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5 1/2 months for a second chance? Troubled SoCal teens choose a military-style school

“Never be defined by your past. It was a lesson, not a life sentence.”

– Sunburst Youth Academy quote of the day

Author unknown

Victor Rodriguez’s shot at redemption was first spotted on a discarded flyer on the restroom floor of his high school. With white block letters and folded neatly in thirds, the Sunburst Youth Academy pamphlet read, “Your Best Chance at a Second Chance.”

Rodriguez was skipping fourth-period history at Montclair High School. Although the flyer caught his eye, he didn’t pick it up from the floor.

“Eww, that’s just gross,” he said.

A period later, 18-year-old Rodriguez was called into the dean’s office to discuss his grades. Except for an A in math, he was failing everything. When the dean asked what his plans were for the future, he had no answer. He did know he felt isolated and like a failure. He was estranged from his family, flunking school, stoned on drugs much of the time, working at a fast-food joint and scraping together $500 a month to live in a room at his friend’s parents’ house.

There on the wall in the dean’s office was that pamphlet again. He asked to see it.




He read about a program that offered struggling students like him a government-funded chance to get back on track. Sunburst Youth Academy, which operates at the Joint Forces Training Base in Los Alamitos, pulls approximately 200 kids per session from six surrounding counties. It requires students to make a choice that takes them away from family, friends and even their phones for nearly half a year – but can drastically improve their futures.

More than 85% of those who make that choice and its accompanying commitments finish Sunburst.

U.S. Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-El Monte, of California’s 31st Congressional District is founder and co-chair of the bipartisan Congressional Youth Challenge Caucus. She calls the program “California’s best-kept secret,” because it is promoted mainly through word of mouth.

“For every child, there’s probably five or 10 more who need this. They are falling through the cracks.”

Victor Rodriguez was falling, but he grabbed onto the opportunity in front of him.

‘I kept failing’

Rodriguez hadn’t always been a stoner with no prospects. He started out in a two-parent home. “I was happy” and doing well in school, he said.

But then his father was deported to Mexico when he was in first grade and the family, lacking structure, started to crumble.

The little boy eventually decided he would become a father figure to his three younger sisters.

“No matter how much I tried, I kept failing,” he said.

His mother found a new partner and had two more kids. Again, his role and sense of purpose in the family shifted.

Then in middle school, he saw a plate of brownies on a table at a relative’s home. He ate one, not knowing the food was baked with marijuana. All he knew was that he felt weird and hungry, so he ate the rest.

“I was always told to say no to drugs if they were offered to me,” he said. “But no one ever explained what they looked like.”

Eventually, he learned through an anti-drug campaign at school that foods could be infused with marijuana. He asked his friends to buy some edibles for him so he could see if they gave him that same weird feeling. This sucked him into a cycle of drug abuse he thought he’d never escape.

But after meeting with the dean and reading the pamphlet about Sunburst, Rodriguez finally felt some hope.

The next day he called the academy, which is part of the National Guard Youth Challenge Program, a Department of Defense initiative. Rodriguez talked to Outreach, Admissions and Recruiting supervisor and Army veteran Sgt. Robert Stevens with the California State Guard. He was told to come in for orientation.

Through the help of friends, Rodriguez was able to book an Uber from his home in Montclair to Los Alamitos, arriving with a change of clothes and skateboard in his backpack. He was excited to learn the program was not a boot camp like he assumed, but a leadership academy offering an opportunity to catch up on high school credits.

He felt upbeat and wanted “to go explore the town and be all happy.” But his plans for transportation into town – and home to Montclair – fell through.

Not someone who was used to asking for or receiving help, he Googled, “How to walk back home.”

He skateboarded most of the 45 miles and arrived home the next day.

But his determination couldn’t stop there if he wanted to be accepted into the fall session. He needed to attend multiple meetings, or “roll calls,” and supply documents he didn’t even know existed – like a birth certificate, Social Security card and California Real ID.

Rodriguez was one of the last people to apply, and with a waiting list of kids, Stevens gave him a list of enrollment tasks and clear instructions: “If you delay, even by one day, there’s no way you’re going to get in.”

Rodriguez made every deadline.

Last hopes and second chances

The line of last hopes and second chances formed on the sun-drenched asphalt of a World War II-era naval air station at the Los Alamitos training base.

A tedious three-month application process of paperwork, interviews and orientation ended in late July at intake stations for Rodriguez and 207 Southern California families with academically struggling kids.

“They have to jump through hoops to be here,” said Sunburst Youth Academy recruiter and Air Force Staff Sgt. Crystal Housman. “Parents don’t make them come. They have to want to come.”

