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After the closure of Wyoming Cowboy Challenge Academy, cadets are finding other opportunities

Sgt. 1st Class Jimmy McGuire
Wyoming National Guard Flickr

The abrupt closure of the Wyoming Cowboy Challenge Academy (WCCA) at the Wyoming National Guard’s Camp Guernsey in mid-September led the cadets who were enrolled in the program having to seek out other options to continue their education.

Over the last three weeks, some of the cadets have been able tojoin similar programs in other states, while others have returned to their high schools to continue their education.

“There were three states that have taken current cadets, so the good news about that is they were roughly halfway through their five-and-a-half-month program here with Cowboy Challenge,” said Brigadier Gen. David Pritchett, Director of the Joint Staff for the Wyoming National Guard. “The advantage for all of those cadets that transferred to either Idaho, Montana, or California is that they continue their same progression, they didn't lose any time. They will graduate in sync with those classes."

Approximately 60 cadets were affected by the closure. Pritchett said the challenge academy closed because of shortage of staffing.

“When we look back historically at the program, they've had staffing issues really since the program started,” he said. “It just became unfortunate that the decision had to be made when it was made but at the end of the day, those decisions were made, because the cadets were always there, safety and welfare is always at the forefront. And so, in essence, the staffing led to those decisions in the middle of this class.”

The Wyoming National Guard launched the WCCA in January 2006. There are 38 programs like it across the country, including in Puerto Rico, which offer non-traditional learners ages 16-18 the opportunity to attend school and live in a military-like environment. They can either complete a GED as part of the program or complete credit recovery if they've fallen behind academically in high school. According to the WCCA, the program has graduated a total of 1,399 cadets.

For the cadets that didn’t elect to join other similar programs, the National Guard will help them get skills to integrate back into their high schools and home communities.

“For whatever reason, some of the cadets have gotten behind in their high school academics, and they're able to catch up to the credit recovery and then return to their high school,” he said. “For others, they're not going to go back to their high school, but we're trying to help them get their high school equivalency so that they can go out and get a job or either continue school somewhere else. Those cadets who have returned to their homes, or their guardians and parents, they will not be considered a graduate of the Challenge program.”

Additionally, there are approximately five cadets thus far who have elected to attend Nevada’s challenge academy, which will begin in mid-January.

Despite the closure, there is a chance that the WCCA could once again resume its operations. However, this would require the involvement of the state legislature, which funds 25 percent of the program’s cost while the federal government funds the remaining 75 percent, he added.

“What we would not do is we would not restart the program at the current location [in Guernsey],” said Pritchett. “I went up to the city council meeting and briefed this a few weeks ago, and we understand that those jobs are important to Platte County. But it wouldn't make a lot of sense for us to go back and try the same thing again, really.”

Pritchett said that while he wasn’t with the Wyoming National Guard when the WCCA was launched, it was most likely located at Camp Guernsey due to the existing infrastructure that it has, including barracks for sleeping quarters and a dining facility. But any potential relocation may not necessarily be located at another military facility.

Currently, there’s no established timeline of when the WCCA could reopen again, though Pritchett indicated that it could be a possibility come 2025. But even with its closure, the National Guard is still dedicated to ensuring for the well-being of their former cadets.

“Even though they're actually graduating from different programs, we will continue to ensure that the cadets from the previous class [are checked up on] because we're obligated to track them for one year, that's how a challenge program is set up,” Pritchett explained. “So we will continue to track the ones who graduate from Montana, Idaho, [and] California for the one year after they graduate.”

This includes mentors and counselors that routinely communicate with cadets after their five-and-a-half-month residency portion has concluded.

Hugh Cook is Wyoming Public Radio's Northeast Reporter, based in Gillette. A fourth-generation Northeast Wyoming native, Hugh joined Wyoming Public Media in October 2021 after studying and working abroad and in Washington, D.C. for the late Senator Mike Enzi.
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