A Successful Program to Reclaim the Lives of High School Dropouts


Recently, I attended the graduation ceremony for the Discovery ChalleNGe Academy, which targets high school dropouts and produces quality-educated young people with strong values, life skills, and self-discipline.  With so many children falling through the cracks of conventional education, DCA and its sister schools across the country offer these young people hope for a better future.

DCA is a partnership between the California National Guard and the San Joaquin County Office of Education and is part of the National Guard’s nationwide Youth ChalleNGe Program.  Students volunteer for the program and are not obligated to join the military.

The school, which is located in Lathrop in California’s Central Valley, is very different from most alternative-education schools.

First, the program includes an initial 22-week residential phase followed by a 12-month post-residential phase.  According to the County Office of Education, “cadets are introduced to the military structure, participate in team-building activities, practice making healthy choices, attend school daily, gain organizational and study skills, participate in a wide range of extra-curricular activities, and receive the support they need to turn their lives around.”

Cadets must meet military grooming standards, wear military-type uniforms, and observe military customs and courtesies.  However, the school emphasizes that it is not a boot camp, but, rather, “a reformative residential program” where cadets earn high school credits, earn their high school diplomas, “and become who you were always supposed to be” regardless of whether the student was “homeless, using drugs, had trouble with the law, dropped out of school, etc.”

While cadets take core academic classes, the ChalleNGe program is much more than just accumulating class credits.

After cadets complete an initial two-week “acclimation phase,” they enter a 20-week “challenge phase” where the emphasis is on the program’s Eight Core Components: academic excellence, leadership and followership, life-coping skills, job skills, service to community, responsible citizenship, health and hygiene, and physical fitness.  Cadets must show improvement in each of the components.

Under responsible citizenship, for example, cadets “develop an understanding of the forces that work to make a community strong and supportive of its members, as well as the forces that work to disintegrate a community.”

Under job skills, cadets develop skills to conduct job searches, set goals, complete resumes, fill out employment applications, and learn how to conduct themselves in job interviews.

After the 22-week residential portion of the program, the 52-week post-residential phase allows cadets to work with adult role models in a one-on-one mentoring relationship where the mentor provides advice, guidance, and support to help the cadet continue to achieve positive success.

Research on the ChalleNGe program has shown that the model works.

According to a 2019 RAND report, research shows that “the ChalleNGe program is cost-effective and has positive effects on cadets’ lives.”

For example, cadets’ standardized test scores substantially improve as they move through the program.

Also, “ChalleNGe participants achieve more education and have higher earnings than similar young people who do not attend the program.”

RAND estimates that the ChalleNGe program’s benefits, such as higher labor market earnings, lower criminal activity, and less social-welfare dependency, outweigh program costs by 2.66 to 1, meaning that the program produces $2.66 in benefits for every dollar in costs.

Beyond these statistics, however, are the real stories of how the ChalleNGe program changes the lives of young people.

Cadet Ayala, who was part of the class that I saw graduate, said that he was on a bad path, including a drug overdose.  He decided to go to DCA to turn his life around.

And the program did change his life for the better: “If you are thinking of going to DCA, then I say do it because there are a lot of benefits that come after it.”

A parent of a cadet named Armando, who was also part of the class I saw graduate, said that he graduated “with a straight 4.0 for 4 quarters” and thanked DCA “for encouraging, training, and showing him a positive path to be successful.”

There are more than 40 Youth ChalleNGe programs across the nation, with three ChalleNGe academies in California.  Since its inception in 1993, nearly 180,000 young people have completed the program.

Seeing all those proud and immaculately dressed cadets at their graduation, and hearing about their incredible stories of trial and accomplishment, gave me hope that troubled young people can overcome their life challenges if they can access proven programs such as Discovery ChalleNGe Academy.

–Lance Izumi is senior director of the Center for Education at the Pacific Research Institute.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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