As the Mountaineer ChalleNGe Academy continues to graduate more West Virginia teens than ever, its leaders say the program has reached its capacity for the existing facility at Camp Dawson.
Legislation from the most recent special session advocates not only for an expansion there in Preston County, but for a second location in Fayette County. Lawmakers didn’t specify in writing where they want the new academy to go, but many are confident it will end up being at the former WVU Tech campus in Montgomery.
Since WVU moved its Institute of Technology from Montgomery to Beckley in 2017, much of the campus has remained unclaimed -- despite major efforts from the state and WVU to fill it.
It’s because of those failed attempts that Montgomery officials remain skeptical that the Mountaineer ChalleNGe Academy will arrive.
Mountaineer ChalleNGe Academy ‘No Normal Program’
At first glance, the academy looks in some ways like any other school. There’s computer labs and traditional classrooms, a gym and a cafeteria. But there’s also hoop houses outside for gardening, and living quarters across the street where students -- referred to here as “cadets” -- sleep in bays.
Academy Director Bob Morris said his academy is no normal program.
“Their day begins at 0500, or five o’clock, and by 5:15 they’re doing their physical training for the morning,” Morris said of the cadets. “Lights are out at nine o’clock, 2100.”
When the school opened in 1993, it was one of the first “youth challenge academies” in the country. The National Guard-run program puts academically at-risk teenagers on a structured 22-week long class, complete with high school classes, community service and regular physical activity. Today, there’s almost 40 of these programs nationwide.
Morris said the quality of the cadet experience hasn’t changed a lot over the years, but it’s worth noting the quantity has. Three weeks into the most recent class, Deputy Director Dianna Trickett said the academy had 182 cadets.
That’s a little more than the program’s 150-cadet target, although Trickett pointed out the school will often accept extra students, knowing some cadets will leave before graduating.
Academy leaders say there’s no room for more cadets at the existing facility.
“Right now, with Challenge Academy, we’ll turn away in any given class a waitlist of anywhere from 25 to 50 kids,” said Major General James Hoyer with the West Virginia National Guard.
House Bill 206, a controversial and complex education omnibus measure that became law in July, advocates for an expansion of the Camp Dawson site and the creation of a new academy in Fayette County. Hoyer said the guard is considering the former WVU Tech Campus in Montgomery.
“One of the dynamics we face is, Camp Dawson’s a great place, but it is remote and it’s hard for families to get kids to Camp Dawson,” Hoyer said.
Morris said the routine translates to success not only for the cadets, but for the state’s workforce. According to the school, 55 percent of last year's graduating class went on to employment. Sixteen percent joined the military, 12 percent went to college and 17 percent went on to vocational training.
“What does West Virginia need right now? We need a workforce that can get up for work, perform their job, and is drug free,” said Morris. “And that’s what we can offer.”
The academy already has made some changes to reach more southern county cadets and their families. That includes transportation, off-site orientation days and a recruiter focused solely on the southern part of the state.
But with another location, Morris said the academy could do even more for the state and its southern youth.
That includes Cadet Logan Helmandollar, who hails from Wyoming County.
“I learned about the MCA through a couple of past cadets. They weren’t going down the wrong path, but they just wanted to get on the right path with their school work,” Helmandollar said.
Getting to Preston County wasn’t easy for Helmandollar -- it took him more than four and a half hours to get to Camp Dawson. But he likes the distance. If the academy were closer, he might’ve left sooner.
“Being away from home, the distance, really helps me mature, in a sense,” said Helmandollar.
Cadet David Turner from Kanawha County agrees.
“I’ve told everybody, if you can get through this, you can get through anything, literally,” Turner said of the academy. “Because you’re taken away from home, you can’t do what you want to do when you want to do it, you have to meet deadlines … and if you can’t do that, there’s consequences. So, if you can transport yourself from home to here, there’s really not much else you're going to give up on when you get out of here.”
Regardless of which academy a cadet will end up at, Morris promises both programs will run the same.
“What we have at Camp Dawson works. And we’re going to take that approach to this second location,” he said. “We know our structure works, we know the education works, and we’re not going to reinvent the wheel.”
Lawmakers Have Yet to Discuss Funding, Timeline for New Academy
Hoyer speaks openly about the National Guard’s focus on the former WVU Tech Campus in Montgomery. WVU Vice President of Strategic Initiatives Rob Alsop confirmed the university, which still owns the campus, is in communication with the Guard.
Yet, HB 206 doesn’t specify where in Fayette County the school must go, and neither has the Legislature provided any official timeline for when the school must open, nor any idea about the funding it’ll receive.
Hoyer provided the Legislature with a $22 million fiscal note during session. That’s $15 million for infrastructure and $7 million for the first year’s operating costs.
Senate President Mitch Carmichael said he expects the Legislature will address funding in the upcoming regular session.
