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Grizzly Youth Academy dedicated to changing lives

Grizzly Youth Academy dedicated to changing lives

Story by CPT Jason Sweeney on 02/25/2019

HEARST CASTLE, Calif. On a clear, sunny February morning, more than 200 uniformed cadets from the Grizzly Youth Academy paid a visit to Hearst Castle on California’s Central Coast.

The new class of cadets got the chance to leave Camp San Luis Obispo and take a break from the classroom to tour one of California’s most famous attractions.

The cadets, wearing black slacks and black Grizzly Youth Academy jackets, filed off the buses at San Simeon and formed up into platoons. They entered the Hearst Castle visitor center in good military order and then loaded onto buses for the ride up to the mountaintop where the castle overlooks the brilliantly blue Pacific Ocean below.

Every Friday, the cadets take a field trip to locations on the Central Coast as part of the 22-week residential phase of the Grizzly Youth Academy program. The cadets are at-risk youth from Central California between the ages of 16 and 18 who have dropped out of high school or are in danger of dropping out. They have all volunteered to attend the military-style academy in hopes of turning their lives around and earning a high school diploma.

“The first two weeks were a little rough, getting used to waking up early and moving fast,” said Cadet James Sturn. “I like the military environment. I’m hoping to gain experience, further my education and get more discipline in my life to move forward.”

“In the beginning, I didn’t really like it, I didn’t want to be here and I wasn’t getting along with people,” Cadet Alexia Martinez said. “Now I’m starting to make friends. I like it. I’m doing good in school.”

Alexia said she likes the discipline at Grizzly. “It will help us when we get out of here. We know how to respect people. I’m hoping the Grizzly Youth Academy helps me by changing the way I used to act, and being more mature and respectful, being able to have friends, and getting my high school diploma.”

Grizzly Youth Academy is a partnership between the California National Guard and the Grizzly ChalleNGe Charter School. The cadets wear military-style uniforms and live in barracks at Camp San Luis Obispo during the residential phase. California National Guard cadre supervise the cadets, train them on marching and military drill and ceremony, instill military discipline, lead them in physical fitness, mentor them, and make sure they are where they need to be. Civilian teachers provide the academics in classrooms set around a quad called the Wagon Wheel.

The cadre supervise the cadets 24/7 during the residential phase. The residential phase is followed by a 12-month post-residential phase in which case managers track the graduates to assist them with schooling and work.

Tuition, room and board and books are provided at no cost. The program is funded through the Federal Government and the State of California.

Youth Academy Director Lt. Col. Francisco Flores is a former teacher and administrator who left a nine-year career in education to work full-time for the California National Guard. He has worked in various leadership positions in the Cal Guard and served four years as the commandant for the Cal Guard-run Oakland Military Institute. He was appointed director of Grizzly in July.

“I have a passion for education and find working with youth challenging yet extremely rewarding,” Flores said. “I know education. I understand kids. The beauty of this place is the military staff is dedicated to making a change in these kid’s lives. The kids come here voluntarily knowing they need assistance and help. They want to change. We help them find the tools to change themselves.”

Grizzly Youth Academy was founded in 1998. It is one of three National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Programs in California, along with Sunburst Youth Academy in Los Alamitos and Discovery Challenge Academy in Lathrop. The National Guard runs 40 Youth ChalleNGe Programs in 29 states.

The mission of the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program is to intervene in and reclaim the lives of 16- to 18-year-old high school at-risk youth. The goal is for graduates to leave with the values, life skills, education, and self-discipline necessary to succeed and become productive citizens.

The current Grizzly class consists of 214 male and female cadets. Fifty-three California National Guard military staff provide supervision and 26 civilian teachers provide the academics.

“This is probably the most fulfilling job I’ve ever had,” said Rosemary Fugle, who had taught at Atascadero High School before taking a teaching position at Grizzly Youth Academy. “It’s kind of funny when you go from a regular public high school classroom into this classroom. I’m not having to deal with the discipline issues, behavior issuesthe kids are open to everything that we have to offer. It just feels like a very productive thing, that I’m more than just teaching, that I’m also guiding these kids into changing their lives. The kids have come here because they’re not being successful in the regular school setting. They arrive to us ready to move on with their lives and to be serious about school.”

At Hearst Castle, Staff Sgt. (CA) Greg Rennick keeps an eye on the cadets and ensures they’re moving and behaving in good order. “I’m a cadre, which is basically a supervisor of these cadets,” he said. “I’m the heavy when they’re in trouble. I’m the mentor when they’re in need. I’m the one who makes sure they get their education. Education is the main thrust of the program so we spend a lot of time in study hall, making sure they’re getting A’s and B’s and not C’s and D’s.”

Tour guide Donnelle Gultinan walks the cadets through the castle, telling them about the architecture, artwork and history of the place. The cadets are well behaved, attentive and respectful, more so than you might expect from a large group of high school students.

“They’re here voluntarily,” Rennick said of the cadets. “It’s a volunteer program and when they graduate they look back and understand all the structure and discipline, you know, the tough love, and that’s how they succeed. They’re able to use that as a stepping stone for the next hurdle they have in life.”

Rennick said he was an at-risk youth before turning his life around and going on to successful careers in construction, real estate and finance. “I decided to give back by working with these at-risk youth because I was at-risk. I graduated from continuation school and was kind of a ruffian when I was a kid and it was because of some of the teachers at the continuation school that I was able to turn my life around, or at least get pointed in the right direction. That was part of my success.”

Rennick said many of the cadets he works with come from very difficult situations and have been dealing with everything from poverty, to broken homes, gangs, violence and addiction. “Everybody is here to help these cadets so that they can make it in life, become successful. If you can get through Grizzly, you can get through anything, that’s what I preach to them.”

Pfc. Ariana Gonzalez graduated from Grizzly Youth Academy in 2011. She is a California National Guard Soldier who now works for Grizzly full time as a job placement assistant and does social media outreach for the school. She’s also helping to launch a new Job ChalleNGe program focused on college scholarships and job training for Grizzly graduates.

“I had a lot of stuff going on in my life, at home, I wasn’t showing up at school and wasn’t doing my homework,” she said. “I had 1.8 GPA before I came to Grizzly. I graduated from Paso Robles High School with a 4.0.”

After graduating from high school, Gonzalez volunteered her time at Grizzly while working and going to school at Cuesta College. She enlisted in the California Army National Guard and landed the full-time position with Grizzly. “I knew that Grizzly was my home and I wanted to come back and help other kids and show them that there are other things out there and that they can succeed as well. It’s actually been really awesome to interact with these kids on a different level, on a level of understanding what it’s like to be in a bad economic situation, and a hard life situation, and school being an issue, and understanding where they’re coming from, and being able to utilize that in many different ways.”

Paul Piette, the principal of Grizzly Youth Academy, was a teacher and counselor who worked with at-risk youth before taking the job at Grizzly in 2001. “The importance of Grizzly Youth Academy is, these kids, without this opportunity, have unfortunately very little chance, I think, of being successful,” he said. “What I mean by successful is rising above their situation, getting out of their situation.”

Piette said the military structure of Grizzly instills discipline, which enables the students to focus on academics. “Our teachers are fantastic,” he said. “I proudly say I think that they are the best teachers in the county. They give it their all and they know that they have to because that is what we demand and require as well. The students tell me over and over how great the teachers are.”

Lt. Col. Flores reiterated that point. “Being around youth that are trying to change their lives and a staff that is so professional and dedicated, I’m honored by the work that my staff does, all dedicated to the success of these kids. It’s just awesome.”

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