History & Mission

In 1999, the Montana National Guard established the Montana Youth Challenge Academy (MYCA)  on the campus of the University of Montana Western as an intervention program to reclaim the lives of Montana teens who had dropped out of high school or who were not on track to graduate. The term "at-risk", for our purposes, refers to the risk of not graduating high school. We are well aware of the negative life outcomes that are associated with this risk: poverty, incarceration, and early death are among them. It is because the stakes are so high that the Department of Defense invested in the Challenge model of youth development and community outreach.  

MYCA is one of more than 40 programs in 28 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. All Youth Challenge Programs help at-risk youth earn their high school diploma, an equivalency, or credit recovery toward graduation.

The Academy incorporates best practices in positive youth development from a combination of educational and military models. Staff leverage high-quality and trusting relationships with program participants, their parents and guardians, and a vast network of MYCA supporters to achieve success. Challenge continues to work with program participants for one year after they graduate from the residential phase to help them enroll in college, trade school, start a career, or join the military. 

To date, the Academy has graduated over 3,900 cadets from across the State of Montana!


Our vision is to be the preferred alternative education setting for promoting the success of youth, between the ages of 16 to 18 years old, in the State of Montana. We will fulfill this vision by continuing to demonstrate our commitment to the youth we serve, and their families, with mastery of the quasi-military training model a proven delivery method.

Program Overview

The Montana Youth Challenge Academy is a preventive program designed to improve life outcomes for its participants

Applicants must be voluntary, meet the necessary age requirements, and either dropped out of school or not satisfactorily progressing, unemployed or under employed, drug-free, and crime-free.

It is the only program of its kind to provide graduates with a personal mentor for one year to help the transition into adulthood. 

Challenge empowers participants, whom we call cadets, to embrace responsibility, achievement and positive behavior. It instills self-confidence, fosters ambition and increases opportunities through job skills training, service to the community, and leadership.

A multi-year study by RAND Corporation, on behalf of the Department of Defense, has found that the program participants achieve impressive results in educational attainment and employment. Key findings of that study include: GED or high school diploma attainment increased by 29%; college attendance increased by 86%; annual earnings increased by 20%.

According to RAND's cost-benefit analysis, every government dollar invested in Youth Challenge Programs yields $2.66 in benefits – a return on investment of 166%. This return is substantially higher than other rigorously evaluated social programs that target disadvantaged youth. Youth Challenge is unmatched in its effectiveness in helping young people prepare for the future.


The two-week Acclimation Period orients candidates to the Challenge program environment by allowing them to adjust to the physical, mental and social discipline required to successfully complete the program. The focus is on teamwork, close quarter drill, code of conduct, leadership and followership, and building a foundation for greater physical fitness

Candidates relinquish personal items, receive haircuts, and exchange their street clothes for uniforms. Meanwhile, they begin to exchange old ideas about their personal potential for new possibilities

During the Acclimation Period, staff members continually assess each candidate’s potential for success in the Residential Phase. 

Residential phase

At the end of the Acclimation Period, motivated candidates are selected to enroll in Challenge and become cadets. Historically, the majority of the selected cadets will go on to successfully complete the Residential Phase

During the next five months of the Residential Phase, cadets are fully immersed in a quasi-military training environment which emphasizes discipline, consistency, and structure. 

Cadets also develop their social, emotional, and academic skills through the ambitious daily training schedule. Cadets complete the Residential Phase with the skills and values necessary for their successful transition and integration into adult society. 


Mentors, who have been nominated by the cadets, begin to establish constructive relationships with cadets midway through the Residential Phase. The mentors help support the cadets during the remainder of the Residential Phase and help them prepare to re-enter community life. Mentors continue their responsibilities throughout the 12-month Post-Residential Phase.

Post-Residential Phase

The Post-Residential Phase begins when graduates leave the Challenge Academy and return to their communities. MYCA graduates go on to one of the following "placements": high school completion, higher education, employment, military enlistment, or volunteering at least 30 hours a week

The goal of the Post-Residential Phase is for graduates to sustain and build on the gains made during the Residential Phase, and to apply the new skills they have learned to their home environment. Mentors, who have been matched with cadets during the Residential Phase, play a critical role in ensuring their continued success.