“We’ll really take a hard look at how we fund that mechanism, and make sure that we’re getting all other available funds, so it’s not just West Virginia taxpayer dollars,” said Carmichael.
He added that it’s possible the state could reach a cost share agreement with the federal government. The existing Mountaineer ChalleNGe Academy in Preston County has an operating budget of $6 million a year, according to Morris, with the federal government covering 75 percent and the state 25.
Montgomery Mayor Greg Ingram said he’s heard very little about the state’s plan for the old WVU Tech Campus. Neither was there much public discussion when lawmakers actually voted on the bill, according to State Senator Stephen Baldwin, a Democrat whose district includes Montgomery.
“Frankly, the Legislature had very few conversations about this. They packaged this into the very last omnibus bill at the very last minute, and it wasn’t ever discussed,” Baldwin said.
He suspects the Republican majority added the Mountaineer ChalleNGe Academy bill -- to the otherwise Democrat-contested omnibus -- to attract more votes from the other side of the aisle.
Baldwin ultimately voted against the omnibus for its provisions relating to charter schools, but he’s excited about the Mountaineer ChalleNGe Academy potentially coming to Montgomery, an area that’s lost millions of dollars in economic activity since losing WVU Tech in 2017.
“It’s not going to fill that hole. But it’s a part of a strategy moving forward,” Baldwin said.
“Because it’s going to be an important employer in the area, it’s going to provide a service that nobody in West Virginia provides … It’s going to be helpful, and absolutely anytime you can get a long term government tenant in a building as important and large as that one, that’s a great thing. But in and of itself, it can’t replace the whole of WVU Tech.”
Montgomery’s Long-Standing History With Its Former University
Ingram, a WVU Tech grad, has been mayor for four years. Before that, he worked in the office as a city recorder. He’s been around since the Legislature voted in 2016 to move WVU Tech.
And, he’s been around for all of the ideas since then about ways to fill the campus. Ingram said after other failed ideas, he’s skeptical the academy will ever arrive.
“The Challenge Academy would be a wonderful addition to Montgomery. We would welcome the Challenge Academy here,” Ingram said. “But I’ll believe it when it happens.”
Montgomery has had a college on the former WVU Tech Campus since 1895, when it was the “Montgomery Preparatory School” for West Virginia University.
“It was a school here and a college here for 125 years,” said Ingram. “It was born and raised by the students of Montgomery.”
The school separated from WVU years later to take on several different roles. Many changes later in 1996, the school merged back with WVU to become the WVU Institute of Technology.
Regardless of who has owned the university, the community has had a longstanding relationship with the university. When the college officially moved in 2017, Ingram called it the state’s “worst public policy decision.”
“When they pulled out, they took a lot of jobs,” Ingram said. “They took a lot of people that spent money. It kind of resulted in a downturn in the economy … It’s sad that West Virginians would do West Virginians this way.”
Alsop with WVU said he’s mindful when it comes to Montgomery’s struggle with losing WVU Tech, but the move was better for the university in the long run.
“We’ve been pleased with the move,” said Alsop. “We believed it was in the best interest for the student experience, and for the long-term viability of the West Virginia University Institute of Technology, to be in Beckley. There were a significant number of decisions relating to facilities, to the ability to recruit type class size, on that.”
Replacing WVU Tech Remains a Priority
Ingram said the move remains a “chip on his shoulder.” Since becoming mayor, filling the empty buildings has been a priority for him. Alsop said this has also been a priority for the university system.
"We’ve had conversations with the city and county leaders, as well as state officials, about potential uses of the campus,” said Alsop. “We’ve really been trying to brainstorm on what’s the best uses for those facilities."
Since moving the Institute of Technology to Beckley, WVU has transferred a few buildings to the city and BridgeValley Technical and Community College, which has grown to take on more of a role in hosting community events and opportunities for Montgomery residents. The university is renting the former gym to the YMCA for the time being.
WVU is waiting to hear back from a developer who could turn the business building into a senior living facility. The Board of Governors for WVU recently approved the sale of the building. Alsop said he’s still waiting for the developer to make the purchase.
Some of Ingram’s skepticism comes from less successful efforts to fill the building. Shortly after WVU moved its tech program, it tried to move in a school for young adults who have aged out of the foster care system called KVC.
“It was going to be a school for kids that have aged out of foster care,” said Ingram. “It was to provide them an additional two years of training, with some college classes, to get them into the workforce instead of falling into drugs, prostitution, those types of things that happen to so many kids in foster care.”
Alsop said there's little reason for skepticism this time, due to how much more established the academy is.
"Unlike KVC, which was really plowing new ground and trying to do something brand new and innovative,” Alsop said. “The ChalleNGe Academy is very innovative, but I think if you were to talk to Major General Hoyer or the National Guard, they have a readily established playbook for the academy. They know what they’re doing. They know how to change kids’ lives.”
Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.