Bluegrass ChalleNGe success continues in Kentucky.The U.S. is facing a growing epidemic of high school dropouts; more than 30 percent of youths--one million per year--fail to get a high school diploma.(1) Each year nearly 17,200 students in Kentucky do not graduate with their peers. Dropouts from the class of 2006 are projected to cost the state more than $4.5 billion in lost wages, taxes and productivity during their lifetimes. If Kentucky's dropouts from the class of 2006 had graduated, the state would likely save more than $162 million in Medicaid and expenditures for their uninsured care. Increasing the graduation rate and college matriculation of male students in Kentucky by only 5 percent could lead to combined savings and revenue of almost $87.4 million each year by reducing crime-related costs.(2)
These startling statistics are some of the main reasons the Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), the Kentucky National Guard and the Department of Military Affairs continue to partner with the Kentucky Youth Challenge/Bluegrass ChalleNGe Academy Program. While DJJ is only a fiscal and referral partner for the program, the department has enjoyed a positive and supportive relationship with the Department of Military Affairs, Blue Grass ChalleNGe Program since its beginning in 1999.
The Bluegrass ChalleNGe Academy is a 22-week residential military model development and training program, conducted at Ft. Knox, with a one-year follow-up on post-residential mentoring phase for youths between 16 and 18 years of age who are high school dropouts, drug-free, unemployed and free of serious involvement in the criminal justice system. It is a preventative rather than remedial program based on eight core components developed by the National Guard Bureau that supports the whole person in terms of mind, body and personal values with emphasis on self-discipline, self-esteem, education and healthy lifestyles. The program is set up to intervene in youths' downward spirals and provide additional education to help them earn a GED. The program is prohibited from "directed" attendance by a court, but many youths receive options to attend ChalleNGe versus more severe punishments in the justice system.
DJJ has 29 residential youth facilities statewide with an average daily youth population of approximately 957. It costs DJJ more than $55 million annually to operate these 29 facilities--or $160 to $235 a day per youth. Whereas the average cost per day for a cadet in the Bluegrass Challenge grant program totals $34.61, with DJJ's share of this amount being only about $8.65 a day per cadet. Based on this and other national figures, the Bluegrass ChalleNGe program is proving to be the most effective and efficient--in positive life change and per cadet cost--of any national youth program. And, in Kentucky, this program is an excellent and cost-effective resource for the juvenile justice system and the courts for intervening before serious criminal behavior sets in.
Because one of the admission criteria is limited court involvement, the two programs have very few youths in common. However, DJJ workers in the community have the ability to make recommendations to the Juvenile Court judges. It is not uncommon for these recommendations to include Bluegrass ChalleNGe as a diversion, to keep a youth from becoming too enmeshed in the court process.
After a tour of the current class, J. Ronald Haws, the acting commissioner for the Department of Juvenile Justice, said he was very impressed with the intensity of the program and how focused the cadets were on their studies. Haws indicated the investment of his department "was paying off as a preventative tool," because the youths in the Bluegrass ChalleNGe program were "a lot less likely to end up in one of our (DJJ) programs." DJJ will likely continue its support of the Bluegrass ChalleNGe Academy, according to Haws, as it is "a very effective use of the taxpayer's money in helping to prevent juveniles from becoming delinquents and forcing us to have to pay for them later."
"I was a big fan of the Bluegrass Challenge Academy long before I was appointed to the position of adjutant general," said Maj. Gen. Edward W. Tonini, who took office in December. "Community service is the legacy of the Kentucky National Guard and, while it sounds cliche, nothing is more important than ensuring the future of our young people."
"The partnership between the Kentucky National Guard, the Department of Military Affairs and the Department of Juvenile Justice is remarkable," Tonini said. "It is a common practice for government agencies to work toward a single cause, and in this case the result is simply outstanding. In addition to funding grants essential to running our program, Juvenile Justice provides us with many candidates who might otherwise fall through the cracks of bureaucracy."
ChalleNGe is a volunteer process, and no one can be directed to attend the program. In addition, National ChalleNGe policy and governing regulations prohibit the involvement of youths convicted of felonies or awaiting adjudication, said Bluegrass ChalleNGe Program Director Col. John Wayne Smith. "The success we have in changing the lives of Kentucky's at-risk youth have created a broad awareness that youth given the opportunity to attend do not require future involvement with the courts. Creating a positive contributing citizen is the focus of both ChalleNGe and Juvenile Justice. We are proud of the confidence the courts and the Department of Juvenile Justice express in our efforts through their constant and continuous support," he said.
"It's only been seven weeks since I've been in this place and already I have seen this amazing change in my life," said Cadet Burkhead of Springfield, Ky. "The cadets recently had a family pass and we got to go home for three days. Speaking for myself, my family and friends were so proud of me, they didn't even recognize me. They commented on how much I have changed--physically, mentally and professionally. I changed the way I walk. I take better care of myself and respect others."
"The program has been an excellent resource for the juvenile justice system and the courts," said DJJ Social Services Clinician Jamie Davis. "It has helped to reduce the number of commitments to the department. I have been witness to approximately 27 juveniles that have graduated from the academy. In my experience with the juveniles I have referred, some have gone on to further their education, join the military service, formed their own families and been successful in getting jobs to support their families."
Bluegrass ChalleNGe Academy's first 17 classes have resulted in 1,432 graduates from 2,119 enrollees. Of this number, 792 Kentuckians have obtained their GEDs. A primary indicator of the successes is the placements--which are classified as full-time employment, full-time education, full-time military, or a combination of employment and education--resulting after graduation. Kentucky routinely obtains monthly placement between 70 percent and 85 percent.
"The ChalleNGe program has sincerely changed my life, the physical and mental well-being of myself," said 16-year-old Cadet Devin Clayton of Lexington, Ky. "Every day is a challenge for me, but one I pull through. I only have about three more months left and I'll be on the road to my wonderful new life, which I know wouldn't be possible without the youth ChalleNGe program."
(1) National Guard Youth Foundation Inc. 2007. National Guard Youth Challenge Program White Paper.
(2) Alliance for Excellent Education. 2007. Understanding high school graduation rates in Kentucky. Available at www.all4ed.org/files/Kentucky_wc.pdf.
Stacy Haas Floden is director of program services for the Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice. For more information about DJJ, please contact Floden at (502) 573-2738 or stacyfloden@ky .gov.