The Arizona Republic, November 19, 1996

Dropouts face 5-month 'challenge'
Caring changes lives

By David Cannella, Staff writer

The instructor looks at Suzanne Chole's pencil.

''It doesn't look like it's sharpened correctly,'' he says. ''Drop and give me 20.''

The petite 18-year-old pumps out a clean repetition of military-style push-ups. Back in her seat, she continues her studies.

''It can be for anything,'' she says. ''They're really into push-ups here.''

''Here'' is Project Challenge, a five-month live-in program for high-school dropouts.

Run by the Arizona National Guard, the program, on the Williams Gateway Airport campus in southeast Mesa, is designed to get youths into shape -- mind and body.

''The style here is a military style, a no-nonsense approach,'' says Staff Sgt. Don Smith, dean of students for the program. ''Teenagers need a lot of structure, and that's what we provide.''

Unlike other ''boot camp'' programs, such as one run by the Arizona Department of Corrections for young offenders, the approach here mixes strong discipline with compassion.

The main goal: Study for and pass the test for a general-equivalency diploma.

The program began in 1993 with a federal grant of $2.5 million. However, as the federal government scales back support -- it was cut 22 percent last year -- the project's challenge now is to find alternative sources to keep afloat.

Today, the Maricopa County Attorney's Office is presenting a grant of $25,000 to program administrators.

Officials want to raise $600,000 and will be looking to the Legislature for help.

The participants, who range in age from 16 to 18, cannot have a history of violent offenses and must be drug free -- no illegal drugs, alcohol or tobacco use. And, unlike most rigorous boot-camp programs, they must want to be take part.

Chole, who dropped out of Dobson High School in Mesa her senior year, said she's learned a lot about herself since she arrived in October.

''I was running with the wrong crowd in high school,'' she says. ''I was ditching school, getting high -- that's what was fun for me.

''Here, I'm realizing I'm not as strong as I thought. I always thought I had all the answers. I'm finding out there's a lot I don't know.''

The program, which has about 100 youths, stresses teamwork.

It's up at 5 a.m., for a day full of physical fitness, classroom work, study and reflection. There are inspections, marching in formation, team projects and community-service work.

There's no TV, loud music, long hair or flashy jewelry.

And there's is no cost to the participants. Each receives a weekly allowance of $10. After completing the five-month live-in program, they are eligible for a $1,200 stipend that can be applied toward tuition for college or trade school.

So far, about 500 young people have gone through the program, with nearly 90 percent of them obtaining their GED. Most come from broken homes, have no strong male role model, and have regularly used drugs such as marijuana.

Andrew Chapa, 17, dropped out of Trevor Browne High School in west Phoenix his freshman year. He had gotten a girl pregnant, and tried to find work to support her and his newborn daughter.

''But I didn't get work,'' he said. ''I got into a gang and into drugs. I wasn't headed anywhere in life, I knew that.''

Chapa, who said his father is in prison on a manslaughter conviction, saw Project Challenge featured on a TV news program and called.

He's studying hard for his GED and hopes to go on to community college and then into the military.

Teachers here have been caring, something he said he didn't feel in high school.

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