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Video: Giving high school dropouts 'the boot'

By George Lewis Correspondent
NBC News
updated 3/14/2007 7:30:40 PM ET 2007-03-14T23:30:40

At 5 a.m., a rude awakening for the 143 cadets at Camp Grizzly, one of 34 camps in the National Guard's "Youth ChalleNGe" program.

They're straightening up their lockers and their lives.

"They're tough, but they need to be," says cadet Ron Hollis.

They need to be because they're dealing with dropouts and young people who've had run-ins with the law. Many of the teens come from a world of gangs, drugs and neglect. Here they're introduced to a world of discipline, learning and caring.

And it's more than just a boot camp. Cadets spend five months here, catching up on schoolwork and planning future lives. Afterward, they meet with personal mentors for a year.

"It gives them a chance to get back on track and kind of gives them their dreams back," says Lt. Col. Nancy Baird.

Jeren McNair was expelled from high school for fighting. Now he's working on his diploma and his college plans.

"I learned I'm not going to be able to do just whatever I want in life," he says. "I have to work for it and I have to work hard."

And the odds of success? Youth ChalleNGe claims 96 percent of its graduates go on to college or the military or jobs at higher than minimum wage.

"It costs about $14,000 to put a kid through this program versus $40,000 to incarcerate a kid," says Greg Sharp.

Former dropout Fernando Gonzales went through the program, earned a college degree, and returned here as a civilian instructor.

"I came back," he says, "maybe I could change some lives like the way this program changed mine."

Now he teaches others about overcoming all sorts of obstacles.

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