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Maj. Gen. Paul Knapp, Wisconsin's Adjutant General, delivers a virtual graduation ceremony address to the graduating cadets of Wisconsin National Guard Challenge Academy Class 44. Approximately 65 cadets graduated from the Challenge Academy program June 20.

The Wisconsin National Guard Challenge Academy, with its campus at one corner of Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, provides 11th and 12th-grade students at risk of not graduating high school an opportunity to earn a GED if they are willing to commit to a strict daily regimen, unlearn bad habits and learn valuable life skills. Living in military barracks for five and a half months, away from the distractions and peer pressures at their school and home, helps the cadets focus and improve.

A global pandemic requiring the Challenge Academy to send its 100 cadets back home for two months was an unexpected challenge.

sm200601-O-A3612-0848Wisconsin National Guard Challenge Academy secretary Coleen Rapp and admissions counselor Amy Miller gather health information from returning cadet Alexander Aranda-Garza June 1. The COVID-19 pandemic required the Academy to send its cadets home during the five-and-a-half month residential phase of the program designed to help teens at risk of not graduating high school to turn their lives around. Wisconsin Challenge Academy photo

“The staff here at the Academy has done a fantastic job of adapting to the situation to provide a valuable experience to the cadets coming through,” said Kevin Greenwood, Challenge Academy director in Wisconsin. “We have assessed our operations and made necessary adjustments to complete requirements while providing a safe environment for cadets and staff.”

sm200605-O-A3612-2704Wisconsin Challenge Academy cadet Kavon Bent completes coursework on his Chromebook June 5 at Fort McCoy, Wis. The COVID-19 pandemic required the Academy to send its cadets home during the five-and-a-half month residential phase of the program designed to help teens at risk of not graduating high school to turn their lives around. Of the 100 cadets sent home March 30, 37 returned to Fort McCoy in June. Wisconsin Challenge Academy photo

Resilience and adaptability are two concepts Challenge Academy instructors help cadets learn during the residential phase of the program, and academy staff drew on those concepts as they translated a residential curriculum into an online instruction.

“As with any education program, virtual classrooms and online education poses certain challenges and limitations,” Greenwood explained. “We much prefer to teach in person. However, the staff adapted and provided academic, character development and core component training and education through Google Classroom, work packets and email while the cadets were home.”

sm200605-O-A3612-4400Wisconsin Challenge Academy cadet Natalie Cortes works to complete core requirements June 5 at Fort McCoy, Wis. The COVID-19 pandemic required the Academy to send its cadets home during the five-and-a-half month residential phase of the program designed to help teens at risk of not graduating high school to turn their lives around. Of the 100 cadets sent home March 30, 37 returned to Fort McCoy in June. Wisconsin Challenge Academy photo

Greenwood said some cadets struggled to complete their work on time, but teachers and counselors provided tutoring over the phone or through video chat.

Another challenge emerged when the computer-based testing company that provided GED testing for the Academy shut down during the pandemic. The Academy’s lead instructor coordinated with that company, the state Department of Public Instruction and local school districts to accept the GED practice test for credentialing purposes, resulting in 65 cadets able to graduate and receive a credential through their school district.

sm200605-O-A3612-6800Team leader Heriberto Ruiz speaks with Wisconsin Challenge Academy cadet Dominick Bennett, as fellow cadet Luis Castro works to complete core requirements June 5 at Fort McCoy, Wis. The COVID-19 pandemic required the Academy to send its cadets home during the five-and-a-half month residential phase of the program designed to help teens at risk of not graduating high school to turn their lives around. Of the 100 cadets sent home March 30, 37 returned to Fort McCoy in June. Wisconsin Challenge Academy photo

The Academy sent its cadets home March 30, but 39 arrived at nearby Volk Field on May 30 for COVID-19 testing and quarantine until results were received. All 39 tests were negative for COVID-19, and 37 returned to Fort McCoy to complete the program’s remaining core requirements. Of the 100 cadets who were sent home, 21 will enroll in Class 45 in July, but they will retain their cadet status, which is earned during the first few weeks of the program. Another 14 were disenrolled from the program.

sm200228-O-A3612-2528Female cadets at the Wisconsin National Guard Challenge Academy on Feb. 28, before the COVID-19 pandemic required the Academy to send its cadets home in the middle of the five-and-a-half month residential phase of the program designed to help teens at risk of not graduating high school to turn their lives around. Of the 100 cadets sent home March 30, 37 returned to Fort McCoy in June. Wisconsin Challenge Academy photo

“Due to the smaller group of returning cadets, we were able to geographically separate the cadets,” Greenwood said. Bunk assignments were changed, and other daily routines — formations, dining facility protocol, even personal hygiene — were modified to avoid crowding between individuals. “The main focus was to complete our core requirements, so it was a self-paced environment.”

The remaining 65 cadets from Class 45 graduated June 20. Like most other graduates this year, there was no traditional ceremony.

sm200317-O-A3612-4096Male cadets at the Wisconsin National Guard Challenge Academy on March 17, before the COVID-19 pandemic required the Academy to send its cadets home in the middle of the five-and-a-half month residential phase of the program designed to help teens at risk of not graduating high school to turn their lives around. Of the 100 cadets sent home March 30, 37 returned to Fort McCoy in June. Wisconsin Challenge Academy photo

“We communicated with cadets and their families,” Greenwood said. “We conducted a more informal ceremony at the Academy, and videotaped certificate presentations. Cadets who were not in attendance were asked to submit photos for a graduation video.”

The Academy has plans for a virtual graduation ceremony perhaps as early as this week.

Meanwhile, the Academy is preparing to accept approximately 120 students to Class 45, which begins next month.

“We are implementing many procedures to mitigate the risks of COVID-19,” Greenwood said, to include testing students and staff. As with the class that just graduated, certain activities have been removed from the schedule due to exposure risks or cancellation by event hosts.

“Our goal is to accomplish as many traditional activities and events as possible while recognizing the potential impacts of COVID-19,” Greenwood said.

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