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Approximately 120 at-risk teens from communities across Wisconsin took the “cadet oath” Aug. 13, 2015 on the parade field at Fort McCoy, Wis., to signify their commitment to completing the 22-week residential program at the Wisconsin National Guard’s Challenge Academy. The program teaches self-discipline and how to make good life choices along with academic courses and physical training. Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs photo by Vaughn R. Larson

MADISON, Wis. — In the 20 years since its inception, the Wisconsin Challenge Academy has changed the lives of more than 3,500 Wisconsin students.

Approximately 100 more will join their ranks after graduating this weekend.

This year marks two decades since Wisconsin began its version of the National Guard Youth Challenge program. The national-level program began 25 years ago.

Joshua Splinter, a Class 6 Wisconsin Challenge Academy graduate in 2001, represents just one of the thousands of lives changed by the Challenge Academy.

“I essentially dropped out of high school,” Splinter said. “When I was old enough to be a senior, I had enough credits to be a sophomore along with I was getting in trouble.”

Originally from Milton, Wisconsin, it’s safe to say Challenge Academy re-charted his life’s course.

“I would still be back home,” he said when asked where he’d be today with the Challenge Academy’s influence in his life. “Who knows what I would be doing. I have friends back home that have accomplished nothing. I have some that have accomplished some good things, but the path that I was going down probably would have led to me accomplishing nothing.”

Instead, Splinter is now 16 years into an Air Force career, with a high school equivalency diploma he earned through Challenge Academy, an associate’s degree in information technology, a bachelor’s degree in accounting, and a master’s degree in business administration with an emphasis on finance.

Stationed in Texas, Splinter now mentors a cadet in the Texas Challenge Academy.

Starting in fall 2017, the National Guard Youth Challenge program will mark the 25th anniversary with celebrations at the state and national level lasting through October 2018.

National Guard Youth Challenge is a voluntary program offering at-risk youth, between the ages of 16 and 18, the opportunity develop character and life skills to redirect their future.

Over the course of the next year, the Wisconsin Challenge Academy, located at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, will celebrate the national 25-year anniversary and Wisconsin’s own 20 years of service through special events, tours, media coverage and participation in recognition events held at the national and state level. Although the National Guard Youth Challenge program started in 1993, Wisconsin began the Wisconsin Challenge Academy in 1998.

The Wisconsin Challenge Academy is a nationally recognized program, earning a nationwide “Best Overall Program” designation in 2010. The program has graduated 3,514 students from Wisconsin, with 81 percent of those graduates also earning their high school equivalency diploma while in attendance at the Challenge Academy.

National Guard Youth Challenge was established by the National Guard in 1993 due to the increasing high school dropout and truancy rates in the United States. Today, there are 40 programs in 28 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. More than 150,000 cadets have graduated from National Guard Youth Challenge to date, changing their future, and therefore, changing America.

At National Guard Youth Challenge, participants looking for a way to succeed outside of a traditional school setting learn character, self-discipline, leadership, and responsibility while working to obtain a high school equivalency diploma or even their high school diploma. National Guard Youth Challenge is a two-phase program consisting of a residential phase and a post-residential mentoring phase. During the five-month residential phase, the program follows a military model to help participants develop their strength of character, resilience, and life skills, through a rigorous program of education, eight core components that focus on the whole person, and life-coping skills, that will give them the tools to navigate life’s challenges.

The 12-month post-residential mentoring phase begins once a cadet graduates from the residential phase of the program. Graduates are monitored for one year by National Guard Youth Challenge staff to ensure their success in high school, a career, college, or the military is progressing.

The mission of the National Guard Youth Challenge Program is to intervene in and reclaim the lives of 16-18 year-old ‘at-risk’ youths, producing program graduates with the values, life skills, education, and self-discipline necessary to succeed as productive citizens. Here in Wisconsin, our program offers the cadets the opportunity to develop the strength of character and life skills necessary to become successful, responsible citizens.

Class 39 of the Wisconsin Challenge Academy graduates Dec. 16 in a ceremony at Mauston High School. For more information, contact the Wisconsin National Guard Public Affairs Office.