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Shock, anger felt after sudden closure of Wyoming Cowboy Challenge Academy

Cadets line up in a photo posted on social media by the Wyoming Cowboy Challenge Academy in Guernsey. The Wyoming Military Department, which operates the alternative education facility, announced this week that the school will close immediately due to staffing issues. (Wyoming Military Department via Facebook)

CASPER, Wyo. — Candice Stevens spent years looking for the right education solutions for her son, Brekken Stevens, who is now 16. 

“He has ADHD and has a hard time focusing,” she said. He also started falling into the wrong crowds, even after switching schools and trying different youth programs. 

Out of options, Candice decided earlier this year to try the Wyoming Cowboy Challenge Academy in Guernsey, a program run by the Wyoming National Guard that — in their words — provides “a safe, disciplined and professional learning environment that empowers non-traditional learners.” 

“It was working,” said Candice. “I saw photos of my child that looked like he had self-confidence and self-esteem and pride … a smile that I haven’t seen in years.” 

On Wednesday, Candice received a phone call from the academy that immediately erased the hope and relief she was feeling. 

“She said the Wyoming Cowboy Challenge Program was being shut down immediately.”

This Saturday, instead of going to Guernsey for a previously planned family visit to see Brekken, Candice will instead pack him and his belongings into her vehicle and bring him back to Casper, with no immediate options in sight. 

He’s two months into a six-month program that would have culminated with a GED, Candice said. “We didn’t feel like putting him back in traditional school considering he had such a hard time, so my biggest questions are how are we going to address these changes?

“It’s nerve-wracking and there’s a lot of anxiety. We know that he’s not ready to come home, we’ve started seeing major improvements in just the last three or four weeks that I haven’t seen in any other type of program he’s been through in the last four or five years,” she said. 

Students from the Wyoming Cowboy Challenge Academy bow heads during opening prayer at the annual Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Wyoming fundraising breakfast on Wednesday, Sept. 14. The students and staff were informed later that day that the program would be shuttered effective this week. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City News)

Wyoming Military Department public affairs director Alyssa Hinckley said in a phone interview with Oil City News that closing the academy was simply the result of chronic staffing shortages. 

“It was an unfortunate decision, and a really tough one for us to make,” she said. 

Hinckley said the management staff who keep watch over the cadets 24/7 has suffered a 66% turnover rate on average annually. “So it’s just really difficult for that particular position to maintain and build, and that’s a crucial part of the program,” she said, adding that several factors play into the difficulty of recruiting for those roles, including location, pay and the job description itself. 

She couldn’t say whether recent state budget cuts had had any effect on staffing, but she did say that shortages were chronic enough to drive the closure before finishing the year. “We just don’t have the staff to maintain the next 10 weeks,” she said. 

According to WyoFile, the program faced an uncertain future as the state looked for areas to trim the budget in 2021. However, the governor’s office lays the blame on staffing challenges.

In an email to Oil City News, Gov. Mark Gordon’s communications director, Michael Pearlman, said the “decision to close the program was not made lightly, and made in consultation with Governor Gordon.” 

“It is directly related to the inability to staff the Wyoming Challenge Academy in order to ensure a safe environment [for] the cadets that attend,” he continued. “The health and safety of those cadets and staff are the Governor’s number-one priority.”

Pearlman said the Guard has been dealing with staffing challenges “for some time,” and that any decision to reopen the academy would have to be done with the Wyoming Legislature. 

In a press release issued on Thursday afternoon, the Wyoming Military Department said cadets will be able to finish the program’s academic studies remotely.

“The cadets are already enrolled in the remote learning portal and teachers will remain on staff to assist the cadets,” said the release. “The Wyoming Military Department will further provide Chromebook laptops for the cadets that need an internet capable device.”

Candice, meanwhile, says the sudden closure leaves her and other parents and teens with few options in Wyoming.

“Wyoming has very [few] resources for troubled youth, and to shut down basically the only one where they have a chance at redirecting their lives is just incredibly disheartening.

“To me, this feels like it’s yet another program that has failed him, along with 61 other cadets.”

“Some kids don’t have places to go, they’re going to end up right back in the system,” she said. “That is not fair.”