GUERNSEY – Leadership, honor, respect, discipline and second chances are just a few of the words that could describe what the Cowboy Challenge Academy offers to children across the state of Wyoming.
These are students that come voluntarily and those that may have been challenged by their environments, their ability to learn or the process of education in general. Students that educators won’t let slip through the cracks and who need to prove to themselves that they can make it past an educational hurdle to get to a place where they can make a positive difference in society.
Every child has buried treasure. A gift, if you will, to the world. Good educators will coordinate a dedicated dive to help find and bring that treasure to the surface. It is not an easy task.
For the educators, the students and the families of those who have found the first part of their young lives a struggle.
The school is not quite a juvenile facility that is court ordered where children are incarcerated, but on the other hand, it is not a normal high school where kids come and go with a relatively wide spectrum of freedoms.
Camp Guernsey Adjutant General Maj. Gen. Gregory Porter, the state’s senior National Guardsman, met with staff and cadets at the Wyoming Cowboy Challenge Academy on Wednesday to deliver news that elicited tears.
The Wyoming Military Department announced the immediate closure of the school for at-risk teenagers, which has been a part of the Guernsey community for 17 years. The move will cost the already struggling area 52 jobs and $4 million per year in economic impact.
According to a press release issued by the Military Department, WCCA “will close for an indefinite amount of time based on the inability to recruit and retain staff. Shutdown procedures are underway.”
Although the statement from the Military Department seems to hint that the closure is unplanned and temporary, people familiar with the school’s history have their own ideas.
“They have tried shutting WCCA down at least four times in the past. This is not a surprise. They are saying the program is short on staff but if it wasn’t that excuse, it would be another,” said an employee, who wished to remain anonymous due to fears of retaliation from the Military Department.
In 2021, the Military Department volunteered to close WCCA as part of statewide budget cuts. Supporters of the program started an information campaign to get WCCA graduates, family members and others to appeal to legislators to keep the doors open. Their efforts paid off as WCCA was funded for another biennium. This time, they may not be so lucky.
“What is interesting is that they’ve chosen to do this after the primary election and before the legislative session which means they won’t have to answer to anyone for shutting the academy down,” the employee said. “They don’t have to answer to families, who had faith that the program would help their sons and daughters, or to their employees who sacrificed long hours and gave their blood, sweat and tears to change lives for the better. It’s unfortunate because the cadets and the staff deserve better.”
Since WCCA opened its doors in 2005, more than 1,500 men and women from across Wyoming and beyond, have graduated the program, gaining a high school education and a new lease on life.
All cadets who are attending the school at this time will be sent home by October 1.
The cadets have had an important impact on the surrounding communities of Platte County providing assistance in setup for various functions, marching in local parades, providing traffic control, cleaning up local highways, building local structures and serving food at functions at the Platte County Agriplex in Wheatland.
According to Wyoming State Historical executive director Linda Fabian, “They have done more for our community than I can even say. If it weren’t for those youth, we wouldn’t be able to hang Christmas lights, host events for five years. Our volunteer force is getting up there and those youth climb ladders, set up tables, haul heavy materials, take down, clean up and they’re the most polite young people. They always loved a cookie and a bowl of chili.”
The military style which is the format promotes discipline and limits certain freedoms to make poor choices. Children who have been given the opportunity to make choices in their lives and have chosen a disastrous path are presented with well thought out choices and encouraged to be wise decision makers which is a skill that every human being is faced with long after the books are closed and Pomp and Circumstance sheet music has been put in storage for another year.
The Wyoming Cowboy Challenge Academy is one of 38 such programs in the country. The Wyoming academy is the only one in the Midwestern United States according to David Salazar, former deputy director of the Cowboy Challenge Academy who was with the program for six years. Salazar was the overseer of the day-to-day operations of the school and the academic department which includes curriculum development.
The closest academies of this type are in Montana or Nevada.
“What we are is a residential academy that is 75% funded by the federal government, the Department of Defense and actually the National Guard Bureau,” Salazar said. “Each state’s National Guard or military department can choose to have a program so long as there’s funding in place to pay the 25% match required to run the program.”
This program, according to Salazar has been in Guernsey for 14 years having their start in 2005 and taking their first class in 2006. It is a fully accredited high school recognized by the department of Workforce, Education and Development (WED).
The national program itself began in 1993 and during that time there was an epidemic of high school dropouts. Initially it was launched as an intervention service that had a goal of helping those dropouts reclaim their lives.
“It was kind of an alternative school before alternative schools were a thing,” Salazar said. “The military aspect of it, the approach, is something deliberate, something that was put into this training model that was adopted back in 1991-92. These kids were not taking well to traditional high school, so there’s got to be something else.”
So the powers that were at the time came up with training methods that would engage the students, keep them busy and will bring the discipline into the situations that will, in essence cause them to wander off point.
