Guernsey military academy closure draws concern
September 22, 2022
CHEYENNE – The unexpected closure of a military-like academy for Wyoming high schoolers in Guernsey drew concern and sadness, sentiments that were universally expressed among all of the stakeholders who reacted to the closure.
Some thought the news emerged in a disorganized fashion.
Parents can pick up their kids, as in-person teaching is winding down this month. The youth can go to other states’ similar programs, or they can participate remotely in academics, through their current term that lasts a few more months.
“I think most of the parents will agree that they need to go to one of these programs” in other states, including Nevada, said U.S. Army Brig. Gen. David Pritchett of the current crop of cadets. “We want to make sure that the cadets maintain their academic goals,” even after the residential portion closes, Pritchett, who helps to oversee WCCA, among other duties, said later in the interview. “Right now, it’s just a very rapidly evolving situation.”
On Wednesday night, following the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s inquiries, the Wyoming Military Department confirmed the Wyoming Cowboy Challenge Academy would shut down – at least for now.
In the news release and in Thursday interviews, officials cited difficulties staffing WCCA, even with an infusion of help by way of military volunteers. The academy could reopen, perhaps in 2025, and in a more urban area of the state and in other facilities that could be repurposed for WCCA.
In interviews and email exchanges, all stakeholders agreed the academy was a big help to the thousand-plus cadets it educated over close to two decades. They said it assisted the teenagers, some from fraught family situations and who struggled in traditional high schools, with completing their high school education.
The regimentation the attendees aged 16-18 found at WCCA was said to have gotten them on the right track, and they learned life and other skills, too.
Among the many things that are taught during the approximately five-and-a-half-month residential portion of the program are skills participants need to hold a job, along with what Sen. Stephan Pappas, R-Cheyenne, described as life and coping skills. Hygiene, health and physical fitness are also taught, along with leadership, added Pappas.
He said WCCA has taught what is known as “cowboy ethics,” an ethos that stresses personal action and responsibility.
The lawmaker, who is a retired brigadier general, was previously a mentor to a WCCA attendee whose family he knew. When he was commander of the Wyoming Air Guard, he got to know the program firsthand.
“It really is a boon to the nontraditional type of student who has had some type of issues in their lives,” Pappas said. “At the time we stood it up, it was difficult finding staff to go to a location like Guernsey and live there. If it was in another location, Cheyenne or Casper or some other location, it might not be so bad to be able to attract folks.”
Other officials made similar statements.
Although Pritchett said it’s way too soon to make any concrete predictions, he, too, mentioned hypothetically Cheyenne and Casper as the type of places where WCCA might be able to draw a sufficient number of staff.
“I am very sad to see that we had to curtail it for a little while,” Pappas said of the program. “I have seen it change these kids’ lives.”
He recalled of cadets that “they gain confidence, they look you in the eye, it changes their lives” afterward.
Other legislators also want to see WCCA reopen. They voiced hope it may eventually be possible. They noted that funding wasn’t the problem; finding employees who were a good match and would stay was the hurdle.
Amy Behrens is among the fans of WCCA who reacted to its post on its Facebook page Thursday announcing the closure. She said her son attended in 2020, graduating late because the class was paused during the initial phase of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although the WTE found Behrens based on her Facebook comments, additional parents, mentors and others themselves reached out to express their dismay about the new development.
“I have recommended it multiple times because I do not know where he would be now” without it, Behrens said of her son, speaking by phone. “He would not have a high school diploma now, I guarantee that.”
Although the family lives in Geneva, Nebraska, they sent their child to Guernsey.
He enjoyed the program and benefited from the mentorship that followed, Behrens recalled.
Officials said such mentorship includes several substantive conversations over the course of the roughly yearlong mentoring period. Behrens said her son’s mentor would call, as would others from WCCA, and he keeps in touch with fellow cadets. Her son has since moved out of the family home and supports himself by working full time, she said.
“I was so shocked” at the news of the impending wind-down, Behrens said. “I know the whole world is feeling short staffed.”
Still, she continued, “it just blows my mind that they are going to take that away.”
If the academy is “going to close, that’s fine, but just finish out” the current cadet residential program term, she said.
The chairs of the Legislature’s committees dealing with military affairs said they were concerned by the shutdown, in statements responding to the WTE’s query.
Sen. Bill Landen, R-Casper, wrote that his “main concern is for the cadets and their families. I have been assured that the Military Department is doing everything they can on that front.”
WCCA “has served us well and provided a lifeline for students in need of a second chance or simply need a more structured environment,” he continued. “It is important, from a policy standpoint, that we visit about what it will take to stand the academy back up.”
Rep. Don Burkhart, R-Rawlins, said the closure “is a matter of serious concern to me.The safety and security of the cadets is the main concern, and that requires adequate staffing levels. The Wyoming Military Department is working on resolving the staffing issues and hopefully the Academy can reopen in the future.”
This story was published on Sept. 17, 2022.