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Education

At Freestate ChalleNGe Academy, two Baltimore-area teens transformed their lives through military schooling

At Aberdeen Proving Ground, past the security checkpoint, down Wise Road and to the left on Glory Street, stands a secluded academy filled with Maryland teenagers attempting to transform their lives through military-style schooling.

It’s a place where the boys have their heads shaved every two weeks and the girls are required to slick their hair back into buns that sit on the nape of their neck. They wake up each morning at 5 a.m. and wear camouflage-print uniforms. Students only walk down the schoolhouse hallway in one direction to maintain order, meaning those with classes a few doors back must exit the building and circle back. They’re told when to eat and when to sleep. The consequences for disobedience involve push ups.

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Isaiah Ferguson decided this was the type of school he needed. Without it, he imagined he’d be dead or in jail.

The Maryland National Guard Freestate ChalleNGe Academy — the capitalized “NG” in the name stands for “National Guard” — is a tuition-free program founded in 1993 where 16-to-18-year-olds can earn their GED, vocational training certificates and self-discipline skills. Freestate is part of a nationwide National Guard effort to establish such ChalleNGe programs designed to help young people through instruction of value, skills, education and self-discipline. It helps the teens and has the added benefit of helping with recruiting.

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The academy accepted Isaiah’s application to join its 58th class, which began in January and was shortened to 19 weeks due to the pandemic. Those who make it through the initial training endure life as cadets and several weeks of life-changing routine.

Still, it was a better option than the life Isaiah lived before. After getting kicked off the Parkville High School’s soccer team for poor grades, he found himself fighting and skipping class. Meanwhile, The Baltimore County teen watched his friends make poor choices and die at young ages.

Though the program would take away his hair, his friends and his family, he figured he had a better chance at a good outcome at Freestate than at a traditional four-year high school.

“It’s really me who needs to change,” Isaiah said.

Most other cadets at Freestate faced similar situations. One of his peers, Mekhi Bennett, who also lived in the Baltimore area, came to the program with a troubled history. He was once caught at school with an airsoft gun in his backpack, and his plans to run away were foiled by cops blocking the classroom doors. His mother, Tameka Hart, told him about Freestate, and he went along with the plan.

All Mekhi and Isaiah wanted was a chance at a different life. In their minds, Freestate would provide this helping them earn a GED, giving them vocational training at the Harford Community College and matching them with mentors.

On Glory Street

On his first night, Isaiah cursed and was ordered to complete 40 pushups. After dropping to the ground, he quickly realized he lacked the ability to follow the order.

“I couldn’t do it,” Isaiah said. “It just made me learn like, ‘Oh, I can’t do this [kind of behavior] no more.’”

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He filled his time outside of classes, formation drills and scheduled meals by joining clubs. In time, he managed to join the color guard, the drill team and even picked up a part in a play.

“It’s different from home,” Isaiah said, “but then later on as you go, you’re going through the program and at one point you’re just like, ‘Wow, I’m almost done.’”

Isaiah uttered these words right after finishing his last GED test in May; he wouldn’t find out the score until graduation. Several of his classmates never reached that point. His class started off with 76 students, according to Director KariLynn Dunmeyer, and ended with 42.

Yet, Isaiah persevered. He also earned a welding certificate and dreams of bringing this newfound skill to the Navy or the Marines. And every time he was granted access to a phone, he called his dad, Matthew Ferguson, who sounded happy to hear of his achievements.

Phoenyx Farm and Sanctuary

Mekhi felt uncertain following his final GED test, but he knew the program had helped him grow. Plus, even if he didn’t pass all his tests, the academy would help him to retake the sections he needed.

At Freestate, the mandatory community service gave Mekhi hope and motivation. His favorite place to volunteer was at Phoenyx Farm and Sanctuary, an animal rescue in Harford County. He loved the horse stables and the baby goats. He grew close with a baby goat named Frat Boy, eventually bestowing his surname to call him Frat Boy Bennett. Each time he left the farm, he said the goat would cry for him. He said he found a groove refilling hay for the horses and helping clean out the barn.

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Beck Bolton, founder of the sanctuary farm, noticed how Mekhi stood out from the other cadets that came to volunteer. She could see how compassionate he was with the animals.

“[The farm is] a safe place for shattered souls to live,” Bolton said, and she wasn’t just talking about the animals.

On May 8, Bolton surprised Mekhi at the farm — Frat Boy Bennett now belonged to him. Bolton also asked Mekhi to be her right hand man at the farm whenever he would come to volunteer. Though Mekhi doesn’t plan for a future in farming — along with rapping he’s interested in joining the military — the news made him feel good, he said.

Harbor of Grace

At 9:07 a.m. on May 21, cadets’ loved ones trickled into their seats in the auditorium at Havre de Grace High School — French for “Harbor of Grace” — for the Freestate graduation ceremony. They would finally see their cadets after months of brief phone calls. Family and friends would celebrate their accomplishments, and cadets would receive yellow envelopes with their GED results.

Minutes later, the uniform-clad students marched in chanting a song and took their seats in the front three rows. Despite polite pleas from Deputy Director Keith Dickerson for the crowd to keep callouts to a minimum, audience members couldn’t hold in their praise. Once each cadet had walked the stage, obtained their Freestate completion certificate and shaken many hands, they ran out of the auditorium.

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Isaiah, having changed into civilian clothes, was one of the first to emerge into the lobby with his GED results. He quickly found his family who showered him with hugs.

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“Izzy, we are really proud,” said his dad. “I love you.”

Isaiah grinned and announced he had passed his GED. His father kept on hugging him.

“I gotta get another one of those,” the elder Ferguson said.

Mekhi waltzed into the lobby wearing an all-white suit, the same outfit from prom a few days earlier. He found his family and gave each member a hug.

He didn’t want to open his GED results just yet; he’d later discover he only passed the math portion, his favorite subject. Still, he planned to retake the other sections once he was able to. Regardless of the test scores, his mother was pleased with Mekhi’s transformation at Freestate.

“The certificates from the college, they went to driving school, he had 90s and 100s for scores — all of that stuff was great, and I’m very excited about it, but to see that there was some type of hope out there for him...” she said. “I take my hat off to Freestate.”


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