A photo journey through 22 weeks of tough military-style training for high-school dropouts and at-risk students.

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FALLING BEHIND AND skipping classes at Emerald Ridge High School in Puyallup, 16-year-old Abbey McDermott needed a fresh start.

After her absences piled up, she was offered a choice: Attend the Washington Youth Academy and earn back credits, or face harsher consequences, up to and including expulsion.

She chose the academy.

“I was never an average student. I always had to push myself to be an average student,” McDermott says between drills at the Bremerton academy, where she was part of a group of 165 students who started the 22-week program in July. “I wanted to come here because I wanted to get away from all that and get the help I needed.”

The Washington Youth Academy is a division of the National Guard Youth Challenge program. It enrolls 16- to 18-year-olds from across the state who have dropped out of high school or are close to dropping out. The residential program uses military-style training, rigorous schooling and mentor relationships to help students earn credits and prepare for future employment or high school graduation.

Cadet Moore breaks focus to peer at his sergeant, who instructed them to stare forward until told otherwise during the first day of lunch at the Washington Youth Academy in Bremerton. Moore was called out for not doing so. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)
Cadet Moore breaks focus to peer at his sergeant, who instructed them to stare forward until told otherwise during the first day of lunch at the Washington Youth Academy in Bremerton. Moore was called out for not doing so. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)

Mentors play a key role in helping students stay on track throughout the program, and after, in a 12-month “post-residential” program. Mentors are adult figures outside the students’ families, such as teachers, counselors or community members, who give guidance to students adjusting to home life after finishing the program.

Cadets can earn eight high school credits, but it takes tremendous effort to do so. (A full year of traditional high school is worth six.) Of the 145 students who completed the most recent program, 62 — or 43 percent — earned all eight.

The academy, opened in 2009, employs 75 trained staff members, including counselors, experienced military personnel, administrators, cooks and teachers (who are contracted through the Bremerton School District).

Each student attends the academy for free. The cost is estimated at $19,000 per graduate, according to Steven Friederich, a spokesman for the academy. Three-quarters of the academy’s budget comes from the U.S. Department of Defense, with the other fourth from the state in the form of funding from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The environment is strict and demanding. Students, dubbed “cadets” and divided into platoons, start their days at 4:45 a.m. with a wake-up call and an hourlong, strenuous exercise routine, followed by school classes.

 

Cadets have mixed feelings about graduating from the Washington Youth Academy and saying farewell to their friends, sergeants and teachers. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)
Cadets have mixed feelings about graduating from the Washington Youth Academy and saying farewell to their friends, sergeants and teachers. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)

As the final month of the program wrapped up in December, cadets looked toward their futures with optimism. Most were excited to go back to school and kick their bad habits from before; others were getting ready for trade jobs, or planning to enlist in the U.S. Armed Forces.

McDermott says she hopes to be more independent and well-mannered as she returns to Emerald Ridge this month. This is her fresh start.

Read more: How a personal inspiration led to the discovery of other students seeking purpose