural town of Pierce — doesn’t accept kids with felony charges, but it can be used as an alternative to those types of sentences, according to principal Bicker Therien.
Young was described by administrators as a difficult cadet when she first arrived. After accepting her role, she now looks back at her experience fondly as it quickly winds to a close.
“This place has helped me tremendously. It’s like it got me sober and got me on track,” she said. “It’s improved my goals in life tremendously rather than just getting money by selling drugs and stuff.”
In June, 111 cadets graduated from the Idaho Youth Challenge Academy. Young is one of the 12 who will receive high school diplomas. Twenty-two will receive GED certificates, while the remainder will transition back to their hometown high school.
A day after she graduates, Young will move to Hawaii with her mom. Ideally, she’d like to serve in the U.S. Air Force or Army as a combat medic, but first she has to see if she is allowed to enlist given her criminal history. If she can’t, she’ll consider becoming a veterinary technician.
“It honestly feels amazing,” Young said of her impending graduation. “I never thought in a million years I would be this kind of person.”
The academy, which features a strict schedule free of distractions, is what teachers like to call an “academic utopia,” Therien said.
The 22-week course allows students to earn as many as 14 credits — the same amount they’d earn during a full year of high school. Students on average grow 2.1 grade levels during each course, Therien said.
“It appears to be magic, but it really isn’t,” he said. “If a kid goes to bed at 9 o’clock every night, gets up at 5 o’clock every morning, exercises twice a day, all the distractions of life are taken away and they never miss school — school is easy. It’s just life that gets in the way of school.”
The graduating class came in with an average GPA of 1.9 and will leave with an accumulative GPA of 2.6. The GPA in just academy courses averages 3.52.
Twenty cadets will graduate with a 4.0. Andrew Stroup, 19, of Weippe, is one of those students. He’ll receive his high school diploma.
Stroup signed up for the academy shortly before he turned 19, meeting the 16- to 18-year-old age requirement.
He was home schooled since preschool, but after his mom — and teacher — died of cancer, it hit his senior year hard. He enrolled in online classes and began to slack off, he said.
The academy gave him more confidence. He also excelled in English, a subject he said he was never good at.
Stroup plans to get into auto mechanics. He only needed one credit to graduate, but took the full load of 14 credits, as required.
“It’s definitely worth it for all the other skills you learn,” he said. “It’s definitely something I would suggest for the majority of the population.”
For others, the Idaho Youth Challenge Academy provided a chance to get out of situations that seemed crippling.
Miranda Becker, 17, of Clearwater, an unincorporated community about 7 miles southeast of the town Stites, was tired of being cooped up in a house with little to do. The academy allowed her to get her high school diploma one year early.
“Since where I live is kind of like Pierce, but smaller, I had zero opportunities, so all I was doing was sitting at home, not doing nothing. Just going to school,” Becker said.
Becker said family members struggle with alcohol addiction — something that causes her anxiety. She now has the skills to cope with those types of situations, thanks to the academy, she said.
Overall, Becker said she gained better self-esteem and self-control. She plans to enlist in the U.S. Army, or join the National Guard. That would help her pay for school. Eventually, she’d like to go to veterinary school.
Aidan Lynch, 16, of Kendrick, also will receive his GED certificate. Before he came to the Idaho Youth Challenge Academy, Lynch was expelled from school. It didn’t matter much, because he had already lost motivation a long time ago, he said.
“Before I came to the academy, I was failing my classes. I didn’t care about school,” Lynch said. “I wouldn’t give any effort. I could do the work, I just didn’t.”
The teachers at the academy helped by showing they care, he said. Lynch picked up life-coping and job skills. The leadership and fellowship courses taught him the skills to be a good leader and a good follower, he said.
“They go hand in hand together,” Lynch said.
He plans to work with his uncle renovating houses.
He said he’d recommend the program to others, despite how difficult it was to get used to the rigor of the academy.
The structure is essential to the kids’ success, Therien said. After leaving the program, the cadets will be mentored by someone in their hometown for the next 12 months. The hope is everyone will go on to live productive lives, but that’s not always the case.
“There are a whole lot of successes, but some go off the rails. Some of our kids are in big boy jail,” Therien said. “They leave with the skills they need to live a successful life, but they have to know how to apply those.”
Admissions coordinator Gregory Billups said the staff is always there to help a cadet who needs it, even after the mentoring period wraps up.
“All we want for them is to be happy and to be successful. Sometimes they don’t fully understand that,” Billups said. “But that’s why we are here. We want them to have successful lives, but when they fail, when they go through those hard times, we talk to them and try to help.”
Information from: Lewiston Tribune, http://www.lmtribune.com