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Teens Accept Challenge
Program gives students second chance

By TIM MITCHELL
© 2001 THE NEWS-GAZETTE
Published June 24, 2001

RANTOUL -

   Sasha Alexander grinned from ear to ear as Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan handed her a diploma Wednesday afternoon.

    Last year, the 16-year-old Champaign girl had dropped out of Champaign Central High School and was looking for some direction in life.

   "High school just wasn't for me," she said.

   But a Rantoul program run by the Illinois National Guard gave Alexander a second chance in life with a boot camp-styled program called Lincoln's Challenge Academy.

   On Wednesday afternoon, Alexander walked out of Springfield's Prairie Capital Convention Center not only with a Lincoln's Challenge diploma, but also a high school equivalency certificate and a scholarship she intends to use this fall at Parkland College.

   A lot of people could have given up on me," said Alexander. "But my parents never gave up and the staff at Lincoln's Challenge never gave up. And I'm determined to live the kind of life that will make these people who have believed in me proud of me."

   Alexander was one of 440 high school dropouts from throughout Illinois who have spent the last five months in former military housing on the closed Chanute Air Force Base and successfully completed a program pointing their lives in new directions.

   Some of the youth came from farm families in southern Illinois. Others originated from the city streets of Chicago and East St. Louis.

   But they had one thing in common: They dropped out of high school and looked to Lincoln's Challenge to give them a second chance at success in life.

   "You can stay in the military for 30, 40 or 50 years, but you will never get the feeling of pride and accomplishment that you get here on graduation day as you see the parents standing there hugging their sons and daughters," said Lincoln's Challenge Director Peter Thomas.

   "Someone gave up on each of these 440 individuals at one time or another. We came here and took those children that everyone else said wouldn't amount to anything. Lincoln's Challenge does everything it can to put these individuals on track toward becoming a part of the great society that we are trying to put together for the future."

   Back on Jan. 16, Isaiah Burton said goodbye to his folks, grabbed his suitcase and stood in line with hundreds of teens in a gymnasium for the first day of processing.

   Burton, 16, grew up in East St. Louis, where he dropped out of Lincoln High School last fall.

   "I guess I didn't have the right attitude, so I stopped going to school," said Burton. Uadreams scams youtube.com "I was getting into fights and getting into trouble all the time. When people are always fighting, it is difficult to learn.

   "I found out about this program up in Rantoul and decided to give it a chance. I want to make something out of myself."

   The boys and girls began to learn discipline from the moment they arrived. After the teens were told to stand in line, a drill sergeant caught one of the them making comments and demanded he do push-ups on the spot.

   "We want to get them in the mode of knowing that when someone says something to them, they do it," said Dick Steigmann, a spokesman for the program.

   "When we tell them to jump, they shouldn't be questioning why. Their only question should be how high to jump."

   The teens volunteered to be at Lincoln's Challenge.

   "They are coming here because they dropped out of high school; they are not criminals, they are not drug addicts," said Steigmann. "They are kids who have made a serious bad decision, and we are trying to get them to take responsibility."

   In another part of the gymnasium, Urbana resident Timothy Tobias, 16, gulped as Fisher hairstylist Barb Stover applied a military buzz haircut to his curly locks.

   "I had my hair cut, passed a urine analysis test and got all my gear," said Tobias, "I've had my hair cut short before, but this wasn't my cut of choice."

   Stover is one of three women who apply the military haircuts all day long.

   "It's a challenge doing all these haircuts," said Stover. "Everything happens so quickly that there really isn't time to talk to the kids. We take all the hair off for uniformity and cleanliness."

   Tobias dropped out of Urbana High School after his freshman year and then attended an alternative school, but he said he didn't like it there, either, so he stopped showing up.

   "I was always getting sidetracked. I needed some discipline, and I couldn't find it in a traditional school," he said.

   Tobias said he decided to enroll at Lincoln's Challenge at the suggestion of one of his former high school counselors.

   A week later, 17-year-old Derrick Dennis of Urbana and the other cadets were awakened at 5 a.m. in their rooms, which include bunk beds with a chest of drawers for each cadet. Two or three teens share a room.

