A Day in the Life of the Michigan Youth ChalleNGe Academy Director
Office of Performance and Transformation's Communication Representative Monica Drake will be following different State of Michigan employees throughout the year.
Some people think of “military school” as a place where parents ship off their misbehaved children. But that’s not what it’s like at the Michigan Youth ChalleNGe Academy (MYCA) in Battle Creek.
“It’s not a detention center. It’s a voluntary program,” said Jefferey Connell, director of the Michigan Youth ChalleNGe Academy (the NG stands for National Guard).
“The kids make the final decision if they want to come here. We interview the kids – without their parents in the room – and we ask the question, ‘Did you come here because your parents wanted you to or because you want to attend?’ If they say ‘My mom made me come,’ we won’t accept them into the academy. We only accept young people who want to change their lives.”
The teens apply for the MYCA by writing an essay explaining why they want to attend.
“One of the biggest reasons is that they want to get their diploma or GED, and they aren’t doing well with traditional education or they may have been expelled from school,” said Connell, a retired lieutenant colonel with 33 years of service. “The tragic part is a lot of kids just want to get out of their environment. They’ve figured out that, if they stay in that house in that neighborhood, they won’t succeed.”
The program is funded jointly by the National Guard and the State of Michigan at no cost to the cadets or their parents. For five months, a group of 150 students from across the state, ages 16 to 18, live on the base. They are broken up into platoons of 30, led by a Cadre, or instructor, and the 30 teens all live in the same room with boys staying upstairs and girls downstairs. Connell described MYCA as “high school with a military twist.”
“Some of the kids have never been away from home. There’s a huge amount of adjustment. The first two weeks, we get them into a routine. We put them in uniform, and they’re moving from 5:30 in the morning to 9:30 at night,” he said.
MYCA partners with Marshall High School to teach the Michigan Merit Curriculum.
“We’re an educational institution. There are two components we educate here – one is the high school curriculum. The second is life skills – discipline, nutrition and health, fitness, service to the community, etc.”
Major General Gregory J. Vadnais, Director of Military and Veterans Affairs, appointed Connell as the director of the academy in January 2015, and it’s been a busy two years for him. Last year, the U.S. Department of Labor awarded the State of Michigan a $4 million grant to begin the Michigan Job ChalleNGe Program, available to MYCA graduates, which Connell also leads.
“Michigan was one of only three states to receive the grant. The other two states are South Carolina and Georgia,” he said.
The Job ChalleNGe, which is an additional five-month residential program, focuses on development of vocational skills through classroom instruction and learning in the real-world workplace through internships.
In addition to the grant, Connell also won the title of the National Guard Youth Foundation’s 2016 Director of the Year against 40 other directors of similar programs across the country.
“I considered it as we, the academy, received the award. I was the benefactor of it. … I want to give the kudos to the staff. It wasn’t my doing; they were the ones who got me here. They were the ones that made this one of the best academies in the United States.”
Connell joined the U.S. Army right out of high school in 1981 and, in 1985, joined the National Guard as a pilot, where he stayed before retiring from the military and becoming director of MYCA.
“I had my dream job; I was flying for a living. Yet my job here (at MYCA) is the most rewarding job I’ve ever had,” said Connell.
MYCA Deputy Director Robert Vaught said of his co-worker, “He’s done an incredible job turning this place around in the last two years. His priority is the kids, and he has so much compassion for them.”
Connell and Vaught both continue to help the alumni and stay in contact with them after they graduate. Vaught said one student was homeless and doing drugs before he attended MYCA.
“Now he is one of the top associates at one of the top accounting firms in the world,” he said. “There are tons of stories like that. This program has such a positive impact on these kids.”
Vaught said there have been close to 4,000 graduates of MYCA since its inception in 1999. He said, if this program had been around when he was a kid, he would have enrolled “no question.”
“I love this place,” he said.
Connell said, “I’ll be out to a restaurant, wearing my (MYCA) shirt, and I’ll have a graduate come up to me and tell me, ‘Thank you for what you do. The program saved my life.’ That’s why I continue to do this.”