School for at-risk youth will leave Aiken

COLUMBIA --- When South Carolina Youth Challenge Academy Director Jackie Fogle approaches state legislators for funding, most are surprised to know the Aiken facility for at-risk teens serves the entire state -- if they are aware of it at all.

"It rings a bell, but I don't know anything about the details," said Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, whose district includes part of Aiken County.

Mr. Fogle said he's not sure why the program, which falls under the office of the state adjutant general, has such a low profile among so many state officials.

Since 2005, the state's National Guard Youth Challenge Academy has been forced to return $484,000 in federal funding because the state could not provide matching funds, according to records from the adjutant general.

Though Challenge accepts teens from every county, Aiken County has disproportionately relied on it to turn adolescents around. Aiken, Beaufort and Charleston counties supply about 20 percent of the quasi-military school's enrollment.

To save money, Challenge in South Carolina has combined its Columbia and Aiken programs, and this week it plans to close the Camp Long Road portion in Aiken and move it to the McCrady Training Center at Fort Jackson.

"Any time we can save money, that means the possibility of keeping the doors open a little longer," Mr. Fogle said.

He said he hopes officials see the academy as a way to pre-empt higher unemployment figures and has even asked graduates to call state lawmakers to tell of their successes.

"It's unfortunate that when times get hard, programs like mine fall to the bottom," said Mr. Fogle, a retired colonel. "The kids we're dealing with are the ones that really need the help to stay a part of the economy. ... If you leave them on the wayside, it will cost a lot more money than what we're spending to help them."

Unlike other Challenge programs, South Carolina's receives no state appropriation, according to the adjutant general's office.

"Staff members are out organizing golf tournaments, selling raffle tickets, talking to church groups, applying for grants ... when their time should be devoted to working with the kids," said Ginny Morgan, the grants accountant for the adjutant general.

Challenge has received about $6 million a year, 60 percent from the federal government and the rest from private donations and in-kind gifts, such as facility space and teachers from local school districts.

In fiscal year 2008, the program funds dropped by half.

"We've been struggling trying to gain visibility, and I guess because it has the military portion tied to it, a lot of folks don't understand how the system works," said state Sen. John Scott, a Columbia Democrat and a leading advocate for the academy.

Like Mr. Fogle, the lawmaker pointed to the savings involved when a troubled young person is turned into a contributing member of society.

"I've seen parents cry at graduation," Mr. Scott said. "It's the first time their kid did anything right."

Reach Sarita Chourey (803) 727-4257 or sarita.chourey@morris.com.

NATIONAL GUARD YOUTH CHALLENGE ACADEMY

In the past five years, the 11-year-old school has graduated 72 percent of its 1,762 teens. Cadets, who are typically high school dropouts, complete a 22-week residential phase followed by 12 months at home, where they stay in touch with a mentor. The teens work toward a GED or high school diploma and focus on academics, life-coping strategies, job skills, health, hygiene and community service.

There are 34 Challenge programs in 29 states, according to the national organization.

Congress created the program for a few states in 1993. It expanded to South Carolina five years later. Youths don't pay to participate, but it costs about $14,000 for each one, funded by state and federal dollars.

-- Morris News Service