WISCONSIN RAPIDS (AP) - Wisconsin Challenge Academy cadets Jacob Liebenstein and Sydney Tetzlaff use the word "ma'am" in a conversation as fluently as other teens might say "whatever."
Their military-style salutations are just one indicator of the changes they've made in the Academy. Liebenstein, 19, and Tetzlaff, 17, both from Wisconsin Rapids, graduate today from the 22-week program for at-risk teens.
Teens must choose to attend the Academy - they are not forced by courts or schools. The program has two sessions a year, starting in July and January. The National Guard Youth Challenge Program, founded in 1993, is free for cadets, and paid for through state and federal money. The Wisconsin program began in 1998 and has had more than 2,200 graduates.
"Well, I kind of decided to come here, and my parents kind of pushed me to go," Tetzlaff said in an interview. "Here I am three or four days before graduation, and I'm still going strong."
Although she never skipped school, Tetzlaff never did her homework and had only 51/2 credits when she entered the Academy.
And there were other issues.
"I was hanging out with a bad group of kids," she said. "I consistently fought with my parents; I didn't care about authority."
Liebenstein was running out of chances. He'd been expelled from River Cities High School, a Wisconsin Rapids Public Schools charter school for at-risk students. He credits bad influences, drugs, lack of respect - and a friend who considered the Academy - for choosing to attend the program.
"I figured 51/2 months away from drugs is a lot better than five months with drugs, so I had an advantage there," Liebenstein said.
"I knew all my family was looking at me," he said about his progress through the program. "They were really proud of me. I just wanted to keep them proud, so I just stayed. I wouldn't give up."
Tetzlaff wanted to set a new example.
"I just wanted to be a better role model for my little brother, and my little cousin," she said. "(My cousin) wants to be just like me when she grows up, and I didn't want her to be like me five months ago.
"I want her to be like me, going to college."
Both cadets now have a new respect for authority.
Liebenstein said there were times the Academy was difficult. Cadets are separated by gender; there is no Facebook, no cellphones. An earned privilege might be being able to listen to the radio for an hour a week. There is physical training every day.
It's what Peter Blum, assistant director at the Academy, refers to as taking away "the noise of our society."
"We set up an environment that is known to help children thrive," Blum said.
The program emphasizes that hard work equals success.
"We believe life is very fair, and when you put effort in your life, we typically get what we put into it," Blum said. "Most of these kids have put in very little effort."
That changes at the Academy. There is lots of physical training, academics, and cadets have to earn privileges, such as phone calls. Cadets are awarded one 10-minute phone call on Sunday nights starting the third week of the Residential Phase; senior cadets are allowed 20 minutes. They could write and receive letters but cannot get care packages.
"Throughout the whole day, you were going to be told what to do," Liebenstein said. "It's hard, but you just have to be resilient and work through it."
Not everyone made it through to today's graduation. Tetzlaff said her class started with 36 females; 22 are expected to graduate. Just more than 100 of the original 172 class members are graduating.
"They give up," Tetzlaff said. "They say they can't handle it, they start fights, they don't listen."
She quoted one of her commandants: "There are a million excuses to want to go home, but you have to find that one good excuse every day to make you stay," Tetzlaff said.
Another instructor told Liebenstein: "Kids do what they want to do, but adults do what they have to do."
"That really got in my head," he said.
Both cadets are nervous about coming back home from what has been a challenging, yet structured, safe environment.
Jenni Yanta, 18, now living in Marshfield, can attest to those future challenges. Yanta, from Wisconsin Rapids, graduated from the program a year ago.
"When (cadets are) there, (they) have people to enforce the rules," Yanta said. "When you get home, you don't have someone telling you want to do.
"It felt just like one big dream, like it didn't even happen."
Yanta fell back into some of her old habits, like drinking, but soon realized that was not the road she wanted to get back on.
"In July, on my 18th birthday, I bought my first car and I realized I couldn't keep doing what I was doing," Yanta said.
She has been sober since July, she said, and is holding down a job, with plans to join the military or go on to school.
A backward slide is expected, Blum said. Mentors - picked by the students and trained by the Academy - help support the graduates. There is a follow-up program one year after graduation.
"What we typically see is 70 percent
of the kids that graduate the program are doing something more than 32 hours a week - school, work.
"I think it's a pretty good mark on the wall that we're doing something pretty neat with these kids."
Liebenstein and Tetzlaff, though nervous, say they are ready. Tetzlaff is enrolled in diesel and heavy equipment courses at Mid-State Technical College; Liebenstein will start a 10-month stint with the AmeriCorps program in February.
Yanta, who said cadets become their real self while in the program, had advice.
"Remember who you were there," she said. "Don't let it all go to waste. Don't let other people influence you. It's going to be hard.
"If you want to live your dream, get up in the morning and do your (physical training). Keep going with the habit of (what you learned), until you accomplish what you need to."
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