By Deborah Barfield Berry
The first two weeks of the Youth Challenge Program were particularly tough for Denetra Harrell of Alexandria. There were strict rules, early morning wake-ups and grueling exercises.
But eight weeks into the program for troubled youths, Harrell, 17, said her reading and math skills have improved, and she's now planning a career as a correctional officer.
"I came to the program because I wanted to change my attitude," said Harrell, who said she had fallen two grades behind at Bolton High School.
Harrell and eight other cadets from the Louisiana National Guard's Youth Challenge Program were in Washington this week to attend a gala celebrating the program at the 34 sites across the country.
The other Central Louisiana cadets in Washington are Kasey Morris of Pineville, Soktear Muy of Oberlin, and Cody Lemoine and Hunter Miller, both of Marksville.
U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-New Orleans, and other lawmakers praised the boot-camp-style program at a press conference Tuesday, touting its impact on youths everywhere.
"This is a program I would like to have in every school district," said Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-Calif.
For troubled youths, such as those who drop out of school, the YCP helps fill the gap to "get them back on track to finish their education and to encourage them to go on to the next level, whatever that might be," Landrieu said.
The program is particularly important in places like Louisiana, where the high school drop-out rate is more than 14 percent, Landrieu said.
The 22-week residential program run by the National Guard provides educational, leadership and life-skill training to at-risk youths. The program is at three sites in Louisiana -- Camp Beauregard in Pineville, Camp Minden near Bossier City and Gillis Long Center in Carville.
More than 1,200 cadets a year graduate from Louisiana's program, lawmakers said. Graduates are also offered mentoring and help finding a job.
Landrieu said the model program is only limited by the lack of resources, which come from private donations and some federal funds.
"Part of our focus is to keep those federal investments coming," she said. "For every dollar invested, we get 166 percent return on this program."
"We know that the budget is tight "» (but) any extra dollars we find should go to programs likes this," said Landrieu.
A recent study by the Rand Corp. found cadets enrolled in the program were more likely to get their GED diplomas and land jobs. The study was funded by the National Guard Youth Foundation.
For Victor Alexander, a 17-year-old from Breaux Bridge, the program has meant he can focus on getting his GED and then attending a technical college to become an engineer. Before that, he said, he was failing in school.
"I needed a change. I was hard-headed," said Alexander, who has been in the program 19 weeks. "It helped me be a better person."
Muy, 18, who attended Oberlin High School, said the YCP has worked for him.
"I'm a lot smarter than I used to be," Muy said.
Harrell conceded it was hard to adjust at first, but said it's been worth it.
She said she hopes lawmakers will continue to support the program.
"I would like other kids to have the opportunity to get into the program," Harrell said.