Journey begins for FCA Class #49

Ceremony welcomes cadets to MDNG residential program

Maryland National Guard Freestate ChalleNGe Academy English instructor Nathaniel Sievers, second from left, congratulates Cadet Jose Moran-Castro during the crossover ceremony for cadets accepted into the program at the APG South (Edgewood) recreation center, July 25, 2017. |U.S. Army photo by Rachel Ponder, APG News

Ninety-three at-risk teens were officially accepted into the Maryland National Guard Freestate ChalleNGe Academy during a crossover ceremony for Class #49 at the APG South (Edgewood) recreation center July 25.

Teens accepted into the Freestate ChalleNGe Academy, or FCA, have withdrawn from traditional high school and desire a second chance at an education. The program gives them the opportunity to prepare for GED tests while retraining in a rigorous, military-style environment for five months.

While at the academy, the teens, now known as “cadets,” are taught eight core components: academic excellence, leadership/followership, health and hygiene, service to the community, life coping skills, job skills, responsible citizenship and physical fitness. Each component must be mastered with a passing score in order to graduate.

New class, new direction

The new FCA Commandant Sgt. Maj. Zakiyyah Kiley said about 130 teens initially enrolled in Class #49. The remaining candidates are under review, a new practice implemented this cycle. Before the candidates crossed over, they were required to complete a two-week “acclimation phase” and answer questions regarding their desire to complete the program before a board of cadre, case managers and instructors.

“We wanted to hear their feedback, how they think they progressed, so we can help motivate them towards their goals,” said Kiley, a U.S. Navy veteran.

Remaining candidates who had disciplinary issues during the acclimation phase will have a second chance to become cadets, Kiley said, adding that FCA teaches perseverance. The school aims to “stand out as a military academy,” and will focus more on drilling ceremonies, discipline and accountability, she said.

“We push for integrity,” she said. “We’re, in essence, teaching them how to take leadership, so we have a really sound structure system when they come through the door.”

Kiley, who “grew up in the streets of Baltimore,” said she understands the struggles at-risk teens face. She has served with various National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Academy programs for more than 10 years.

“I was one of them, I can definitely understand,” she said. “But that’s why I am hard on them, because I know they can do it. I am very no-nonsense, but I give them respect, because it takes a lot of courage to come here. I feel like if you come here, you can graduate.”

During the crossover ceremony, more than 20 students received the rank of “Cadet Private” for exemplary behavior, Kiley said. The remaining cadets will have the opportunity to earn “Cadet Private” the following week.

“These were our cadets that came through the door, and were focused,” she said. “They had no disciplinary issues, and showed great leadership straight out of the gate.”

Crossover ceremony

During the crossover ceremony, Assistant Commandant 1st Sgt. Kevin Chandler led the cadets in reciting the FCA honor code, which is a pledge to live with integrity and follow the rules outlined in the FCA handbook.

(From left) Timothy Duval, Arsean Fitzgerald and DeAnthony Foote-Gray recite the Freestate ChalleNGe Academy Honor Code during the crossover ceremony at the APG South (Edgewood) recreation center July 25, 2017. |U.S. Army photo by Rachel Ponder

Acting Recruiting Placement and Mentoring Supervisor Keith Dickerson said he was proud of the teens for making this commitment to their education and their future.

“Make sure every day you put the [FCA] uniform on with pride, and you carry yourself like a respectable cadet with integrity,” he said.

English instructor Nathaniel Sievers told the teens that they will have to push themselves to earn their GED.

“What I can promise you is that all the teachers here will work as hard they can to get you to that GED,” he said, “but you have to work just as hard as we are; you have to push yourself just as hard, or harder to get to that point.”

After the ceremony, the cadets were allowed to call their families for the first time since arriving at the academy.

Cadet Emily Coronell, from Baltimore City, said she is excited about her future. Coronell said she desires “structure and guidance” and she admitted that adjusting to the strict schedule that includes rising early in the morning for PT, or physical training, is difficult.

“I want to go into the military, the Navy, so I think this program will help me prepare,” she said. “And I hope I can earn some scholarships at the end of this program.”

Cadet Kaijuan Austin, from Prince George’s County, said he wants to make his family proud.

“I wanted to better myself and have a better future,” he said. “I want to get a good job.”

During the residential phase, the cadets work closely with a trained mentor from their community, who encourages them to work towards their goals. During the post-residential phase, the teens are required to work closely with their mentors for 12 months, as they continue their education, enter the military, or seek employment.

About Freestate ChalleNGe Academy

FCA is a division of the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program, which was established under the authority of federal and state laws in 1993. The program is open to Maryland residents, ages 16-18. For more information, visit the FCA website at


Story by Rachel Ponder, APG News