In times past, parents would threaten their children with “military school,” and the moniker was given to students in these facilities as “troubled youth.”
“We use the term nontraditional learner now,” Salazar said. “But it’s the same type of thing. We run the gamut of just any kid who doesn’t fit into the cookie-cutter type mold of traditional high school. These are typically kids who are bright, but have just fallen in with the wrong crowd.”
He also mentioned that there are a lot of kids from single parent homes or broken homes where the parents live separately and there is no structure in their lives.
“They may come from a place with a lot of free time on the phone, video game type stuff,” he said. “Here they do not have access to phones or anything like that. At all. Ever. They can call their parents on a landline every two weeks but they don’t have access to technology.”
Technology that is primarily unsupervised. The school does provide tech classes and features a computer lab and smartboards in each classroom. They are prepared for the world of technology, but the choices of what they can access within the school is very limited.
The school itself is coed and there are both male and female students at the academy.
“The train together, coed, but they do have separate sleeping areas and they do not share the bathrooms,” Salazar said. “There is separation as far as that is concerned. They do have classes together and train together.”
Students are not, however left to their own devices to have any form of a social life. The purpose is clear that they are focusing on their education and their purpose. They also have counselors that are with them 24/7. There is a constant monitoring system on all students. Although it’s strict, it doesn’t fall under the same parameters as a juvenile detention system or a jail.
“We’re somewhere in that realm,” Salazar said. “We are definitely not correctional. This is an all-volunteer program. They cannot be court-ordered to come here. It’s 100% funded by the State of Wyoming together with that 75% matching funding from the federal government.”
The budget for the school is approximately $4 million a year, $3 million comes from the federal government and $1 million is matched by the state. It is free education for the students in the program.
Although the term “volunteer” has come to the surface several times, the actuality is that the program is mandatory for the students who had parents who “volunteered” their kids to be enrolled.
“There is an understanding that we reach with the parents,” Salazar said. “And in some cases, the parents don’t feel like they have a lot of say because sometimes kids run wild and make their own rules, but we remind them what this is not mandatory, but they need to sit their kids down and ‘voluntell them.’”
In essence, the rules and the boundaries are not voluntary and as such have no dispute.
Some have said that the military is using the program to groom and train new recruits, but Salazar disputed that notion.
“It’s funny, because it doesn’t actually end up being that way,” Salazar said. “Only about 5% of all graduates nationwide go on to join the military. And that’s because some of what they’ve been through with the law or some have been on psychotropic medications; those are all disqualifiers for joining the military.”
Salazar said that the program was really done as a public service.
The students are not confined to the grounds during their entire 22-week term at the school, but if they go off campus, they are supervised.
“Part of our graduation requirements are that they complete 40 hours of service to community,” Salazar said. “We distinguish from community service because this is not punative. We train them on the higher points of going into their communities and actually being part of it. There’s no such thing as being bored at home when there’s so much that can be done.”
The school partners with the Senior Centers, interacting with the elderly and the VFW, helping them serve breakfasts. They also send volunteers to Kindness Ranch in Hartville giving them opportunities to interact with staff and care for animals that were retired and rejected.
“We go out there to Kindness Animal Sanctuary and we muck stalls, walk dogs, pet cats and we do that type of enrichment and the kids here really love it,” Salazar said.
The schedule is rigid for the time they spend at CCA.
“We’re waking them up at six in the morning and they’re showered and into bed by 9:30,” Salazar said. “It’s a completely different structure than they’ve been used to.”
These kids are taught to get along in a 24/7 living situation with each other. COVID-19 restrictions have not made that any easier as they train with masks on, they maintain social distancing and the entire school has had to be modified to be in accordance with the restrictions as set down by the Wyoming Department of Health.
The kids at Cowboy Challenge Academy are preparing for their next steps in life. Kids that have not always seen the sunny side of the street.
Liam Wilson from Longmont, Colorado, who was returning to the school for a second time spoke from behind a mask during COVID outbreaks and said, “I think it’s interesting and way different because of the COVID but it seems to be working well. Wearing the mask is definitely not fun, but we have to do what we have to do.”
Wilson is one of the 5% of the students who graduates and wants to go on to military life as an Army Ranger. He said that the school has honed his focus and given him direction.
“I’ve been here for over four months and it’s pretty good,” said Destiny Haney from McKinley, Wyoming. “It’s helped me a lot in the overall attitude.”
Haney is looking to be a cosmetologist after graduation.
In the 22-week program, the plan is to create new habits, eliminate the tendency to wander and procrastinate and to gain positive interactions with fellow students. This also is not a typical high school where disagreements sometimes surface and students can simply go home.
All of this has come to an abrupt halt. With one simple order, the lives of both students and the communities of Platte County will be tragically affected.