A new National Guard program aimed at helping high school dropouts is struggling in Alabama after more than 70 percent of its students quit or were expelled and its director and assistant director have been fired.
Officials are hoping for improvements during the second session of the Alabama National Guard's Youth Challenge Academy, which will begin in July.
The program, which is based at the old Fort McClellan, began in January with 117 students. It is designed to provide high school dropouts with military-style discipline and free academic training to earn a high school equivalency certificate.
But more than 30 students were expelled and others withdrew after a fight in the academy cafeteria on Jan. 25. Twelve students suffered minor injuries in the melee, and enrollment continued to drop in the weeks that followed.
With the program sagging, the head of the Alabama Guard, Adjutant Gen. Mark Bowen, fired director Montaleto Irby and his assistant, 1st Lt. Danny Crosby, in March.
"I just was not making any progress," Bowen said. "And I kept giving advice and suggestions and falling on deaf ears. I'm one of those persons (who says) if it's not working, then let's fix it, and that's what I'm doing."
Bowen said he had to make a change because instructors "were about to walk out on me."
Col. Tony Wingo, a longtime Guard officer who was named the acting director, said Irby's lack of military background "made it hard for him."
Irby could not be located for contact Wednesday.
Bowen and other Guard officials said they are improving recruiting for the second academy session, which is scheduled to begin July 15. Their goal is to have 125 students.
"We made some bad decisions from the beginning, really not knowing that much," Wingo said. "But according to the national people that we talked to, this happens a lot."
Guard Col. Robin Norris, who is teaching a class of recruiters for the academy, said academy officials in other states have told her "it takes a state maybe two or three years to kind of get into the rhythm of getting the quality applicants that you want. We're probably no different."