Program Description. Grizzly Youth Academy (GYA) is a 22-week co-ed residential program for California teens who have not thrived in traditional high schools and are interested making a positive change. Approximately 150 students from all over California between the ages of 16 and 18 complete the program each “cycle” (300 per year). Grizzly youth Academy (like all ChalleNGe programs) is divided into three phases. The “Pre-ChalleNGE” phase is a two week evaluation period conducted by National Guard staff to determine if prospective cadets are prepared for the rigors of the program. The “ChalleNGe” phase is a 20 week residential period of academics (operated by the Grizzly ChalleNGe Charter School and overseen by the SLO County Office of Education), physical fitness, counseling (both individual and groups), life skills training, and team-building. This phase most resembles a military boarding school. Cadets live on base in military barracks, eat in the base dining facility, and attend school on the base. The third phase is the “Post-Residential” phase. This is a one-year mentorship period is completed in the cadet’s home community with the guidance and assistance of a screened, trained, and matched mentor of her or his choosing.
Difference in the lives of students. Over its ten-year history, GYA has seen nearly 1,500 students enter the program as high school drop-outs and leave as productive, future-oriented young adults. During their 5 month stay in the program, student academic performance increases an average 1.5 grade levels. Every student completes a “post-residential plan” that is approved by parents, teachers, and the student’s mentor. Exit surveys document that 99% of program graduates feel confident that they are prepared to carry out a solid plan for their future. Indeed, post-residential follow-up data confirm that one year after program completion, 92% of GYA graduates are engaged full-time in school, work, or a combination of both.
Innovative/exemplary Elements. What are the magic ingredients of this impressive high school program? We believe they include the following: 1) a holistic approach that includes a five-point balance of military discipline, an individualized academic program, counseling/mentorship, physical activity, and community-based experiences; 2) a residential setting that offers students a chance to “get away” from negative influences at home and start fresh; 3) an emphasis on positive community engagement through a combination of job shadowing, service projects, and cultural field trips, and 4) a future orientation that involves students in developing formal post-residential plans, identifying a post-residential mentor, and in some cases (approximately 25%) – earning a high school diploma directly from Grizzly youth Academy. Grizzly Youth Academy and other National Guard ChalleNGe programs have been nationally recognized as highly effective models of positive change for youth in need of a change. The May 2008 issue of Educational Leadership (ASCD) includes a spotlight on the ChalleNGe approach.
How the program is sustainable. Grizzly Youth Academy is now entering its 11th year of successful operation. Grizzly ChalleNGe Charter School’s second charter renewal was recently approved by the SLO County Office of Education (through 2013), and the school is fully WASC accredited. In 2005, the National Guard demonstrated a strong vote of confidence in GYA by authorizing and funding 50% increase in enrollment from 100 to 150 graduates per cycle (ADA funding followed to support increased capacity in the charter school). The program has also enjoyed outside funding from a variety of public and private grants over the past decade, and has established a permanent Endowment Fund at the San Luis Obispo County Community Foundation. GYA’s wide popularity as a strong successful program in San Luis Obispo County has garnered significant close community partnerships and in-kind support in the form of volunteer and/or discounted engagement by local businesses (e.g. counseling services, health screenings). The San Luis Obispo County Office of Education champions GYA and the charter school as one of the region’s flagship education programs and looks forward to ongoing involvement in the future.
How the program is connected to a district, county, state plan. Grizzly Youth Academy is firmly embedded in formal strategic plans established by both the federal National Guard ChalleNGe program and by the San Luis Obispo County Office of Education. It is mentioned by name in each plan as a program designated for continued support at current enrollment levels of 300 per year. The Grizzly ChalleNGe Charter School serves as a model for two other elements of SLOCOE’s Strategic Plan in the area of alternative education, including 1) “developing programs to address gaps in County Plan for expelled students (25% of GYA’s current student population is made up of local students who have dropped out or been expelled) and 2) “emphasizing development of post-graduate plans” (GYA’s post-residential planning exercise earned a national distinction from the National Guard in 2007).
How the program is part of a district’s commitment to serve all student populations. SLOCOE alternative education programs embrace Grizzly Youth Academy as a unique opportunity among its array of available options for at-risk high school students from a variety of backgrounds. The student population is highly diverse (50% Latino, 30% white, 15% African American, 5% other); approximately 30% are females. A majority of students qualifies for free/reduced lunch. The charter school’s pedagogical approach emphasizing individualized instruction and wraparound counseling support ensures that all enrolled students thrive, including English Language Learners (typically 20% of the student population) and students with special education needs (25%). GYA is set up to serve the academic needs of students in various stages of readiness for graduation. Those within 55 credits of earning a high school diploma are eligible to earn one directly through the charter school. Other students transfer back to schools of residence at program completion, or seek a GED with instruction by charter school staff.
How the county office has communicated with the community about the program’s implementation. The San Luis Obispo County Office of Education works with National Guard partners to maintain close community ties and communication regarding GYA, including a program website and consistent contact with school district throughout the state. A Local Advisory Group comprised of citizens of San Luis Obispo County guides the program’s implementation. Regular press coverage highlighting GYA events and student projects keeps the program in public view. Widely attended graduation ceremonies held at the Performing Arts Center on the campus of Cal Poly State University are a favorite coverage item among local media. GYA students themselves are the program’s best ambassadors through their frequent uniformed presence out in the community on service projects (e.g. beach clean-ups, tree-planting), career exploration (e.g. job shadowing, college campus visits), and cultural field trips (e.g. John Steinbeck Center, Hearst Castle).
How the program is replicable. Until 2007, Grizzly Youth Academy was the only National Guard ChalleNGe program in the country that enjoyed a working partnership with a public charter highs school. This collaboration has proven so successful that it has now been fully replicated in Orange County, CA in a partnership between the County Office of Education and the National Guard base in Los Alamitos. Other ChalleNGe programs across the country have also looked to Grizzly Youth Academy for guidance in building educational partnership with local schools (e.g. start-up replication projects in Nevada, Rhode Island and Washington State). Discrete elements of the Grizzly program have been replicated locally in SLO County’s Court and Community Schools program. Notable examples include a job shadowing/career planning exercise and a tobacco cessation peer leadership project.
In sum, the Grizzly Youth Academy exemplifies the Golden Bell Award program’s “invigorating high school” concept. The San Luis Obispo County Office of Education is proud to submit this application to CSBA and welcomes your strong consideration.