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Challenge Academy pushes through COVID-19 challenges

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.

“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.”

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.”

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.

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.

“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.

“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.