Brian Baldwin never thought he would earn a high school diploma.
At 17, he said he frequently skipped school. He said he never did work and often struggled with math.
In January, he enrolled in the Maryland National Guard Freestate ChalleNGe Academy, or FCA, a statewide program for at-risk youth located on the Aberdeen Proving Ground Edgewood campus that provides skills, education and self-discipline needed to become responsible, productive citizens.
In the program, Brian took part in academic classes and tutoring, which helped him raise his academic skills three grade levels within six months. He also passed his GED test and earned that coveted degree.
“Tutoring really helped me to understand math concepts that I never understood before,” he said. “It was definitely a confidence boost and helped to decrease my stress level which allowed me to focus more.”
Brian, who has just wrapped up his first season working with the facility maintenance crew for the Aberdeen Ironbirds at Ripken Stadium, is also a junior member of the Perryville Fire Company. He plans to begin fire department training in the near future so he can become an active member and enroll at Harford Community College, though he is undecided on a major.
Brian is one of 300 teens who take part in the FCA program each year. Its target population is those who have stopped attending school, are not meeting with academic success and those who create distractions or who are easily distracted in the traditional high school environment.
The program started in 1993 as a five-year pilot in 10 states, including Maryland. It’s now in more than 30 states.
The FCA is a tuition-free program which offers at-risk adolescents ages 16 to 18 an opportunity to change their future for the better, by providing the skills, education and self-discipline needed to become responsible, productive citizens.
The initial program consists of a 22-week residential phase. During this phase the cadets learn self-discipline, leadership and responsibility. Participants live and work in a controlled military-style environment that encourages teamwork and personal growth.
A 12-month post-residential phase focuses on helping graduates enroll in continued education, technical school programs or entry-level employment. During the post-residential phase, students are assisted by at least one trained mentor from the community for further development.
More than 5,000 teens have completed the program and more than half of them have passed the GED test. In June 2017, 100 cadets completed the program.
For many of the cadets in the program, it’s their last chance to “get it right,” said Keith Dickerson, the Recruitment, Placement and Mentoring Supervisor.
“Their young lives have been riddled with failures, missed and sabotaged opportunities, heartache, disappointment, discouragement and feelings of defeat. They come to us broken, needy, desperate and seeking answers and guidance,” he said. “We’re able to take the torn and tattered pieces of the young men and women we commit ourselves to, and begin to piece them back together and instill in them the morals, values, motivation and drive necessary to push a little harder, dig a little deeper and press on a little further.”
The program also prepares students for the General Education Diploma, or GED, test by providing daily classes and an academic assistance program in the test’s four subject areas: language arts, social studies, science and mathematics. This program consists of the cadets’ mentors and volunteers from outside of the organization tutoring the cadets.
The volunteers, primarily from the APG community, spend two hours with the cadets on Tuesday evenings to help the cadets become better prepared for the test.
As demand has increased over the years, continued community support is needed. On average, 6-10 people volunteer for tutoring sessions. The FCA is hoping to open its doors to more volunteers since more than 100 cadets are preparing for the GED test.
Volunteer tutors do not need prior tutoring experience and are encouraged to offer assistance in the subject areas they are most comfortable with.
For some cadets, the tutoring can make or break their success, said Tiffeny Spicer, an instructor and advisor of the Academic Assistance Program. During tutoring the cadets do cumulative reviews and this repetition helps them retain the material, she said.
“Since cadets are learning at an accelerated rate in class, tutoring allows them to slow down and really grasp the concepts that the cadet is struggling with,” she said. “Working with the tutors also builds the cadets’ self-esteem and confidence which is needed to take the GED and in life after Freestate.”
Odaine Campbell, 18, was extremely persistent about becoming a peer tutor after he graduated from the program in June.
He wanted something that would help him “stay out of trouble,” he said. The main impact that Campbell received from becoming a tutor was working on his social skills, as he had to learn to work with his peers and be patient.
“Even though our peer tutors have strong academic skills to begin with, participating in peer tutoring allows them to reinforce those skills,” Spicer said. “You can never practice too much.”
For more information about becoming involved as a tutor, contact Rebecca Blue, lead instructor for the Freestate Challenge Academy, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 410-436-3265.