   Dennis quickly made his bed military style and hurried with the rest of his team to the west lawn for physical training, 45 minutes of traditional calisthenics.

   By 6:45 a.m., Dennis and the rest of his team were eating breakfast in the Lincoln's Challenge mess hall.

   The mess hall looks pretty much like many high school cafeterias. Each cadet picks up a food tray and fills it with meals cooked by staff in Lincoln's Challenge's kitchens. The teens then take seats along long dining tables, sitting in the exact order that they went through the line. After the youths fill up the left side of the table, they take spots in order along the right side.

   Dennis grew up in Lansing, Mich., where he dropped out of high school one year ago.

   Last fall Dennis was reunited with his father, Derrick Crosby of Urbana, whom he hadn't seen in seven years.

   "My dad told me about this program... and I decided it was just the thing I needed," said Dennis.

   At 8 a.m., the teens switched from their sweats to formal military uniforms and headed to the east lot of the property for formation training. There they practice marching and other traditional military moves.

   Then the cadets headed to Grissom Hall classrooms for three hours of GED classes.

   Grissom Hall is in the same building that houses the Octave Chanute Aerospace Museum. The academy's section includes a large number of classrooms and laboratories left vacant when Chanute closed in 1993.

   Lincoln's Challenge has its own library, with books provided by donors and the Lincoln Trail Libraries System.

   The youths take classes in math, reading, science and other academic subjects, sitting in traditional high school desks as National Guard staff members provide lectures and work with overhead projectors.

   Lincoln's Challenge also has seven computer labs in Grissom Hall and two more in the residence hall. There, the teens practice their keyboarding skills and learn how to use computers.

   During afternoons, Lincoln's Challenge is a beehive of activity. The cadets are divided into 10 teams, each of which is involved with different activities on the campus. Some days they do their laundry. Other days they help do sweeping, cleaning and general maintenance on the grounds.

   All members of the team dress alike. Sometimes they wear formal military-styled uniforms, but visitors are just as likely to see them wearing parkas, sweats or T-shirts and shorts, depending on the activity involved.

   Whenever a visitor approaches or walks by a cadet, the cadet stops whatever he or she are doing, stands at attention and responds to questions by saying, "Yes, sir," "No, sir," "Yes, ma'am," or "No, ma'am."

   The boys and girls also take part in intramural sports, do community service work and receive counseling in job skills, sex education, nutrition and life coping skills.

   After cadets eat dinner at 4:45 p.m., they spend their evenings doing homework or taking part in extracurricular activities.

   During extracurricular time, the facility looks pretty much like any other high school, with some teens working on the yearbook and school newspaper, others playing on the boys' and girls' basketball teams.

   The academy also offers youths chances to be on a drill team, act in a school play, join the chess or astronomy club, run for student council and even plan the school prom.

   Lights are out at 9 p.m. After a day of fast action, Dennis said it didn't take him long to sleep.

   Emmanuel Bell had probably the shortest distance to travel to reach Lincoln's Challenge.

   Bell, 18, lives in Rantoul. He said he dropped out of Rantoul Township High School during his senior year because he was falling behind in getting credits. Bell said the most difficult adjustment for him was learning how to take part in physical training exercises.

   "The hardest thing for me was learning how to do a four-count push-up," said Bell, "I was pretty lazy, and it is like two push-ups in one."

   A four-count push-up is really three push-ups in one, according to Steigmann. Starting at a front leaning position, the participant pushes himself up three different times before returning to the original position.

   Alexander said the biggest challenge for her was learning how to be on time to stand at attention by a wall.

   "If everybody isn't on the wall on time, that means more time for everybody to stand on the wall and less time for chow."

   When Alexander enrolled at Lincoln's Challenge, she originally planned on going out for the cheerleading team. But she said she learned to love running and joined the cross-country team instead.

   "I never did much running before I came here, but the staff here helped me to learn an appreciation for fitness," she said.

   When she wasn't running with the rest of the cadets on the streets of Rantoul, Alexander helped write articles for the academy's yearbook and typed stories for the school newspaper.

   When Alexander arrived on the snow-covered grounds of Chanute in January, she planned a career in the military.

   But by graduation time she changed her career goal to criminal justice. She intends to enroll at Parkland College this fall to study law enforcement.

