Lights out is at 9 p.m. A strict schedule is enforced by the barking commands of drill sergeants. And the latrines don't clean themselves. But 17-year-old Michael Cosme couldn't be happier to be here.
As part of the National Guard Youth Challenge program, Cadet Cosme is getting a second chance at a successful future after dropping out of high school. Cosme and others like him don't feel engaged by traditional schooling. But nontraditional educational options can prepare these disenchanted teens for the real world with schooling that goes beyond brick walls.
Many of the estimated 1.2 million students who failed to graduate this year have a life of crime, teenage pregnancy and minimum wage waiting for them, according to statistics (see "More Than A Million Didn't Graduate High School This Year"). But the future doesn't have to be so bleak.
The National Guard Youth Challenge program is a coed voluntary-intervention program that offers dropouts between the ages of 16 and 18 a chance to escape their statistical destinies. The academy blends a quasi-military regiment with academics and gives students the skills to become productive members of society.
"The goal of the program is to intervene in the life of an at-risk youth and basically reclaim that youth and put him on the track to becoming a productive citizen within his or her community," said Joe Padilla, the program's manager. "A lot of these kids aren't bad kids — they just made bad decisions along the way."
Cosme was one of those troubled teens. He recalls constantly getting into trouble and stressing his mom out. He wanted to turn his life around but didn't know how. Cosme's cousin and former partner in crime attended the Youth Challenge program and came back with confidence and goals, Cosme said. After dropping out of school and regretting his decision, Cosme was looking for a similar second chance.
With programs in 23 states, the 22-week military-type residency program instills routine and discipline into the cadets. By wearing uniforms, living in barracks and adhering to a strict schedule, participants get structure they may never have experienced before, and many excel in the tough-love environment, Padilla said.
"Once we get them back in the schoolhouse and they understand that academics are important, then they can see a future beyond the program," he said. "They see that they can actually be that dentist or that lawyer or something that they wanted to be a long time ago, but somewhere it got lost along the way. Those dreams come back to life."
Padilla admits that the program is challenging for many of the teens, but most recognize that this may be their last chance to turn their lives around. The academy forces kids to lose the attitude and gain some perspective — and it's not without its benefits. Youth Challenge prepares teens to earn their GED or high school diploma at the end of the residency phase. Roughly 70 percent of the program's graduates go on to get a degree.
While at the academy, students also develop life plans for their return to the real world. Some are inspired to join the military, 40 percent go on to join the work force and 41 percent continue their education.
Just days away from his final exam, Cosme plans to get a college degree in computer graphics and game programming, as well as possibly enlisting in the National Guard. He's not alone once he graduates from the program, either: He has to stay in regular contact with his designated mentor for the next year.
"This academy teaches you good values and good morals; it helps you figure out what you plan on doing for the rest of your life," Cosme said. "This is only a chapter in my life, but it's one of the most important. It changed me from being a nobody and seeing nothing for my future to opening my eyes and seeing a whole new world."
Almost half of surveyed dropouts left school because classes weren't interesting, and seven in 10 kids said they weren't motivated or inspired to work hard, according to a report by Civic Enterprises and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Vocational education is often championed for its ability to engage these students. Specialized schools cater to a mix of youths: kids who dropped out of traditional school, those deemed at risk of dropping out and motivated students who have a clear idea of what career they want and wish to focus on it.
"It offers them life skills, work ethic, the skills that are needed to get a job and keep a job," said Jo Ann Kuebbeler, principal of the Lorain County Joint Vocational School in Oberlin, Ohio. "It offers them a practical education."
Vocational schools equip students with specific job skills and training for a chosen career path. Students take traditional subjects like math, English and social studies but learn how to apply the knowledge to their fields of interest.
The big difference between traditional and vocational education lies in the concentration on a chosen trade. Most schools require students to sample multiple fields in the first year or two and then select a career path for intense study. Schools offer everything from cosmetology to auto repair to graphic design to culinary arts.
"A lot of times, kids come here and they don't have any interest in anything, and finally they see something that they're not only interested in but they're good at," Kuebbeler said. "They have their first successes sometimes in accomplishing things and finishing things."
Katherine Machado, a 16-year-old student at the Diman Regional Vocational Technical High School in Fall River, Massachusetts, agrees.
"Some people get bored of the academic, and then they just give up," she said. "But being in a trade prepares you for the real world."
Through her office-technology program, Machado will be certified in Microsoft Word and Excel. She hopes having these accomplishments under her belt will make her a more desirable candidate for jobs in office administration.
"Being in a vocational [school] prepares us for the real world with hands-on skills," she said. "I think it's awesome."
Most vocational-technical schools also offer on-the-job training. Some schools offer work programs or internships that acclimate students to a real work environment. Some even allow them to earn wages in the process.
Diman and many other vocational schools also have deals with community colleges allowing students to earn college credit while still in high school. Despite preparing for life in the work force, many vocational students pursue higher education.
Diman has a waiting list of more than 300 students, according to the school's vocational coordinator, Thomas Aubin.
"What we do is simply phenomenal," Aubin said. "They're transferable skills. Whether [the students] want to work or go to two- or four-year colleges, they are able to do that."