Gov. Jim Justice vowed in his State of the State address on Wednesday to bring a breath of new life to the Upper Kanawha Valley with the creation of a second branch of the Mountaineer Challenge Academy to be located in Montgomery.
“Let me switch channels again to the National Guard,” the governor said during his address.
“The National Guard and the Challenge Academy, stuff that they’re doing is off the chart. Now, they’ve graduated 4,663 kids. If you haven’t ever been, you need to go. It is amazing. It is truly absolutely amazing. …
“We have also now in working with the Guard and in working with our budget in every way, we've now found the dollars, without increasing our budget, we've now found the dollars to be able to start the Mountaineer Challenge Academy at Montgomery at West Virginia Tech,” Justice said.
In a Friday morning press release from the governor's office, it was announced the southern West Virginia version of the MCA will open in October of this year after the governor secured an additional $3.3 million in the budget for the proposal.
Del. Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha, who represents the Upper Kanawha Valley in the House of Delegates, told MetroNews Wednesday night that such a move would be a welcome one.
“We have dormitory space there,” he said. “BridgeValley (Community and Technical College) has done a good job of utilizing a number of the buildings. There is some sense that we’ll have some economic development in Montgomery. It’s very desperate there.”
That desperation first reared its head when West Virginia University announced in 2015 the move of WVU Tech to Beckley.
For 120 years, Montgomery boasted a school of higher education. From 1895 at its founding as the Montgomery Preparatory School until 2015 when the announcement was made regarding the move to Beckley, the college served as an economic and educational base for the Upper Kanawha Valley.
The school originally was a preparatory school for West Virginia University, but was separated from the university in 1917, eventually becoming an institution of higher learning among national leaders in the fields of engineering and printing.
Because of declining enrollment, the college once again came under the university’s purview in 1996 when it was named a regional campus of WVU.
UKV citizens and local lawmakers fought unsuccessfully against that move and later against the removal of Tech from Montgomery.
Since that time, BridgeValley Community & Technical College, which can trace its history to 1966 as the community college of West Virginia Institute of Technology, has taken control of some of the vacant buildings on what is still known to local residents as “the Tech campus.”
BridgeValley, now a stand-alone CTC with a second campus in South Charleston, uses the former Leonard C. Nelson Engineering Building and the Engineering Lab building, the Maintenance Building, Westmoreland Hall and recently was approved by the Board of Governors to move forward with plans to update and make use of Ratliff Hall, a former dormitory, according to Alicia Syner, special assistant to the president. BridgeValley’s original home base, which is in full use for offices and classrooms, is Davis Hall.
Other plans for the campus have fallen through.
In his 2017 State of the State address, the governor welcomed KVC Health Systems to the state and the Upper Kanawha Valley.
“There’s another group here, it’s called KVC Health Systems. And there is a CEO that’s a national CEO. His name is Jason Hooper. And let me tell you what they’re doing,” the governor said.
“They’re going to bring a college basically for foster kids to Montgomery. A place that really needs us, needs our jobs, needs hope. The great Gordon Gee of WVU has been terribly instrumental in this,” Justice said.
The campus, officially named “Riverbend, Center for Supporting Higher Education,” took over several of the former WVU Tech buildings in July 2017, but by March 2019 had abandoned its plans to develop the 118-acre campus.
“While KVC hoped to launch its pilot program on the former West Virginia University Institute of Technology (WVU Tech) campus in Montgomery, it has made the difficult decision to discontinue that effort,” officials announced in a press release at the time.
“Verbal support for the project is exceptionally high, however there is a need for greater public and private financial support to successfully launch the initiative. In good faith, KVC has maintained the property for more than a year, but capital improvements and repairs required on the campus have exacerbated the financial need for start-up.”
The same financial need will face the National Guard if the Legislature gives approval to the MCA location in Montgomery.
In the budget bill introduced on Jan. 8 as Senate Bill 150, a total of close to $5 million is requested for the MCA.
“From the above appropriation and other state and federal funding,” the bill states, “the Adjutant General shall provide an amount not less than $4,800,000 to the Mountaineer Challenge Academy to meet anticipated program demand.” In the Friday press release, it was announced that the "administration has secured $3.3 million, which the Governor will be including in his budget proposal, that would fund the establishment of a a second Mountaineer Challenge Academy (MCA) and Mountaineer Job Challenge Program (MJCP), utilizing part of the former WVU Tech campus in Montgomery."