The teens made their commitments based on a range of hopes and expectations. Many believed education was the key to a brighter future. Others had abused drugs and alcohol, had become involved in gangs or had fallen behind in school because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and were determined not to let those issues derail their success any longer. They surrendered everything familiar and entered the quasi-military 5 1/2-month residential program to help them catch up or graduate from high school.

“We take their phones away. We take their internet away. We take their TVs away. We take their friends away. We take their girlfriends (and boyfriends) away. So it’s a lot,” said then-Sgt. 1st Class Justin Harman, with the California State Guard. He since has been promoted to 1st sergeant.

Sunburst, however, is not for everyone and not everyone is a fan.

Some online reviews argue that the program is too selective in its application process, excluding kids who have had certain mental health conditions. Others complain that the program pushes kids too hard and treats them rudely or unfairly. Still, others say the staff is not strict enough and tolerates fighting, or that the program exposes cadets to gang members.

Harman agreed that the academy is not for students with severe mental health issues. “We’re not a mental hospital,” he said. “Some kids come to us who have too many issues that we can’t really help.”

The academy has “a pretty solid zero-tolerance policy for assault,” said Harman, who is certified by the Crisis Prevention Institute in de-escalation techniques.

Since Sunburst’s inception 16 years ago, 5,754 students have been admitted and 4,929 have made it to graduation, Housman said, “a lifetime retention average of 85.66%”

Harman said most of the attrition stems from cadets who drop out because of homesickness or are expelled for fighting.

Each incident of violence is documented and reports are provided to parents who request them. Some cases of shoving may result in discipline but not expulsion, Harman said.

More than 50 cameras watch over every part of the facility, except inside the bathrooms and shower areas, he said. “We are totally transparent.”

Military approach to domestic problems

The National Guard Youth Challenge Program was born in the wake of the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. As policymakers saw a foreign threat fading away, they looked for ways to divert military resources to domestic problems – such as drugs, poverty, unemployment and dropout rates.

Congress approved the program as part of the National Defense Authorization Act of 1993. Ten states, including California, rolled out pilot programs.

Now in 28 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, the program just celebrated its 30th year. California has three Challenge sites: Grizzly, in San Luis Obispo; Discovery, in Lathrop; and Sunburst, in Los Alamitos. A fourth site is proposed for Riverside.

The program is free to 15 1/2-to-18-year-olds who are behind in high school credits. They must be legal residents of the state and have no felonies.

Funded 75 percent by the Department of Defense and 25 percent by the state of California, Sunburst partners with the Orange County Department of Education to help students earn up to a year’s worth of credits in less than six months.

After all other educational options have been exhausted, “Sunburst is that safety net program at the bottom” for parents seeking help with their children, Principal Dinah Ismail said.

“You have to have tried a lot of things before you’re driving onto a military base with one duffle bag and your baby in the backseat of your car.”

Amid a sea of nervous faces on that hot July day, Anaheim parents Stephanie and Junior Rangel were at wit’s end. Their 16-year-old daughter Jazmin started demonstrating adversarial behavior in seventh grade, they said. She had been “testing the limits, messing around with drugs, and getting almost all Fs.” They had tried every program out there.

“She’s very smart,” Junior Rangel said of the former A and B student.

He learned of Sunburst through a co-worker whose daughter successfully completed the program and graduated from college. “We were so scared Jazmin would not agree to come,” said Junior Rangel, a surgical technician at Children’s Hospital of Orange County. Stephanie Rangel also works for CHOC as a clerical assistant.

Unlike much of Sunburst’s demographic, Jazmin is from a comfortable middle-class home, her father said.

“We were married before she was born. We live in a good school district. We have a great and big family with a solid foundation and support.” And yet, “This is our only resource left,” Junior said with worry.

In a few minutes, after his youngest daughter finished checking in, the California National Guard would become her legal guardian for the next 5 1/2 months.



‘All you have to do is breathe’

The lights flicked on and the yelling began. Booming voices cut through the 5 a.m. darkness as 52 boys in the Bruins platoon were startled awake.

“Toe the line!” Harman yelled, a demand to stand at the foot of their beds.

The acclamation process known as “Shark Attack” had begun and candidates seemed overwhelmed with confusion and fear. The Chargers, the Wolfpack and the all-girls Firehawks platoons were also being initiated in their dormitories, or bays.

“Put your socks on! Let’s go!” yelled another voice.

The rectangular room was teeming with military cadre, the officers responsible for training the units. Their voices, a cacophony of seemingly endless demands, served a purpose: to get students to start paying attention to detailed instructions.

“Secure a pair of running shoes!” Harman continued. “5, 4, 3, 2, 1. I said secure. I did not say put them on!”

While some candidates followed along correctly, as a group they failed.

“We work as a team,” they were told. “When one person messes up, everybody’s gonna pay.”

And with each mistake, the bleary-eyed teens would be given “Corrective Action through Physical Exercise,” or colloquially, they’d be CAPE’ed.

