Originally created 08/24/04

Dropouts find a second chance



Jesse Wilkes hung around the wrong crowd in high school, missed too many days of class and dropped out.

Jordan Simerson fumed at a teacher who told him to do math problems without a book and decided to quit school, too.

The teens are the last people anyone might expect to see on the campus of Augusta State University. But the two joined the Youth Challenge Academy at Fort Gordon and have been able to learn work skills at ASU through the academy's job-shadowing program.

After they graduate from the academy Sunday, they say, they will be ready to go to college.

"The things I got out of the Youth Challenge Academy, I could never get anywhere else," said Jordan, a 17-year-old from Metter, Ga., who plans to attend Georgia Military College and eventually fly Air Force jets.

The academy, operated by the Georgia National Guard and paid for by state and federal funds, was designed to give at-risk students a chance to earn diplomas. High school dropouts live for at least 22 weeks in a structured environment organized like an Army basic training company, according to the Georgia Department of Defense.

A key component of the academy at Fort Gordon is life skills training, which helps cadets meet future adult obligations such as finding and keeping a job. This year, cadets developed work skills at the university, the Georgia Forestry Commission, area fire departments and on post at the commissary and the Gordon Club restaurant.

Jesse and Jordan spent several weeks at ASU with Pamela Lightsey, the bookstore's assistant manager. She decided to offer the job-shadowing program through her membership with Augusta South Rotary Club, which she said helped start the Youth Challenge Academy in 2000.

Ms. Lightsey said she works to mentor the cadets and to teach them job skills, such as filling out a job application and providing customer service. The cadets worked 32 hours a week for a month finding books for customers, handling shipping and receiving and learning the computer filing system.

"It's a good experience for them to see college life," she said. "Some of them, it's the first time they've worked in their life."

To participate in job shadowing, cadets must be high school dropouts, unemployed or underemployed, drug free and free from any legal trouble.

Jesse, a 19-year-old from Warner Robins, Ga., said his work at ASU has helped him move toward his goal to become a psychologist.

"It's hard work, but it's taught me a lot of discipline," he said.

Reach Greg Rickabaugh at (706) 828-3851 or greg.rickabaugh@augustachronicle.com.