More than 130 Maryland and Washington high school dropouts were given a second chance at a diploma, job training and a $2,200 stipend, but only 21 stuck with the five-month residential program administered by the Maryland National Guard at Aberdeen Proving Ground.
Ten of the teens met all requirements, passing the program and the high school diploma equivalency test, which qualified them for the money.
Operation Challenge, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Defense and implemented by the National Guard, combines community service and daily physical training with 200 hours of basic high school math, reading and writing classes taught by state-certified instructors.
The program, which is being tested in Maryland and nine other states, aims to have all participants pass a high school diploma ++ equivalency test.
Ronnie King, 16, graduated from the program Friday at a ceremony at APG. He passed the program and the equivalency test and received the top academic award, he said.
Ronnie, who dropped out of LaPlata High School in Charles County, has enrolled in flight school to train as a pilot.
"If I wasn't here, I would just be sitting at home, getting into trouble or working for minimum wage at McDonald's," he said.
His mother, Gail King, said she cried during the graduation ceremony. "I never thought I would hear 'Pomp and Circumstance' played and see my son at the same time."
While the young men and women were required to wear uniforms and adhere to a strict schedule, they are not compelled to join the military.
Students, who are 16 to 18 years old, are also free to leave at any time -- and most of them did, said Vernon A. Sevier, a retired National Guard colonel who is deputy director of the program.
"We had 15 leave after their first day. The attrition rate was horrendous," he said.
Although 134 students were accepted into the program, he said, there were never more than 90 students at one time.
"Our biggest mistake was in allowing students to sign up as much as two weeks after the starting date," he said.
That created a problem because some students were trying to catch up academically while others received conflicting information from their peers about the program.
Mr. Sevier said some students left because the program was too hard, they missed their friends or couldn't accept the discipline.
Some of the students, who received a weekly allowance of $15, left as soon as they passed the equivalency test. Others left because they were afraid of other students, he said.
"We had some real troublemakers here, kids who got into fights, who got angry and punched their fists through walls," he said.
Donte Jones, 17, said he was careful to stay out of trouble because he did not want to be expelled. Last year, he dropped out of high school in Anne Arundel County and was failing at
Lake Clifton High in East Baltimore.
"I needed this. I just tried to believe that I could do it," he said.
Donte, standing straight in his uniform of blue pants and gray shirt, said this is the first time that he has made plans for the future.
"I'm going to go to Howard Community College and join the Marines. They'll pay half my tuition, which means I can attend Howard University and get a business degree," he said.
Donte said he's going to save his money to buy a franchise. "I'd like to buy a McDonald's -- everyone has to eat," he said.
Not all students were as determined.
Three students were ousted from the program after they left APG without permission and then failed a drug test.
"We made it clear from the beginning of the program that we would not tolerate any drug use," said James N. Reeb II, company commander of Operation Challenge in Maryland and a chief warrant officer in the National Guard.
Mr. Reeb said he is going to make future programs even tougher.
"We are going to establish from the beginning who is in charge and what is expected of the students," he said. Mr. Reeb said there would be more one-on-one counseling, a strict morning-to-evening schedule, tougher discipline and more exercise.
"Those kids should be exhausted at the end of every day," he said.
Mr. Sevier said the National Guard has changed its screening process for the next group of students. He said teen-agers who are violent, have emotional problems or read below seventh-grade level will not be accepted.
"We were in such a rush to get started that we accepted just about anyone who came along," Mr. Sevier said.
He said the National Guard is also setting up regional selection committees around the state and in Washington. Students must be evaluated by a committee, which will include high school principals, before they can be accepted into the program, Mr. Sevier said.
Dorothy Hopkins said she prays the committee will accept Martha, her 16-year-old daughter.
"This could change her life," Ms. Hopkins said, noting that her daughter, who has a 2-year-old child, has almost given up hope of finding a job or getting more education.