“Squats. Let’s go! Down up. Down up!” The orders reverberated throughout the bay as if being played through a surround-sound speaker.

“Most kids are craving discipline and structure,” Harman said.

The boot camp introduction continued outside and under the incandescent lights of the courtyard. There Timothy Edwards, the senior platoon sergeant, introduced himself.

“I’m Master Sgt. Edwards, and I am good at what I do,” he told the four platoons totaling 210 kids. (The Academy is budgeted for 190 students but admits more knowing not everyone will make it through.)

“If no one believed in you, you have that opportunity right now,” he said. “You must stay motivated.”

“I’m going to give you food, water, shelter, clothing. Everything you need,” he told them.  “All you have to do is breathe.”

The Army veteran, who has been with Sunburst since it opened in 2007, punctuated his statements with, “Do you understand?”

And the candidates replied in unison, “Yes, master sergeant!”

If they hadn’t figured it out by now, they’d soon learn that when the No. 3 guy on the military side of the Sunburst operation loudly announced “I’m in the house!” they’d better be on their best behavior.

“Many kids have had no fear of an authority figure,” he said. “I establish this on that first day. I’m a stern father figure.”

Edwards would also offer praise when a cadet earned it. “Outstanding job,” he’d say.

“This motivates them and it’s not empty words.”


As the morning sun painted a pastel sky, Cedric Ige leaned over a garbage pail vomiting. The 17-year-old from Los Angeles had partied hard before arriving. On top of that, he said he was addicted to opiates and marijuana.

Soon he tired of the rules and the regimentation and decided to run away.

“I am so over this,” he thought, as he jumped over a barbed-wire fence.

Then he imagined the disappointment this would cause the people he cared about. “So I jumped back in,” Ige said.

Edwards called this the “buy-in” – when kids realize there’s something in it for themselves.

“I would be throwing up or to the point of passing out almost every workout,” Ige recalled. “I had dreams about drugs almost every day for two months.”

Although Harman acknowledges that some kids come in detoxing, he said, “We are not a detox facility. Sometimes it just happens. They drink a lot of water and eat a lot of clean foods.”

The scrappy teen would power through. Ige joined the run club and the Raiders, a team of elite cadets who competed against high school JROTC teams in military-style events.

“Raiders are held to the highest standards at our academy,” Housman, the recruiter, said. “It’s hard to get on the team and it’s easy to lose your spot,”

While most kids lose about 20-30 pounds during their stay, Ige bulked up with muscle.

Succeeding together

The students would pass through four phases of the program, each coming with more privileges and responsibilities and each emphasizing specific virtues: Acclamation Phase (discipline), Red Phase (integrity), White Phase (courage) and Blue Phase (honor and resilience).

Each would earn the title of cadet. They would earn their uniforms and the right to represent themselves and their family by wearing a surname badge, or tab, on their chest. And they would earn leadership roles and, eventually, run their own platoons with guidance from cadre members.

When they misbehaved, they would forfeit wearing the uniform until they earned it back.

During the first phase, known as acclamation, candidates would have the “military mindset drilled in” through physical and mental exercises, Harman said.

They would rise at 5 a.m., be in bed usually by 8 p.m., and have three minutes to use (or in military parlance, “utilize”) the bathroom. They’d have five minutes to take a shower, and 10 minutes to eat, without talking. They’d learn the protocols of respect, including asking permission to speak to cadre members.



Time for academics

After two weeks, the candidates were ready for what some call the nurturing side of the academy: school.

Science teacher Amy Sydoruk started at Sunburst during the seventh week of the session, after working 18 years for the Tustin Unified School District.

“I always had a love for alternative education students, the kind of kids that are here,“ she said.

She felt tired and burned out at Pacific Coast High School, an independent study school with high-achieving students. Many of the kids had very involved parents and were from privileged backgrounds.

“Kids at Sunburst are very real and brutally honest,“ she said. “Many come from dysfunction. They need a caring teacher more than kids whose parents give them everything.“

She broke down while describing this. “It’s incredibly empowering.“

Because of the school’s military partnership, teachers can’t operate independently, Sydoruk said. Each classroom of about 20 students also has a paraeducator, or teacher assistant.

“It’s a collective mission and everyone’s on the same page,“ she said.

“I know (students) are not on drugs. They are not up all night washing clothes at a laundromat. They are eating, sleeping and hydrating.“

And teachers don’t have to waste time on discipline. When cadets become a problem in the classroom, they are sent into the hall where the staff of uniformed cadre deals with them – usually through CAPE’ing.

Students are given a Test of Adult Basic Education, (TABE), at the beginning of the cycle.

Ismail, the principal, said there is usually a 3-4-year jump in academic growth because there are no distractions but there is tutoring for kids who need it.

