Challenge Academy graduates thrive in their new lives

Last year, "The CBS Evening News" followed a group of high school dropouts through a unique program run by the National Guard called the Youth ChalleNGe Academy. From July to December of 2014, CBS News tracked the cadets' progress all the way to graduation. One year later, the graduates are sharing their success stories.


A lot has changed for 18-year-old Adjekai Stewart since July 2014 at Sunburst Youth Challenge Academy.

She and 200 other rebellious, unfocused high school dropouts were getting a wake-up call like none they'd ever heard. They transformed, physically and emotionally, over the course of almost six months.

CBS News was there when Stewart spent 10 minutes atop a confidence-building course, before she was coaxed into taking a leap of faith.

"I felt like I was such a weak person back then," Stewart admitted. She says she wouldn't be where she is today if she hadn't gone through the Challenge Academy program.

Now, she's a first-semester college student. Stewart graduated from Sunburst last December, then graduated from high school in June.

"I cried the next day because I was like wow, I actually finished. I actually graduated. It was really cool."

Seventeen-year-old Parker Coker is almost finished, too.

At Sunburst, he was a kid trying to climb out of the hole of his bad choices. Back then, he explained it this way: "You have to look ahead and it's not easy to look ahead when you don't know how to, or no one taught you how to."

He'll graduate high school next year and plans to join the Army. He said he'd probably be in a juvenile center if it weren't for Sunburst.

Coker also said he doesn't have a girlfriend, because "it's that or straight A's, and I chose straight A's."

Nearly all of the Sunburst Cadets CBS News followed through the program have similar success stories.

Edward Tucker graduated high school this month, and Crista Hopkins and Francisco Lazo are on track to get their diplomas next year.

Angel Kay LeMaster dove right into her post-Sunburst life, and plans to try out for the swim team at her high school.

The lanky 16-year-old with the buzz cut could barely hold it together during the first few days at Sunburst. If you listen to her story you can understand why.

"Me and my mom was homeless pretty much, sleeping in cars, underneath freeways, in hotels," she said. "I was always homeless, on my own, my entire teenage life. That caused me to drop out."

"I'd probably have to say that my past still drags at me a lot," Angel said. "I almost did not have anyone there for me, and that still messes with me."

But she's focused on the future because she understands her past.

"I messed my life up. That's hard to admit and its hard to sit there and think that I messed my life up so bad that I needed to go to Sunburst in the first place," she explained.

"But it was an opportunity to open myself up and get a fresh start, a better chance -- a second chance."

  • Michelle Miller

    Michelle Miller is an award-winning CBS News correspondent based in New York, reporting for all CBS News broadcasts and platforms. Her work regularly appears on the "CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley", "CBS This Morning" and "CBS Sunday Morning with Charles Osgood". She joined CBS News in 2004.