Sen. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, who also represents the area, said Thursday that he was happy to hear the governor mention opening a new branch of the Mountaineer Challenge Academy. As a former Board of Education member, he’s had personal dealings with the academy and knows its worth.
“As a county Board of Ed member, we sent several young people to the Challenge Academy. For students who needed a high level of discipline or a new environment, it was very successful in setting them on a positive path,” he said.
According to its website, the academy, based at Camp Dawson in Kingwood, Preston County, focuses on eight core components with its cadets: academic excellence, life coping skills, job skills, health and hygiene, responsible citizenship, service to the community, leadership/followership and physical fitness.
In academic excellence, for example, classroom studies are designed “to enhance the cadet’s educational skills and instill a desire to continue self-improvement throughout their lifetime.” Studies include the five basic areas included on the high school equivalency certificate test: math, science, social studies, language arts and literature.
“So I support the Challenge Academy and am thrilled it looks like it will finally expand to Fayette County,” Baldwin said. “I’ve spoken with community leaders and National Guard leaders about such a move for two years. It was a matter of finding the money.
“Now, the Governor wants to provide that money so we thank him,” Baldwin said.
Baldwin stresses that the Legislature must approve the action, but said it’s also evident the need is real in the Upper Kanawha Valley for such a development.
“The UKV has received hit after hit from WVU leaving to government offices leaving to businesses having to close," Baldwin said. "This will help. It will bring a new employer to the region.
“Families will travel there every weekend to visit their students. The students will live and work in the community and perhaps find a place they want to call home. At minimum, they will find a place that helps set them on the right path, and they will want to give back.
“The National Guard also brings tremendous resources," Baldwin said. "I know they will find a warm community where they will want to be a part of good things. So I hope this is a positive development for the UKV and Montgomery for community pride, morale, employment and economic development."
According to a Friday morning press release, the southern MCA will be housed in Maclin Hall — which formerly housed the West Virginia Corrections Academy before it found a permanent home at Glenville State College — and the former Student Union building and will also make use of the former Neal Baisi Athletic Center, now the Upper Kanawha Valley YMCA.
An additional 85 staff members will be hired early this year to man the Montgomery MCA, the release stated.
In October 2020, the southern campus will welcome its first free and voluntary class for at-risk youth, ages 16-18, to train and mentor them to become contributing members of society in a quasi-military environment using the core components of academic excellence; physical fitness; leadership/followership; responsibility; citizenship; job skills; service to the community; health and hygiene; and life coping skills. The program length is 22 weeks in residence with a one-year post-residential follow-up program.
Additionally, graduates of the MCA southern campus will be able to earn their high school diploma from their home high school through the pathways option approved by the West Virginia Department of Education.
The newly established Department of Defense MJCP, which offers a follow-on 22-week program, will expand its current offering of specialized career and technical education to the southern campus as well. The program features three different trades with vocational or industry certification in health careers, manufacturing technology and pre-apprenticeship training for current and former MCA graduates.
“Since the inception of the Mountaineer Challenge Academy in West Virginia in 1993, this program has been changing the lives of at-risk youth in our state and it has served as a model of success around the Nation for states looking to implement the National Guard Challenge program,” Maj. Gen. James Hoyer, adjutant general of the West Virginia National Guard, said in the press release. “With the success of our current program at Camp Dawson and the need to accommodate more at-risk youth with each new class, it is only fitting that we expand this highly successful program as soon as possible.
“Myself and the entire leadership team in the West Virginia National Guard and at the Mountaineer Challenge Academy are thankful for the support of Governor Justice and our state leaders in the Legislature who have supported this expansion and, most importantly, the at-risk youth in West Virginia who will benefit greatly from a second location in southern West Virginia.”
According to the press release, the WVNG is currently assessing the facilities for any renovations required prior to occupancy for housing, classrooms, safety and security, and technology.
Since the program’s inception in 1993, more than 174,000 young people have completed the Challenge program nationwide, and 4,663 cadets have graduated in West Virginia at the current Camp Dawson campus, with 1,574 earning their high school diploma. This award-winning program has been recognized as one of the nation’s most effective and cost-efficient programs for targeting educationally at-risk youth.
The National Guard Youth Challenge Program currently operates 41 sites in 30 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. The program is both federally and state funded, and MCA and MCJP host two classes per year. More details can be found at www.ngchallenge.org and at www.wvchallenge.org.
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