On Friday night, well over 200 people gathered in the Montana Tech HPER Complex basketball gym to watch the Harlem Globetrotters face the Washington Generals. Music blasted and fans cheered as the professional basketball players showed off their ball handling skills in the warm-up before the game.
After player introductions, the gym fell silent. Five young women and men marched single file onto the court from a back corner of the gym, black boots in rhythm and black gloves clutching flags or arms. The only sound in the just-booming gym was the cadets' feet hitting the floor and the voice of Randy Nomee directing their movements to the center of the court.
Nomee and the other four teens in this color guard represented the Montana Youth Challenge Academy, a residential alternative education option for high school-aged students across the state. The National Guard-affiliated program is based on the University of Montana-Western campus in Dillon.
Nomee and Annabella White Horse, also part of the color guard, didn’t know what to expect when they started their nearly six-month rotation at the academy last July. Now with about a month until graduation, both Nomee and White Horse are in leadership positions and feel confident about their post-academy plans.
“I didn’t know I could be a great team leader and use my knowledge for good,” Nomee said. “This academy has shown me my true potential.”
The Montana Youth Challenge Academy is part of a National Guard program that has 40 stations across 28 states. Montana’s academy started in 1999, six years after the nationwide program was developed, and is the only quasi-military alternative education opportunity for teens in the state. According to Ron Carroll, the academy’s outreach coordinator, 75 percent of the program’s costs are funded federally, and the other 25 percent come from Montana taxpayers.
“The cookie-cutter approach to high school doesn’t work for everyone. We’re here for the students it doesn’t work for,” Carroll said. “The academy is still one of the best-kept secrets in Montana.”
Here’s how the academy is structured: Teens that are 16 to 18 years old can voluntarily apply to the free alternative education program if they are a Montana resident, U.S. citizen, drug free at enrollment, and are not on probation or convicted of a felony.
Once accepted, they join roughly 140 other “candidates” for the 11-day acclimation phase. This is when students learn all of the rules and academy expectations, including 5:30 a.m. wake-up calls and how to march and dress in uniform. This phase is also when the majority of dropouts occur. Each cycle, about 20 percent of students leave within the first few weeks, Carroll said.
After the acclimation phase, Carroll said the 100 or more remaining candidates earn their “cadet” titles and move into a dorm living environment. For the rest of the residential period, students work toward earning their HiSET, or GED; learning positive behaviors; and improving their physical fitness. Carroll said the students also have the opportunity to take college-level classes and prepare for job, college, or military placement post-high school.
There are two academy rotations each year. One graduates in December and the other in June. After completing the 22-week program, the cadets will work with their chosen mentors for at least a year to follow their personal post-academy plan.
Director Trent Gibson has been with the academy in Dillon since it started, first as a cadre leader then as a teacher. Gibson said working at the academy isn’t easy, but it can be very rewarding.
“It’s a tough job. Some of these kids have had a lot of hurdles to overcome in life,” Gibson said. “But it feels good to know some of the best days of their lives were lived here.”
Gibson said students from all different backgrounds walk into the academy with different needs. Some have had brushes with the law, some have never jaywalked in their life, he explained. The academy is designed to determine the struggles of each cadet and “scaffold them up as much as we can” in a short time period, Gibson said.
Over the years, Gibson said the structure of the academy hasn’t changed much, but staff are constantly adapting to the educational and emotional needs of students. He said he’s noticed that things at home seem to “go wrong” much faster than they used to, but many of the obstacles students face are still the same.
“The kids that came in 1999 are not the same as the kids here in 2018,” Gibson said. “We continually change the way our academy model is enacted to stay relevant.”
Now that Gibson is the academy’s director, he said his goals are to bring more kids into the program, maintain staff members that serve as positive role models, and better prepare students for life after high school.
“So many people don’t know we’re here and that we’re free to families, or they get the wrong idea, thinking we’re a boot camp,” Gibson said. “Our goal is to get our name back out to the families that need it.”
When White Horse enrolled in the program, she said she had no idea what to expect. A friend had convinced her to join the academy and dropped out soon after arriving. But White Horse had other reasons to stay.
“Before I came here, I was not a good person, and my sister was following in my footsteps, which scared me,” White Horse said. “I want to be a better role model for my sister.”
Now with about a month until graduation, the once-high school dropout has earned her HiSET and is taking college classes at 16. She plans to join the U.S. Army after she graduates and aims to have a bachelor’s degree by 21.
“Coming here provided me with opportunities I didn’t know I had before,” White Horse said.
Nomee is on a different post-graduation path. He plans to return to his hometown, Hardin, and finish high school with his graduating class. Then he wants to find a good career, he said.
“I want to get my high school diploma and make my mom proud,” Nomee said. “For at-risk or not ‘normal’ students, this program shows them a light at the end of the tunnel.”