49 Texas youth receive fresh start through Texas National Guard's Texas ChalleNGe Academy

Story by: 1st Lt. Alicia Lacy

Posted: June 18, 2016

Photo By 1st Lt. Alicia Lacy | Cadets pose for a picture before graduating from the Texas ChalleNGe Academy-East June 18, 2016, in Altair, Texas. The graduates finished the 22-week residential phase of the alternative education program with some recovering high school credits, earning their high school diploma or GED or both. The ChalleNGe Academy is a Department of Defense-funded program through the National Guard and the Texas Joint Counterdrug Taskforce.
Photo By 1st Lt. Alicia Lacy | Cadets pose for a picture before graduating from the Texas ChalleNGe Academy-East June 18, 2016, in Altair, Texas. The graduates finished the 22-week residential phase of the alternative education program with some recovering high school credits, earning their high school diploma or GED or both. The ChalleNGe Academy is a Department of Defense-funded program through the National Guard and the Texas Joint Counterdrug Taskforce.

EAGLE LAKE, Texas (JUNE 18, 2016) – Their faces beamed with pride as the spotlights illuminated them. Some tried to maintain their bearing as they sat upright, but smiles emerged from others as cheers from their families, friends and staff who supported them throughout the residential phase of the Texas ChalleNGe Academy-East echoed in the auditorium.

The day had finally come. They were moments away from being Texas ChalleNGe Academy-East graduates during a ceremony June 18 at Rice Junior High School in Altair.
For the past 22 weeks, the cadets adhered to a strict, military lifestyle, waking up at 4:45 a.m. for physical training, attending classes during the day and turning in at 8:45 every night.

The 49 graduates have their own stories and different circumstances that brought them to the alternative education program, which is a Texas National Guard program under the Texas Joint Counterdrug Taskforce.

For some, it was a last option to reclaim their lives after a few bad decisions or life circumstances led them to dropout of high school or go down a wrong path and fall behind in their school work. 

But regardless of the reason for attending TCA, they all finished with a new lease on life, with several earning their GEDs or high school diplomas or both.

For Samantha Villarreal, 17, of Houston, it was a way for her to not give up on herself and accomplish something she said she thought wouldn’t happen.
Villarreal said she began smoking when she was in the ninth grade. At that time, she started to lose interest in school and wanted to dropout, but because her parents stressed the importance of receiving an education, she began to look for alternative ways to complete high school.

“Dropping out was never an option for me because my parents didn’t graduate,” she said, “so they wanted more for me.”

Into her 10th grade year, Villarreal said she continued to smoke and eventually began a home school program, which she attended for only about a month before quitting that, too.

“I realized I’m here doing nothing and I’m supposed to be doing my school work and I’m not,” she said about the home school.
After traditional high school and home school didn’t work, Villarreal said she began searching for military schools and found the Texas ChalleNGe Academy.
Villarreal went in to the academy missing credits from her sophomore, junior and senior years of high school, but due to her work in the program, she was able to earn her GED and recover most of her credits. Now she only needs three more credits to earn her diploma.

Even though she has a GED, Villarreal said she plans to go back to school and earn her diploma and eventually join the military and go to college.
Andres Martinez, 17, of Brownsville, has a similar story.

Martinez said he started doing drugs and his mom wanted to get him out of that environment.

Martinez said his mom and brother began looking for bootcamps to enroll him. When she found TCA, he said he was open to the idea of attending. 
“I was pretty nervous,” Martinez said, “ but I believed in myself and that I was ready for it.”

While at TCA, staff awarded Martinez the position cadet first sergeant. Staff holds the cadet first sergeant accountable for both student companies.
“I felt proud of myself to know that they were faithful in me to do that position,” he said.

While at TCA, Martinez earned his GED and high school diploma and participated in the Commandant’s Challenge.

Martinez said he plans to join the National Guard and attend college with hopes of becoming a border patrol agent.
“I’m glad I took the opportunity to come here because it helped make me more responsible and take care of my stuff, myself and have discipline to not follow bad influences,” he said. 

Throughout the cycle, TCA cadets were able to meet with and work with Texas Joint Counterdrug Taskforce airmen and soldiers, who helped mentor them through the process.

TCA is a Texas National Guard-sponsored educational program to help at-risk youth between 16 and 18 years old get their lives back on track. The program is completely voluntary and requires a 17 and a half-month commitment.

All cadets must not have any felony convictions and be drug free at the time of entry.

The academy is broken down into the 22-week residential phase and a 12-month, post-residential phase.

TCA focuses on eight core components – academic excellence, health and hygiene, job skills, leadership and followership, life-coping skills, physical fitness, responsible citizenship and service to the community.

In addition to their schoolwork, cadets had the opportunity to participate in other programs like archery, student council, student leadership positions and the Commandant’s Challenge. Students also perform community service every Saturday and have the option to attend church and participate in intramural sports on Sundays.

TCA is a Department of Defense-funded program and receives 25 percent funding from the state. The program is free to Texas residents.
TCA’s West campus in Sheffield plans to graduate 57 cadets June 24 in Iraan.
Both TCAs will begin its fall cycle in July.