The National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program is an intensive residential program designed to “reclaim the lives of at-risk youth” who have dropped out of high school and give them the skills and values to succeed as adults. The program is open to young people between the ages of 16 and 18 who have dropped out of (or been expelled from) school, are unemployed, drug-free, and not heavily involved with the justice system. The 17-month program is divided into three phases: the Pre-ChalleNGe Phase (two weeks), the Residential Phase (20 weeks), and the Postresidential Phase (one year). During the first two phases (totaling 22 weeks), the participants live at the program site, often on a military base.
The first phase, Pre-ChalleNGe, is a physically and psychologically demanding assessment and orientation period. Candidates are introduced to the program’s rules and expectations; learn military bearing, discipline, and teamwork; and begin physical fitness training.
Candidates who complete Pre-ChalleNGe are formally enrolled in the program as “cadets” and move to the second phase. The curriculum for the 20-week Residential Phase is structured around eight core components that reflect current thinking about how to promote positive youth development: Leadership/Followership, Responsible Citizenship, Service to Community, Life-Coping Skills, Physical Fitness, Health and Hygiene, Job Skills, and Academic Excellence. Cadets spend the largest share of each day in the education component. At the time of the study, most programs helped participants prepare for the GED exam, but a few of them offered a high school diploma.
The program environment is described as “quasi-military”: The cadets are divided into platoons and squads, live in barracks, have their hair cut short, wear uniforms, and are subject to military-style discipline. The daily schedule is highly structured with almost no “down time,” and the cadets are closely supervised by staff at all times. While ChalleNGe uses military structure, discipline, facilities, and staff to accomplish its objectives, participation in the program is voluntary, and there are no requirements for military service during the program or afterward.
Toward the end of the Residential Phase, the cadets work with staff to arrange a post-residential “placement.” Acceptable placements include employment, education, and military service.
The cadets who successfully complete the Residential Phase move into the one-year Postresidential Phase, which involves a structured mentoring program. The ChalleNGe mentoring program is unusual, in that young people nominate their own mentors during the application process. ChalleNGe initiates the mentoring relationship partway through the Residential Phase, after the staff screen and train the mentors. The staff then maintain contact with both the program’s graduates and their mentors at least monthly during the Postresidential Phase to help solve problems and to report on the youths’ progress.