   Alexander initially was shy and said she was afraid of leadership positions. By May she had become a squad leader, wearing a yellow rope as she called out directions to fellow squad members.

   "You have to tell everybody what to do and lead by example," she said, "I'm in the front of the formation. I was kinda surprised at myself."

   Alexander said the most rewarding part of her time at Lincoln's Challenge was working with 6-year-old boys and girls at Wiley School in Urbana as part of her community service work.

   Burton said he was a little nervous at first.

   "The first week was difficult for me because I didn't know anybody," said Burton, "I just tried to be brave and stay calm. The sergeants are in your face and sometimes can be rough on you, but if you calm down, you can make it."

   For Burton, the turning point was the day he joined the school choir, "The Voices of Lincoln's Challenge."

   "I used to sing in the church choir and in my junior high choir back at home, "said Burton. "I guess it was my natural talent."

   Then Burton revealed a sheepish grin. "Besides, that's how I get the girls."

   In the choir, Burton met a female cadet named Nina Mims from Chicago. By the end of the school year, Burton asked her to be his date at the Lincoln's Challenge prom.

   "We were friends at first, but later it became a relationship," said Burton.

   Burton said he gained a lot of skills during his five months in Rantoul.

   "I learned how to make a bed, how to clean a latrine real good, community service, the proper way to pick up hay," he said. "I wouldn't have learned any of that back in East St. Louis."

   Most of all, Burton said, he gained an appreciation for religion.

   "I've been going to church ever since I've been here," said Burton. "When one of my cousins died, I told my mom I'd pray for the family. My mom said this was a big difference because she never heard me talk like that before.

   "I was running away from church before I came here. Now I'm pushing myself to go to church."

   Burton said he plans to join the Air Force and learn mechanics.

   "Then I'd like to go to college and get a degree," said Burton. "After that, I want to open my own mechanics shop."

   Tobias underwent some of the biggest changes of all during his five months in Rantoul.

   During his first month on campus, Tobias said, he wanted to go to culinary school and become a cook. But months of job training and counseling helped him change his goal.

   "Now I want to go to Parkland College this fall to major in aerospace studies," said Tobias, "I ultimately want to become a fighter pilot in the Air Force."

   Tobias said the boot camp training and atmosphere made him want a military career.

   "This place opens up a lot of options for you," said Tobias.

   Bell said the one-on-one attention he received at Lincoln's Challenge helped him to master math and science for the first time in his life.

   "I couldn't hack science in a traditional school," said Bell. "But here the instructors give you the attention and motivation you need to learn."

   Bell was in charge of the sound system when Lincoln's Challenge put on its first-ever school play May 17.

   "You gain a lot of pride when you work with other people to put on a quality stage production," said Bell. "I was proud to be a part of it."

   Bell said he thought about quitting in late February because he was homesick.

   But a heart-to-heart talk from Sgt. Forrest Tardiff helped change his mind.

   "He talked to me and convinced me to tough it out," said Bell. "He told me the program wasn't as long as it may seem and that the days would go by fast. I was glad he did."

   Now Bell hopes to join the Air Force.

   Dennis gained his first experience with politics at Lincoln's Challenge, getting elected to the school's student council.

   Dennis also ran for the sergeant-at-arms of the student council. He lost that election, but said the experience was quite valuable. Dennis said the biggest skill he gained at Rantoul was typing.

   "When I arrived here, I could only type five or six words a minute on a computer keyboard," said Dennis. "I spent lots of time in the computer lab, and now I can type 22 words a minute."

   For his community service work, Dennis did manual labor at Allerton Park near Monticello. "I raked leaves and did some farm work," said Dennis. "I put posts up, dug ditches and cut down trees. It was very rewarding work."

   As Dennis clutched his Lincoln's Challenge diploma on Wednesday, he said he plans to enroll this fall at Parkland College to study business.

   "I'd like to own my own business some day," said Dennis. "I'm not sure what kind, but I'm confident the folks at Parkland will help me to find out."

   "When I first came to Rantoul, I was a boy," said Dennis with a big smile. "Here I basically learned how to be a man, accepting the responsibilities that come with adulthood."

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