Fort Gordon will be home to hundreds of high-school dropouts looking for a place to turn their lives around.
At a ceremony Monday, about 150 local and state leaders welcomed the first class to the new Youth Challenge Academy at Fort Gordon. The academy, operated by the Georgia National Guard, will give up to 400 students each year a chance to earn diplomas.
The academy's inaugural class of 168 students arrived Sunday, only days after final preparations at the 19-building campus were completed. Those buildings had been scheduled for demolition before Fort Gordon officials offered them for use by the academy.
That, and $3 million in state and federal funds, provided the resources needed to open the academy. But officials still needed a mammoth amount of donations and labor to open before a Sept. 25 deadline mandated by federal guidelines.
"This footprint that you see is in fact a miracle," said Jane Zimmerman, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who serves as the academy's director. "The response from Fort Gordon and Augusta was overwhelming."
Students are high-school dropouts who volunteer to enter the academy, which will hold two 22-week sessions per year. The program, modeled after military basic training, puts its charges through 5 a.m. wake-up calls, five-mile runs, hard labor and lengthy classroom studies, all under the supervision of drill instructors.
Graduates receive General Equivalency Degrees and are monitored by mentors for several more weeks.
The Augusta academy is the state's second. The first, at Fort Stewart near Savannah, has had more than 2,200 cadets graduate since being founded in 1993.
Of those students, only 6 percent failed to immediately turn themselves around. Fifty-five percent of the graduates are employed; 23 percent entered college or a technical institute; and 16 percent joined the military.
"It speaks for itself," said William P. Bland, a retired major general who served as adjutant general for the Georgia National Guard when the first academy opened. "When you see young people's lives being dramatically changed and them becoming productive citizens, that's what it's all about."
Reach Brandon Haddock at (706) 823-3409.