Nearly 1 in 5 Wyoming high school students drop out every year. Today, we take a look at a program that aims to find dropouts and get them back on track before it’s too late. And as Aaron Schrank reports, it’s run not by the state’s Education Department, but it’s Military Department.
SCHRANK: When Francisco Jovel dropped out of Pinedale High School last year, he was three years behind on class credits. He’d been in and out of the Wyoming Boys’ School in Worland for breaking and entering and theft. He was running out of options.
FRANCISCO JOVEL: My probation officer and my DFS worker told me I worked better in disciplined situations and I knew if I went back to school, I would age out of school, so I decided to come here.
SCHRANK: ‘Here’ is the ‘Wyoming Cowboy Challenge Academy’ a National Guard program based at the Camp Guernsey Joint Training Center. If Jovel was looking for discipline, he found it. ‘Cadet Jovel’ is standing at attention, in full uniform, inside a military barrack-turned-math classroom. He says it hasn’t been easy.
JOVEL: You learn to look at the end goal, and that’s basically graduating and starting your new life.
SCHRANK: The 17-year-old is one of 60 cadets in this program. He’s been here 5 months and will graduate in just days, but not with a standard degree. Like most here, he’ll take the ‘High School Equivalency Test,’ similar to the G.E.D.
ED MEYER: I would love for every child to stay in high school and make it successfully through.
SCHRANK: Ed Meyer is Director here.
MEYER: But the reality is that we all have different talents, different skill sets. We all learn at different rates. And so, this program is an intervention, to try to get them—hey maybe you’re just not cut out to finish high school, and maybe the diploma equivalent is a better choice for you.
SCHRANK: Meyer says it’s mostly basics here.
MEYER: Math, English, science, social studies and government 101.
SCHRANK: And some classes not found at a typical school—like life-coping skills. Each classroom is the same—desks for about a dozen students and three computers in a corner for so-called ‘credit recovery’ cadets—like 16-year-old Alyssa Vasco. She’s taking online courses for real high school credit, so she can return to Buffalo High School.
ALYSSA VASCO: ‘Cause I want to finish what I started, of course. And I want to be in my class graduating with everybody that I know.
SCHRANK: Vasco says she came to Cowboy Challenge to get away from bad influences in her family and learn self-discipline. The toughest part of being here, she says, is dealing with other cadets.
VASCO: They don’t know you and you don’t know them. So you’re clashing with the other people and you can’t stand them half the time.
SCHRANK8: That’s a lot of what these teenagers are here to work on—resolving conflict, handling disappointment, working with others. Director Meyer says the program’s military-style approach helps them do that.
MEYER: 40 to 60 kids from all across the state, never met each other before, you bring them together, you start to strip away a little bit of their individuality. You put them all in the same clothes, you give them all the same haircut. You give them all the same beds and linens and towels, and they eat all the same food—and you start to build that team, and it’s not just about me and I.
SCHRANK: The program is voluntary, not court-ordered. Probation officers, school administrators, even advertisements refer many new recruits. The marching, the protocol, the uniformity, it seems to be good for some of these kids—like Stanley Smith. At 17, he was drinking a lot, doing drugs, and dropped out of his high school in Lander. Then a former cadet told him about this place.
STANLEY SMITH: For me, it was coming to reality that I was going down the wrong path. And—I need to fix myself, or else I wasn’t really going to make a name for myself in the real world.
SCHRANK: Smith is about to finish his stay here, and just passed his High School Equivalency Test. He plans to move to Utah to get a bachelor’s degree, and he says he thinks he’ll miss the structure here.
SMITH: Going back, not having a schedule, not having to be somewhere at a certain time. It’s going to be hard for a little while.
SCHRANK: Most believe the program is working, but Meyer says enrollment isn’t where it should be. He has room for twice as many kids as are here now.
Meyer says he’s seen the state’s dropout data—so he knows there’s a need out there he can meet. But tracking down dropouts is harder than you’d think, even with recruiters, because student information is kept private.
MEYER: Those are potential recruits, every single one of those 1,100 or 1,200 kids in the state of Wyoming.
SCHRANK: Of those who have found their way to the program—just in the past year—more than 90 percent are working, in school, or in the military—probably better off than they were before. For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Aaron Schrank.
These reports are part of American Graduate – Let’s Make It Happen! -- a public media initiative to address the drop out crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.