CHEYENNE — A quasi-military academy in Guernsey is closing and may not soon reopen, officials indicated Thursday. Officials with the Wyoming National Guard will look to move the facility elsewhere in the state, with the goal of possibly reopening in a few years.
According to a two-page news release emailed Wednesday evening by the Wyoming Military Department after the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s inquiries, the Wyoming Cowboy Challenge Academy “will shut down for an indefinite amount of time based on the inability to recruit and retain staff.” The release said “shutdown procedures are underway” and indicated the organization has operated for almost 20 years.
It was so difficult to hire civilians to work at the academy, the government has been using several members of the military who stepped forward to work at the facility. Even with their help, it still was a few people short of having all of the allocated staff. The positions of the almost 40 current civilian employees are fully funded through this year, and after that, they may need to look for work elsewhere, officials told the WTE Thursday.
Most immediately, the closure will affect the current cadet class of about 60 participants, who are 16 to 18 years old. Those students can choose to go to other states’ similar academies, they can continue their studies remotely once the Wyoming Cowboy Challenge Academy ceases in-person learning at month’s end, or they can simply go back home on Oct. 1. This is according to U.S. Army Brig. Gen. David Pritchett, who helps to oversee the academy, among other duties, as director of the Wyoming Military Department’s joint staff.
“The first piece of this is we are trying to place all these cadets” at other academies, Pritchett said by phone. And then officials will assess “when can we, with some degree of confidence, start the program back” up, he added. “We can’t sustain it here, so we are not going to come back in two years and try to do it here.”
Those who might have applied to the program for future sessions — there were two, five-and-a-half month classes held annually — can instead go to other states’ programs. There is a special arrangement with Nevada’s academy, so that Wyomingites aren’t completely left in the lurch.
Filled a Gap
Politicians and other stakeholders, who shared their reaction to the news, said they are sad the facility will close. The academy’s Facebook page also saw an outpouring of disappointment over the action.
“The decision to close the Wyoming Challenge Academy was not made lightly, and (was) made in consultation with” Gov. Mark Gordon, his spokesman, Michael Pearlman, wrote in an email to the WTE. “It is directly related to the inability to staff the facility in a manner that ensures a safe environment for the cadets that attend. The health and safety of those cadets and its staff are the governor’s number one priority.” Pearlman said “staff attrition that occurred since the current cohort of cadets started has exacerbated a challenging staffing situation.”
Stakeholders all agreed the Wyoming Cowboy Challenge Academy met an important need to provide a different kind of education to teenagers who experienced difficulties at home and/or at traditional high schools. They said that given its remote location and the difficulty employers here and across the U.S. are experiencing in being fully staffed, continuing to operate with fill-in military employees was not a viable long-term option.
“We will likely look at where (there) are some larger areas, if you will, that have a little bit more of a talent base to draw from,” Pritchett predicted. He said it’s possible the new location could be at a mothballed school, which would then be retrofit with barracks and dining and other facilities.
Such a search process could start soon, and might take a few years. Hopefully, everything could be in place in time to have a class of cadets who would start in July 2025, the officer said. “I think that is a realistic timeline.”
The federal government paid the bulk of the cost for Wyoming Cowboy Challenge Academy, officials said. For 2022 and 2023, there was $5.2 million budgeted from the feds, with another $2.3 million from the state, Pritchett said.
According to the announcement of the closure, the current cadet class has almost 60 members, and almost 1,500 have graduated from the program through the years.
“We understand the hardship this places on families and cadets, but we simply cannot sustain our current program, given our staffing issues,” said Maj. Gen. Gregory Porter, the adjutant general of the Wyoming National Guard, in the prepared statement. “We are committed to helping the cadets achieve their educational and individual goals, and will work with them to find alternate means to meet them.”
Following the residential academy, there is a year-long “mentorship program, designed to provide structure, instill discipline, and help young men and women recognize and achieve their potential in a quasi-military training environment,” the release said. “All cadets volunteer to take part in the program.” The goal is for “nontraditional learners” to “improve their educational level and employment potential and become responsible productive citizens of” Wyoming.
The mentorship meant adult volunteers would check in with their mentees, according to those who have been involved with the process. They credited the program with helping participants get their necessary high school credits or certificate, so they could either go on to community or other colleges or enter the workforce.
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