A leap of faith: From high school dropouts to cadets

This is the second in a series of reports on the Youth ChalleNGe Academy program and the cadets trying to turn their lives around. CBS News will follow their progress, giving frequent updates through December. The first segment: National Guard program puts dropouts on a new track.


LOS ALAMITOS, Calif. - Seventeen-year-old Adjekai Stewart had been standing on the platform for ten minutes.

"I can't do it," she yelled. "I can't reach the pole!"

Donning a climbing helmet, and supported by a harness, she'd climbed three stories high, to leap to a cross bar a few feet away. It was part of an exercise to build trust and self-esteem -- and it was one of the reasons Stewart came to Sunburst Youth Academy, a quasi-military high school 30 miles south of Los Angeles. Sunburst is one of 35 such "Youth ChalleNGe Academies" in 29 states run by the National Guard. The military-style programs are aimed at getting high school dropouts back on track.

"Come on Stewart!" yelled Staff Sgt. Timothy Edwards, an instructor at the program. "You can do it!"

"I can't," she responded. Her hesitation mirrored her hesitation in life.

"I allowed my own self confidence to influence me -- drugs, alcohol abuse to take over my life," Stewart later told CBS News. "I made a brash decision to try to end my life ... So that was kind of the turning point where it could go anywhere."

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Seventeen-year-old Adjekai Stewart takes a leap of faith at Sunburst Youth Academy's confidence course.
CBS News

But on the platform, so many feet above the ground, she took a leap of faith. And made it.

"Wooo, you did it!!"

The tears suggested she gained much more than confidence as she was lowered to the ground.

But it wasn't just about one person. For all of the kids on the confidence course, it was about the value of teamwork, of someone believing in you. And for Parker Corker, it was about discovering why his life went wrong.

"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," Coker said.

When 17-year-old Marissa Stowe arrived at Sunburst, she lagged behind her classmates in drive and focus. She's also a year behind in school.

But it didn't take long after she started the program in July for that to begin changing.

"When I got my first A, and then I got another A+ and I'm like, I usually get F's in school," she said. "I used to just sleep in class."

The first two weeks at Sunburst end in what's called a Red Phase Ceremony. It marks a turning point in the program. The students are now called cadets. They've replaced the black t-shirts and gray sweat shorts with firmly pressed uniforms and spit-shined boots.

The 54-cadet Platoons are also given monikers like Wolfpack and Panthers. The chants soon follow: "Who are we - Wolfpack!" "Hip hop lollipop, let me hear my Panthers rock! Raaaargh!"

Like all the cadets at Sunburst during the residential phase, which ends in December, Edward Tucker has had to dig deep to keep going. He said he used to let his gang-member friends motivate him, now he looks to someone else.

"I have a picture of my younger brother, two years old, and I want to better myself so he won't go down the path I went down," Tucker said. "I want him to be better than what I was."

  • 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.