State military officials are considering several options for reopening the Wyoming Cowboy Challenge Academy program that closed last year due to staffing issues.
There are more requirements involved in the process this time around, Wyoming Military Department Commanders Action Group director Chris Smith told the Joint Transportation, Highway and Military Affairs Committee during a meeting last month.
The National Guard Bureau has adopted a “new process to start up or re-start a program” since Wyoming’s Challenge Academy opened in 2006, Smith explained.
“We didn’t know that at the time we closed,” he said. “Our focus was cadet safety.”
He showed the committee the new list of 15 “criteria” that must be met before a new Challenge Academy can open.
Several of the criteria are unattainable for Wyoming, he said: For example, the NGB now requires a state to have at least 4,000 high school dropouts in order to start a Challenge Academy – but Wyoming only had 1,235 high school dropouts in 2022.
“We have a really high graduation rate, (which is) really good,” Smith said. “But it’s a problem. … We’d have to get NGB to waive that requirement, because already the first criteria on the scorecard we can’t meet.”
The new criteria also require that at least 50,000 people live within a one-hour drive of the Challenge Academy in order to ensure there are enough workers in the local labor force to staff the program, Smith said.
The requirement limits Wyoming’s options for Challenge Academy locations to Laramie, Cheyenne, or the Casper/Douglas region.
“We’re really stuck with those three areas of consideration, just to meet the population number,” Smith said.
His agency looked into several site options in those areas, all of which would cost about the same amount to renovate for the program – around $6 million.
Another possibility is a partnership with an out-of-state ChalleNGe Academy, Smith said.
That plan would cost less money, but Smith said the number of spots available for Wyoming students might be “limited,” and there may be issues involved with “moving at-risk youth across state lines by bus.”
“If they get off the bus … that’s not good, because we’re responsible for them,” Smith said. “That’s always a concern.”
No matter how the state decides to proceed, Wyoming Adjutant General Greg Porter said some action will be needed to continue funding the Challenge Academy in the future.
“We can go through this biennium,” he said. “After that, there is no funding, (and) we won’t be able to continue.”
The Transportation Committee asked state staffers to draft a bill to continue funding the Wyoming Cowboy Challenge Academy program “at its basic level” through the next biennium.
The committee also requested a bill draft that would allow for studies of potential in-state sites for the program, pending further information about possible requirement waivers from the NGB.
The committee’s next meeting is scheduled to take place Aug. 31-Sept. 1 in Casper.
‘Make it happen’
The Wyoming Youth Now Foundation – which was formed in 2021 to support the Wyoming Challenge Academy – encouraged residents who want to “get involved” in the discussion to reach out to their state legislators about the future of the program.
“A lot of kids from Fremont County went to that and used that,” WYNOW president and co-founder Holly Butler said during a Lander Community Foundation Challenge for Charities interview this month. “It’s too bad that Wyoming can’t kind of get it together (and) make this happen for the kids.”
She added that WYNOW is working on plans to “fill the gap” left by the Challenge Academy closure – potentially with a school of their own.
“We’re … kicking around the idea that we may start our own organization (where) we don’t have to worry about state funding and taxpayer dollars,” she said. “(We could) continue the mission that way. That’s what we’re talking about.”