Waco student Lorena Romero enrolled in the Texas Challenge Academy to become a role model for her 16-year-old brother.

Romero, 18, has attended the Brazos High School Credit Recovery Center for the past year and seized the chance to earn her high school diploma and learn better life skills through the academy, a boot-camp-style high school run by the Texas National Guard.

“I just want to be something that my little brother looks up to and says: ‘That’s my sister. That’s my sister up there. That’s my sister graduating. That’s my sister in the Navy’ — something he’s proud of,” Romero said. “Instead of saying: ‘That’s my sister getting locked up. That’s my sister getting in trouble. That’s my sister dead — one day.’ ”

The academy, which began in 1994, is designed to give struggling students an alternative to dropping out of high school, said William Pettit, state youth programs director for the Texas National Guard.

To enroll, students must be ages 16 to 18 and have either dropped out of high school or are at great risk of doing so, Pettit said.

Romero is one of two Waco students who will move to the academy’s Sheffield campus in January to join a graduating class of about 145 students.

Although the Waco students haven’t formally been accepted yet, Pettit said that because there are spots still available for the upcoming semester, every student who applies before Thanksgiving will be enrolled.

Joining Romero in Sheffield will be Jasmine Jones, 17, who wants to enroll at the academy to prove to her family she can do something with her life.

Both girls applied for the program after an academy representative came to Brazos Credit Recovery Center and because both want to join the military after high school.

“She was just telling us how you can actually change your life. It’s a second chance,” Jones said.

Nationwide program

The academy is part of a program in 27 states run by the National Guard. The Texas branch began in Galveston and moved to Sheffield after Hurricane Ike in 2008. The Texas division graduated about 2,500 students — about a 75 percent graduation rate — since its inception.

The program lasts a year and a half, with students spending the first 5½ months at the academy’s campus in Sheffield. Each student who enrolls takes the GED test and completes up to eight high school course credits while in West Texas.

“There’s no guarantees. They have to earn it. Just because they stay there 22 weeks, we don’t give them anything. They have to perform in the classroom and pass the tests,” Pettit said.

Tuition is free and students only need to bring clothing and a few school supplies, Pettit said. There are two semesters at Sheffield per year.

When students return home, they are linked with a local mentor for the next year who helps them stay on track, either with job searching or — if they are young enough to return to high school — with completing their classes and graduating.

The academy is voluntary. Students can have juvenile records, but no felonies or felony charges pending against them, to be accepted, Pettit said. Students receive drug tests when they arrive because the academy isn’t able to handle detox for a student if he or she is addicted to a substance.

‘The right place’

“I have seen kids come into the program from very well-off families and from very poor families, and I don’t see any difference in our success rate. Where you see the difference is actually in the young man or young woman themselves,” Pettit said. “At some point during that 22 weeks, they have to realize this is the right place for them. And once that clicks in their minds, then you just see them take off.”

In order to receive a certificate of completion from the academy, students must complete the eight components of the curriculum, including life skills, health and hygiene, physical fitness and citizenship skills.

The students also learn job-training skills, such as résumé writing and interview techniques. They will take military aptitude tests and participate in leadership training where they will lead a platoon, Pettit said.

“It’s a well-rounded program,” he said. “Our main focus, of course, is on education because that’s what the kids need. But there are other things they explore with the other core components while they’re there.”

Brazos’ Principal Keith Hannah said he feels this is an excellent opportunity for the students who want to apply.

Both girls come from unstable home environments, and Hannah said this could teach coping skills that would benefit them later in life.

“(Romero) has leadership abilities, which she’s using right now in a negative way. But I think a program like this for her could take those leadership abilities that she has and turn those into positive influences,” Hannah said.

Although family and peer pressure discouraged some students from following through with applications to the academy, Hannah said he thinks Jones and Romero will persevere and succeed in the program.

“These kids are willing to remove themselves from a situation that might not be positive and take the initiative to go down there . . . and maybe make a better life for themselves. To do that at such a young age, I think they should be commended for that,” he said.

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