Editor's note: New Times is following eight Grizzly Youth Academy students through their journey at the military-style school down a new path toward academic and personal success. This is the second installment in the series—split in two parts, with four cadets this week and four next week. The first installment, "Pushing for Better," was published Aug. 22.
It's just past 10 a.m. on Sept. 19 at Camp San Luis Obispo, home of the California National Guard and the Grizzly Youth Academy, and the sun is already beating down on the pavement. Paul Piette, the academy's Grizzly Challenge Charter School principal, is showing New Times around the "wagon wheel."
The wagon wheel is a group of classroom buildings arranged in the shape of a circle. The platoons march to the middle of the wagon wheel, and line-by-line the cadets are dismissed to their respective classrooms. At this time, one or two cadets run inside the wheel from one room to another.
- Photo By Jayson Mellom
- TOUGH LOVE Cadet Stephanie Recio-Soltero said she feels that everyone is treated with tough love because their cadres know cadets have a lot of potential.
Cadets must run in a clockwise direction, similar to a wheel in motion, to get to their classroom or to take a bathroom break.
It's part of the structure they're taught through the program—the cadets told New Times that running to their destination isn't their favorite thing to do. In their life before Grizzly, for some school wasn't their favorite thing to participate in every day either, but that sentiment has since changed.
In order to qualify for the Grizzly Challenge Charter School, a prospective cadet must be at risk of dropping out of high school or have already dropped out, according to their credit deficiency and truancy. Their academic standing is an indicator, Piette said, of what's really going on in their life.
Their academic standing could be a symptom of family issues, such as divorce, death or loss, or substance abuse—either in a family member or in the cadet; family or neighborhood dysfunction, such as abuse or neglect; social economic issues of poverty; or gang issues.
- Photos By Jayson Mellom
- IN FORMATION In the spirit of support and teamwork, Grizzly Academy cadets do everything with their platoon.
Ultimately, through circumstances outside of their hands or circumstances they've created, Piette said, the cadets have developed a set of habits, behaviors, and beliefs that at one time perhaps helped them cope with their life. Those behaviors, he said, have now put them at risk and on a limiting path.
"They come to us with lots of challenges, and we're here to work with every single issue that they might have; we really don't have a limit to that. We're happy and willing to address anything that can affect their habits and their beliefs about themselves in the world, so they can be successful outside of here," he said.
- Photos By Jayson Mellom
- SUPPORT SYSTEM The Grizzly Challenge Charter School principal Paul Piette said the relationships that each teacher, administrator, cadre, or counselor establishes with each cadet forms a support system.
Through the Grizzly Youth Academy, a partnership between the California Military Department and the Grizzly Challenge Charter School—through the SLO County Office of Education—cadets not only catch up on missing credits, but the classroom is designed to focus on curriculum that's relatable to them and can be useful in their futures.
When New Times first interviewed the cadets of class No. 43 in August, the group consisted of nine kids who would be followed through the program. For this round of interviews, the number has dropped to eight. The cadets share how they view themselves changing and the difference in their educational experience.
Luis and Nidia Valenzuela
Nidia Valenzuela, 16, said that when her family came to visit for Family Day, her mom couldn't stop crying.
Her brother Luis, 18, who is also attending the Grizzly Youth Academy, said they were tears of joy for the both of them.
"She probably thought I wasn't going to think about changing my life or change at all. So I definitely think they were happy tears. It makes me feel good that I made her proud and that I'm actually doing something," Luis said.
- Photos By Jayson Mellom
- GROWING TOGETHER Luis and Nidia Valenzuela feel that going through the program together adds another element of support.
Nidia said she has a slightly different feeling about the expectations their mom had for her. With four older brothers, she's the only female in their immediate family.
"I feel like I have a little bit of pressure to do well, but I know it's because she wants the best for me," Nidia said.
Family Day was a reminder for Nidia to continue working toward a better life—and it helps that her brother is at Grizzly with her.
The male and female platoons are kept separate, so the Valenzuela siblings don't get to talk to each other. Instead, the two keep in touch by writing letters. The content of the letter can only be on one side of the paper, so Nidia said she writes really small to fit as much as she can on a sheet.
But her greatest sense of comfort comes when she sees her brother during the day. They exchange a look every time their platoons line up in formation at the wagon wheel. She said they make eye contact and slightly move their heads in acknowledgement—something they shouldn't really be doing; they're supposed to just look forward.
"I don't know, I just can't help it," Nidia said with a laugh. "But when I see him, I just feel like I have more support here."
She's also found a sense of support in run group. As part of this group, she's run 5 miles, and at the time of the interview, she was gearing up for a 10K.
"It's been tough because during a run I keep thinking, 'I don't want to do this,' or 'I'm going to quit.' But after I finish, it's great, because every time I feel like I've accomplished something," Nidia said.
Before Grizzly, Nidia was smoking weed, which made it hard to run track, so she stopped running altogether. Now she's found that her breathing has gone back to normal, and she doesn't feel like she gets out of breath as quickly as she once did.
During this second interview, Nidia was a little less shy and smiled a lot more when she talked about her accomplishments. Her brother did too.
Luis felt that he changed too; his attitude toward adults is different. He didn't really like listening to what adults had to say because he felt they didn't know what they were talking about.
"I see now that there are adults here who are trying to help me and help me change. But it's the little things they do that makes me think this way now," he said.
