First lady works to expand youth academies to 50 states

Military-style program gives troubled teens a chance at a diploma

Posted: Friday, October 28, 2005

FAIRBANKS - Marine Cpl. Andrew Mitchell travels the nation and world to make sure President Bush has a perfectly functioning helicopter, but a few years ago he wasn't sure he'd even make it out of high school in Palmer.

Mitchell, a mechanic for Marine One, on Wednesday in Washington, D.C., helped Alaska first lady Nancy Murkowski announce an effort to expand nationwide the program to which he credits his success.

Mitchell graduated in 2001 from the Alaska Military Youth Academy. It's one of 30 such programs in 24 states that provide troubled teens with a military-style program where they can earn a high school diploma and some self-respect.

Murkowski and Oklahoma first lady Kim Henry want to bring the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program to every state and expand it in states such as Alaska that already have academies.

"This program, I believe, is one of the best programs that we have going in this United States to keep kids off the streets," Murkowski said. "My husband is so impressed with this that he is trying to get enough money going to start another program in Fairbanks."

Mitchell said he found many ways to have fun as a kid in Alaska. "The thing I did not enjoy was school," he said.

He'd sleep through classes and wouldn't do the work, which "sparked many heated conversations with my parents," he said.

At 16 and on the brink of dropping out of high school, he signed up at the youth academy. For 5 1/2 months, he lived in a military-style camp at Fort Richardson. He had no contact with friends, very limited contact with his family, and a long, very precisely defined list of expected duties every day of the week. Another 12 months of close supervision and mentoring followed.

It was very hard, but the program promoters were up front about that, he said.

Murkowski said the main obstacle to starting a program in Fairbanks so far seems to be the lack of an available facility.

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