Program for at-risk kids in spotlight

The two cadets stood shoulders back, chins up and ready to deliver a speech they had practiced over and over for days.


At the Fort Gordon Youth Challenge Academy, Edgar Cortez, 16, and Kyron Franklin, 17, spoke to a special audience about how the academy has changed their lives.

In a room of fellow cadets and academy administrators, Cortez and Franklin looked straight to the front row, where Sandra Deal, the first lady of Georgia, sat listening intently to every word.

Deal flew to Augusta on Wednesday to tour the Youth Challenge Academy and talk to cadets about how they have turned their lives around. On a four-hour visit she had intended to make since her husband, Gov. Nathan Deal, was elected to office, she walked through barracks, visited classrooms and observed the rappelling tower.

Cortez and Franklin were there to explain the core principles of the academy and how the routine has helped turn them to a positive way of living.

But Sandra Deal wanted to know more.

"What do you think got you started down the wrong path?" Deal asked the cadets.

Distractions, drugs, alcohol, they both answered.

Deal said as a person who had never even seen a can of beer until college, she was trying to understand what could trigger a troubled life for a teen so the state could help fix it.

"I'm trying to gather knowledge because we need to figure out for our students ways to intervene at earlier ages and prevent some of this prison population we have of human capital," Deal said.

She saw that the Youth Challenge Academy was one way of doing just that.

Currently, the academy has a class of 238 cadets who will graduate in August.

These at-risk youth learn life skills and job training in a military-style program while earning a GED they might have never received without the academy.

As the academy's program director, Lt. Col. Jan Zimmerman, showed Deal the grounds and how the academy operates, she said she hoped the visit would open a door for more statewide interest in the program.

"I'm always delighted to show off Youth Challenge," Zimmerman said. "I'm hoping this dialogue then opens an eye for making Challenge Georgia-wide and maybe a charter school."

One hope of the program is to expand the availability of the PLATO Learning program, which graduates Richmond County students with traditional high school diplomas rather than GED certificates.

About 20 of the 238 cadets will graduate with standard diplomas through the program, but directors are hoping that number will grow.

For Youth Challenge to continue its success, exposure and public support is key, said Letha Nesbitt, the wife of Georgia Adjutant General William "Terry" Nesbitt, who accompanied Deal on her visit.

Nesbitt said education is a key tool to help improve young people's lives.

"(Deal) is very passionate, she is concerned about our youth and I knew when she saw the program she would be in support," Nesbitt said. "I knew it would be a perfect fit for an educator to see such a successful program."