The Aegis
Harford County

Freestate ChalleNGe offers at-risk young people a path forward, graduates 59th class

The Maryland Freestate ChalleNGe Academy’s 59th class graduated from the 22-week residential phase of the program on Dec. 17 at Havre de Grace Middle/High School.

Lt. Gen. Brian Cavanaugh was the graduation keynote speaker. Cavanaugh serves as commander of the U.S. Marine Corps Forces Command and as commanding general of Fleet Marine Force Atlantic.


Maj. Gen. Timothy E. Gowen, the Maryland adjutant general who leads the military department that operates the program, also attended the ceremony.

The Freestate ChalleNGe Academy at Aberdeen Proving Ground is part of the National Guard’s larger Youth ChalleNGe Program.


The academy is a tuition-free program for at-risk 16- to 18-year-olds that provides instruction based on needs to prepare them to take Maryland’s General Education Development (GED) exam.

Classes are in the five areas tested on the GED exam – math, science, social studies, literature and writing skills/essay.

For 80% of the cadets, this is their “last chance to get it right,” said Keith Dickerson, program director.

“Their young lives have been riddled with missed and sabotaged opportunities, discouragement and feelings of defeat,” Dickerson said. “They come to us to seek guidance. "

The academy uses the Test of Adult Basic Education offered by Data Recognition Corp., an education assessment company, to measure incoming and outgoing performance. The initial assessment of skill level in reading, math and language is conducted during the first two weeks of the program.

Teachers use results from the initial assessment to develop plans to meet the educational needs of students. The exit test helps gauge the education’s level of success.


Along with getting an education, cadets learn self-discipline, leadership and responsibility during the residential phase of the program, Dickerson said. Cadets live and work in a controlled military environment, he said.

“In 2022-23, stripping a teenager of social media, [PlayStation 5 gaming consoles], cellphones, ‘drip’ and cool hairstyles might be a recipe for disaster,” Dickerson said. “But, once they get here and have an opportunity to refocus on what really matters and what’s really important, their outlook on life shifts and that in itself is a major accomplishment.”

While cadets stay at Aberdeen Proving Ground they perform thousands of hours of volunteer work – around 4,500 hours of community service in total.

After the residential phase, the program has a 12-month post-residential phase that focuses on getting graduates enrolled in continuing education, vocational programs, military or entry-level employment. During the post-residential phase, students are assisted by at least one trained mentor from the community.

To learn more about the program, visit