Those little things include the positive energy that all the teachers, counselors, and cadres—an officer that's responsible for training the rest of the unit—have toward him and the other cadets. Luis said they're making the first move and reaching out to him to see if he needs help in any way. It makes it a lot easier, he said, to feel comfortable not only asking for help, but listening to what they have to say.
In terms of his academics, Luis said he'll be able to make up most of his missing school credits, and the rest he'll finish at a continuation school back home—but he won't have to spend too much time there.
"I'm pretty sure I'm going to get a job while I finish school. Mostly because I know I'll just feel better if I have a job and keep busy instead of having a lot of free time that could potentially lead to me falling back into old habits," Luis said.
Family Day was an emotional day for 18-year-old Stephanie Recio-Soltero because she was able to hold her 10-month-old daughter again.
- Photos By Jayson Mellom
- RESPONSIBILITIES Stephanie Recio-Soltero wants to continue her educational career by attending community college post Grizzly, but she wants to go to a place close to home to be with her 10-month-old daughter.
Recio-Soltero described the day as a dream from the minute she ran up to her family to the moment she parted with them at the end of the event. The one thing that stuck with her was how her daughter reacted to her after nearly two months of separation.
"I grabbed her and hugged her, but I noticed she was making a pouting face. She wanted to go back with the people that are taking care of her right now, my mom and my tia [tia means aunt in Spanish]," she said.
It hurt, Recio-Soltero said, because she felt like maybe her daughter was feeling abandoned because she had come to the academy.
"I just held her the whole time though; I didn't care. It was good to see her," she said.
Having to leave her daughter behind has made Recio-Soltero think about how to continue her education without leaving her daughter again.
Through the Grizzly Charter Challenge School, she'll be earning her high school diploma, so post Grizzly she plans to attend a community college. This way she can balance raising her daughter and receiving higher education in order to get a job.
This aspect of her future is one of the things she talks about with her counselor, who has been very helpful.
"She's very easy to talk to, and she listens to what I have to say. I'm really close to her," Recio-Soltero said.
Her counselor has also been working on filling out a baby book with Recio-Soltero, something that Recio-Soltero and her daughter can reflect on in the future.
She also talks to her counselor about her fears of life after Grizzly. When her family came to visit and were filling her in on life back home—Lompoc—she realized something.
"It sucks knowing that I'm going to go back to the same reality. But the only thing that's different is me," she said. "I thought, I don't know, for some reason I thought coming here was going to change everything."
She said she worries about the old friends who might be waiting for her back home or the temptations of doing drugs again.
"I feel really good right now, and I don't think about drugs or anything like that. But I feel like I might end up meeting up with [old friends] to say hi because friends are friends to me," Recio-Soltero said.
She quickly corrected herself though, and said some of her old friends wrote to her, but she hasn't written back because they shouldn't be part of her future. She constantly reminds herself that.
Recio-Soltero brightened up when she reported that she's a guidon for her platoon, which means she holds the flag that signifies her unit designation. Because the cadre chooses the cadet for the position, she feels proud of the recognition.
According to Grizzly Youth Academy officials, during Family Day, Alexandria Regalado, 16, was discharged from the program by her family who stated that they needed her back home.
When Dezarey Cerna, 16, came into the charter school's main office, she was a little rushed and her cheeks were slightly pink. She carried a bag with a red cross on it and a large backpack.
She was recently assigned the duty of carrying the medical kit for her platoon. If any of the female cadets need a bandage or a feminine product, Cerna has got them covered.
- Photos By Jayson Mellom
- GOING FORWARD TOGETHER Dezarey Cerna feels like she's accomplishing more in school because the teachers at the charter school don't let anyone fall behind; they're always ready to help.
Her large backpack held all of her school supplies and books. When asked what her favorite class was, she had an immediate response. Algebra.
"I understand it more. I'm always, well not always, but I always finish my class work first. After that I can do extra credit," Cerna said.
Before Grizzly, Cerna sat in the back of her classroom, not giving the teacher or lessons much attention. She also didn't do the assignments. She said she feels differently about the classroom setting now.
"I think it's because here, they don't let you fall behind. If you try to give up or say things like, 'I don't get this,' [the teachers] don't let you give up," Cerna said.
Instead, her teachers help her and her classmates pinpoint what they need help with.
"If I feel like I'm falling behind, if I don't get it, or if I get frustrated, they take me aside and help me," she said.
It's something Cerna isn't used to, but she said she appreciates it.
Once she completes the Academy, she'll only have 20 credits left to make up; she'll have to decide whether she wants to do that through independent study or by going back to her high school.
"I don't know what I want to do because I'm missing my senior year, but at the same time I kind of have a feeling that if I go back to that school I might go back to my old ways," Cerna said.
After completing her senior year, Cerna's next big decision is whether to continue living with her grandmother in Greenfield, California, or to move to Hemet with her aunt—a phlebotomist. Either way, one thing is certain, she's determined to go to college to continue her education wherever she is.
When New Times first met Cerna, she contemplated following the footsteps of her aunt, but she said that her new appreciation for Algebra has motivated her to consider becoming an Algebra teacher. She's not worried though; she said she feels like she has the time and, now, the tools to figure out her career goals. Δ
This story will continue next week with the remaining four cadets, so be on the lookout for New Times' next issue. Reach Staff Writer Karen Garcia at firstname.lastname@example.org.