Academy helps troubled teens

Youths learn academic and vocational skills

Posted: Thursday, April 07, 2005

Hunter Hildre got off track and onto drugs when he was 15, he says. His grades at Juneau-Douglas High School suffered.

He attended chemical-dependency group counseling for 10 months and transferred to Thunder Mountain Academy, a small private school.

"It just didn't work," said Hunter's mother, Patty LaPierre. "He wasn't focused. It was so stressful for everyone."

When Hunter, now 16, and his parents heard about the Alaska Military Youth Academy, they decided to give it a try this fall. He completed the program last month.

"I've learned a lot of patience," he said recently.

And military politeness. He startled his mother and maybe himself on his first call home by responding to a question, "Ma'am, yes ma'am."

Potential high school dropouts age 16 to 18 live at the academy, at Fort Richardson in Anchorage, for five and a half months, learning coping skills, academics, vocational skills and community service in a stricter environment than they're used to.

"Basically, it's their way or no way," Hildre said. "If they tell you you have to do something, you better go do it."

Cadets practice military drill but don't use real weapons. They wear uniforms and boots.

Students give up television, music, the hairstyle of choice, and the usual teenage social lives. In exchange, if they stick with it, they acquire the discipline to finish school and get a job.

"Our goal is to help these young men and women complete their secondary education and give them strong life skills so they become marketable," said Ed Wicher, the academy's admissions director.

Hildre's platoon started with 69 cadets and ended with 44, he said. Typically, the academy loses about 30 percent of its starters, Wicher said. It offers two sessions a year, with 150 to 180 students each, and will expand its capacity next fall.

The academy runs Alaska's version of the National Guard's Youth Corps Challenge Program, now in 29 states, and is funded by grants and the state and federal governments. In Alaska, the youth corps is a division of the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

The challenge program began in Alaska in 1994 and has graduated about 1,800 students from the academy. Four Juneau students completed it this spring.

"You wake up about 5 a.m. on the command to get on line," Hildre said. The cadets count off, "sir, one sir," and so forth.

The cadets attend physical training before breakfast and take courses such as carpentry before lunch. They're in academic classes from 1 to 6 p.m. Then it's back to the barracks "and just sit there and polish boots," Hildre said. "I was pretty good at that."

Free time?

"That's all you do is polish boots. Sometimes, you're allowed to go outside and shovel, if you're lucky," he said.

Students also may spend part of the evening at voluntary meetings of Bible studies, Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, Wicher said.

It's lights out at 9 p.m.

Weekends are spent on physical training and outdoor adventures.

Students who misbehave can lose privileges or be made to wear a steel helmet and carry a rucksack or two loaded with their belongings. Hildre carried the pack for 14 days because he hid candy behind his locker.

"There was a kid that got caught jacking sugar packets. He was selling them for a dollar apiece," Hildre said.

While students are at the academy and for a year at home afterward, they have mentors - adults who take an interest in them.

Cadets call them about once a week, and the mentors visit the academy about twice a month, Hildre said.

"They're your TV. You call them up and see what's going on in the real world," he said.

After cadets leave the academy, they're required to attend school or get a job, either paid or voluntary. Hildre is working for free at his sister's pet-grooming business.

Cadets can earn their GED, the general educational development certificate, at the academy. Others, like Hildre, go back to high school. Hildre is enrolled at Yaakoosge Daakahidi, the alternative high school in Juneau.

The academy has a high success rate with those who finish. More than 90 percent of its graduates are in school or employed a year later, Wicher said.

LaPierre is satisfied. She sees a "quiet strength or solidness" in Hildre now.

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