One by one, 16-year-old Lacey Martin placed her white T-shirts on the table. "Ma’am one ma’am, ma’am two ma’am, ma’am three ma’am," the Apache Junction girl said as she counted her trash bag of clothes for a stern-faced woman in camouflage gear.
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Her mom watched from the back of the room — lips quivering and mascara-stained tears creeping down her cheeks.
With her sandy blond hair pulled into a bun and shirt tucked neatly into cuffed jeans, Lacey looked like all the other girls checking in Sunday to the high school dropout program in Queen Creek.
But something caught her mother’s eye.
"Look," her mom said. "She’s standing up straight."
Kaye Martin hadn’t seen her petite daughter do that in months. She saw her spiral from a girl who loved basketball and thrived in academics to one who sneaked out to get high and was kicked out of school.
It was time for a change, so Martin enrolled Lacey in the Arizona Project Youth ChalleNGe program along with 148 other boys and girls looking for confidence, discipline and a chance to earn a GED.
The 22-week voluntary program, funded through the National Guard, has moved more than 1,000 struggling 16- to 18-year-olds into college, vocational school and the work force.
"She is a great girl, but we lost her for a while," said Lacey’s aunt, Glenda Serdy. "I just want her to be happy and respect herself."
For about six months, Lacey will wake up at 4:30 every morning and go to bed at 8:30 every night. She will attend classes eight hours a day, learn to balance a checkbook, maintain her health and even invest in the stock market.
The results, program officials say, are unbelievable.
"We don’t move the bar on them like school does sometimes," said Col. Charles McCarty, who runs the program. "Here, they always know where they stand and we set up a true plan for each day so they can plan their lives."
According to McCarty, 80 percent of students enrolled in the program earn their general equivalency diploma and 67 percent move on to higher education and careers.
Elena Popoca, 17, of Chandler, plans to be a lawyer someday. She joined the program to learn discipline and go to school in an organized classroom environment.
Daniel McIntyre, 16, of Mesa, is interested in computers and joined the program for discipline and an alternative to repeating his freshman year.
"There are some students that will just never get a GED," McCarty said, "but our goal is to make them productive members of society instead of a burden on the taxpayers."
The program, which came to Arizona in 1993, saves about $109 million nationally in juvenile corrections each year, according to organizers. It started during the Reagan administration to cut down youth incarceration, and operates in 29 states and Puerto Rico.
"It’s not a boot camp," said Don Smith, operations officer, "but it is run in a military academy style."
That style was particularly evident as 16-year-old Michael Carlton II of Scottsdale had his locks buzzed off while yelling platoon leaders circled the barracks.
"My favorite thing is when I see that little light bulb go on in their heads," McCarty said. "That spark that says, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve got it.’ "
For Lacey Martin, the lightbulb is already there. It just went out for a while.
"She’s smart and she has big dreams," Lacey’s aunt said. "We just need to get them back."
Arizona Project Youth ChalleNGe is raffling a $400,000 house and other prizes to fund a $5.5 million expansion at the 20395 S. Rittenhouse Road campus. The money will be used to build a dining hall, classrooms, basketball courts and a wellness center. Tickets are $100 each. To buy, visit www.WinThisHomeAZ.com or call the Arizona Project ChalleNGe Foundation at (602) 250-2042.
Statistics in Arizona
• About 27,268 students dropped out of school in the 2003-04 school year (5.8 percent of all students).
• 68 percent of prison populations are high school dropouts
• 1 in 4 babies are born to high school dropouts
• 24 percent of high school dropouts are on welfare
• 20 percent of children enrolled in the program are taken off federal assistance
• 98 percent of program graduates register to vote
• Program graduates joining the work force generate a $26 million-$39 million increase in the tax revenue base. Source: Arizona Project Youth ChalleNGe