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Omnibus education bill would expand military style school

Mountaineer Challenge Academy graduation

Adjutant General James Hoyer, of the West Virginia National Guard, addresses students at Mountaineer ChalleNGe Academy during graduation ceremonies Friday.

KINGWOOD — The Mountaineer ChalleNGe Academy, a military-like school about 45 minutes southeast of Morgantown, allows students to earn their high school diplomas within roughly five months. During that time, they live at the school almost exclusively.

The regular public schools the students there hail from get to count them as graduates.

The academy, located at the West Virginia Army National Guard’s Camp Dawson, in Preston County, doesn’t have comparable standardized test data to other schools. Dianna Trickett, the academy’s deputy director, said it only serves students who are “at risk of not completing traditional high school,” something determined in multiple ways.

Baylii Yates said it worked for her.

She said her father died while she was in the third grade, and she began skipping school that year. She stopped living with her mother.

Her brother moved to Texas, she said, so during the two breaks amid the 22 weeks students live in barracks at the academy, she stayed with people who’d rented her brother an apartment.

“I stay with these people that I don’t really want to stay with that have all my stuff under some weird reason,” Yates said. She said the academy’s mentors gave her rides back and forth.

On Friday, she crossed the graduation stage at Camp Dawson. The khaki boots worn by all students jutted out under her blue robes.

She led one of the academy’s six platoons. She said the school gave her pride.

“This place takes away every distraction that it could, other than the distractions that the kids make for themselves here,” Yates said Friday. “It takes away what you’re going to wear in the morning, what you’re going to do on your phone, it takes away what you’re going to be eating.”

For her, it also “relieved me of worrying about where I was going to go, what I was going to do with my stuff. I still am worried about those types of things. I turned 18 here and, like, it just blows my mind because after today, I’m still going to have to worry about those same things.”

The academy has a year-long post-residential mentoring program. Yates said her counselor, from Kanawha County’s Nitro High, the high school she came from, is her mentor.

“If all else fails, I’ll stay in her apartment,” Yates said. “I just don’t want to feel like I’m intruding on anyone.”

Yates plans to enter the military, something about 18 percent of academy graduates do, the school says.

She said this about a path that could mean going to war: “I enlisted into the Navy because I wanted for such a long time to be able to worry less.”

Adjutant General James Hoyer, head of the West Virginia National Guard, said 55 percent of the students who graduated Friday came from a single-parent household, while another 12 percent came from a “nontraditional” household, “meaning grandparent, aunt, uncle, guardian.”

“It’s an opportunity for us to help some kids significantly who are really good kids, who a change of environment makes a significant impact,” Hoyer said.

Beginning as soon as 8:30 a.m. Monday, the House of Delegates will begin considering the sweeping education bill (Senate Bill 1039) that the state Senate passed June 3.

Amid the debate and quarrel over the fact that it would legalize charter schools in West Virginia, there hasn’t been much talk regarding many other parts of the roughly 140-page bill.

On page 13, it says the governor must attempt to expand the Mountaineer ChalleNGe Academy’s current location to allow for 600 cadets annually, plus start a second location in Fayette County.

That Fayette location, officials say, is planned to be in the former West Virginia University Institute of Technology campus, in Montgomery — a town that lost that college a couple years ago and lost its high school this year.

“As they looked at education reform,” Hoyer said, “I spoke with the governor and legislative leaders about the need to consider an additional ChalleNGe Academy as part of the option.”

He said the academy currently faces geographic issues getting kids to orientation and back-and-forth during breaks.

Hoyer said Monty Warner, president and chief executive officer of YMCA of the Kanawha Valley, and Eunice Bellinger, president of BridgeValley Community and Technical College, which has a Montgomery campus, asked about the possibility for the expansion, approximately last year.

The school said 155 students graduated from the program Friday, out of the 219 who started in January.

Of the 155 who walked across the stage, nearly nine in 10 earned high school diplomas.

To do that at the academy, officials said students must complete the Mountaineer Challenge program — which requires things like passing drug tests, improving physical fitness from where they started and community service — and then pass the TASC, a high school equivalency exam, like the GED.

Those who don’t get their diplomas may return to their high school, pass the high school equivalency exam and still earn a diploma, Trickett said.

Though Yates earned her diploma through her five months in the academy, Nitro High, three hours away, will get to count her as a graduate there, rather than a dropout or transfer.

From 2013-2017, 268 Kanawha students earned diplomas through the academy. Most came from St. Albans High (48) and South Charleston High (43), with George Washington, Capital, Herbert Hoover and Riverside each having between 33-36.

Warner, an advocate for revitalizing the Montgomery area, has been calling for more academies across the state.

He said he’s been pushing particularly for a new occupant for the former WVU Tech campus since November, when ultimately correct rumors began swirling that KVC Health Systems would abandon its plan to create a college campus specifically for students aging out of foster care.

Warner used to teach at George Washington, which has a good academic reputation. He recalled the school having 8-10 students in each of the two-per-year Mountaineer ChalleNGe Academy 5-month cycles.

Students can enter the academy starting at age 16, director Bob Morris said. They aren’t given the statewide standardized test.

Trickett said a separate test showed that, for roughly the past five years, each class of students has on average advanced 1.9 to 3.1 full grade levels within the five months.

But she said the raw data that backs up these gains was lost in an August 2018 ransomware attack. In a ransomware attack, hackers encrypt an entity’s data and then charge a ransom to deencrypt it, and she said the academy didn’t pay the ransom.

The academy and National Guard are currently still faced with a wrongful death suit filed in 2014 by the father of a student, Gatlin Evan Jones.

Preston Circuit Court Judge Steven Shaffer has a hearing scheduled for June 27 to possibly approve a proposed settlement that could finally end the case.

Jones’ Charleston-based attorney, Rusty Webb, requested permission in February to file an amended complaint, though Shaffer hasn’t granted or denied that request.

The proposed amended complaint alleges Gatlin Jones went missing July 18, 2012, and his body was found about 12 days later, about 8 miles from Camp Dawson.

It says the family still hasn’t been given an explanation regarding the death, and that evidence has “been lost, unaccounted for, compromised by a cryptolocker style of malware attack and held for ransom, in August of 2018 according to the Defendants.”

Garry Pullin, an attorney representing the academy and the National Guard, has objected to the amended allegations.

Among other things, he argued that a doctor said the reason for the death was unable to be determined due to decomposition, and Webb “produced no evidence from any person which even suggests or implies that” Jones died because of anything the academy or National Guard did, or didn’t, do.

Morris said there haven’t been any other deaths or serious injuries regarding the school.

Regarding the school’s academics, Hoyer said, “We’re not doing anything outside of what the state Board and the state Department of Education already offer in credit recovery pathways.”

Academy students interviewed Friday said credit recovery in regular public schools is already easy.

“There’s so many kids that’ll fail classes first time around, and they’ll just stay after school for an hour and get through half a credit,” Yates said.

As for the academy, Yates said that “if you want to graduate, it’s fast paced, they’re going to sit here and they’re going to teach you but you have to want it enough to do it. You have to do it yourself, it’s on you.”

Reach Ryan Quinn at ryan.quinn@wvgazettemail.com, facebook.com/ryanedwinquinn, 304-348-1254 or follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter.

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