One of Sydoruk’s students this cycle, a junior in high school, tested at a kindergarten level.

“He was devastated,“ she said.

“He had transferred to so many different schools,“ she said. “And he was a quiet kid so people ignored him.”

She called a student intervention meeting and met over Zoom with the cadet’s mother.

He was never tested for a learning disability but being diagnosed would have allowed him more resources, she said.

“It’s better for him to know how his brain works“ so he can be more successful, she told him and his mother. “Everybody learns differently.”

A $25,000 investment

Sunburst Youth Academy has an annual budget of $9.3 million, said Jeffrey White, director of the National Guard youth programs, and each cadet is a $25,000 investment.

“California has three very successful programs,” he added. This is defined by hiring and retaining staff, passing regular on-site inspections and kids performing positively while being tracked for a year.

He cited two studies:

• A 2012 RAND Corporation report found that the program generated positive return on investment, increasing the lifetime earnings of participants and yielding substantial benefits to society – such as reduced crime, increased tax revenue and increased service to the community.

• A 2011 MDRC and MacArthur Foundation report found that after three years, Challenge Program participants “were more likely than their control group counterparts to have obtained a GED or high school diploma, to have earned college credits, and to be working. Their earnings were also 20 percent higher.”

The academy is constantly evolving, Ismail said, citing the “whole child” concept that addresses a wider scope to education, not just academics.

The latest class of cadets was no exception.

Over the course of their stay, the cadets got their eyes tested and were fitted with new glasses so they could succeed in the classroom. They visited the ocean, where some of the teens had never been despite living in Southern California, Harman said. They visited the Museum of Tolerance in L.A. and learned, some for the first time, about the Holocaust. They honed their public speaking skills by addressing local city councils about the benefits of Sunburst. They competed for three small business grants and 10 academic scholarships. They even boarded a boat to Camp Emerald Bay at Catalina Island for three days where they earned some of the program’s 40 required hours of community service by helping prepare the Boy Scout camp for winter. They also kayaked, snorkeled and ate marshmallows around a campfire.



“There’s a huge social and emotional component,” she said, including an art-for-healing program, a bereavement group, an anger management group and a wellness room at the school.  A dozen nonprofit agencies are also involved, each offering its unique, adrenaline-pumped messages about self-esteem, perseverance and success. And each of the four platoons has its own counselor on hand.

Parent outreach, too

Padres Unidos, an outside parenting outreach group funded by the Orange County Department of Education, was just added to Sunburst’s curriculum.

“This was the final piece they were trying to tease out,” said director Patty Huerta-Meza, who has a doctorate in clinical psychology and runs the group her mother founded in 1999.

Previously, the academy would do everything it could for the cadets and then send them back into chaotic homes, she said.

Ninety percent of cadets’ parents and many of their siblings attended the weekly bilingual sessions either in person or on Zoom, she said.

“The entire family doesn’t need to be moving at the same pace, but they definitely need to be going in the same direction,” Huerta-Meza said.



‘Everybody’s beautiful’

Carlos Alcantar, 31, and his brother Erick Capistran, 19, visited Sunburst’s open house in early October – one of only two days family members are allowed on campus – to get an academic progress report on their sister, Samantha Capistran, a petite and gentle-natured 16-year-old cadet. The brothers care for Samantha because their parents are not involved in their lives.

Alcantar extolled the benefits of the academy, saying it changed his family’s life for the better. Both Erick and his brother Saul Capistran, 20, recently graduated from Sunburst and continued on to California Job Challenge, a sequel residential program for graduates ages 17-21. It offers mentorships and pathways to livable-wage jobs like welder, automotive technician and certified nursing assistant. They are both employed as urban woodworkers and doing well, Erick Capistran said recently.

But Alcantar had an additional reason for being at the open house: He wanted to tell his sister he’d be heading to prison to serve a sentence for a past crime, just like their 29-year-old brother, Jesse. The family declined to talk about the details.

“My brothers grew up in an unfortunate environment,” Erick Capistran later said. “They’re good people. I know if they had gone through the academy, they would be as successful as us.”

Families formed another line in mid-December. This time, it was outside the La Mirada Theatre, as they waited to go inside for the cadets’ hard-earned graduation day. Unlike in July when they tearfully bid farewell to their children, parents were in a festive mood. They were hopeful their children were on a new and better path.



The Firehawks platoon stood together as Edwards again announced his presence.

Now, a smile accompanied his thundering voice: “Everybody’s beautiful!”

Songlike, the girls repeated, “Everybody’s beautiful, Master Sgt. Edwards!”

In a few minutes, they would leave the academy behind.

The commandant, Army Sgt. Major Peter Gutierrez, told them in his speech, “Think about your next move in the big world. … Today isn’t a ‘goodbye’ but more of an ‘until we meet again.’“

Rodriguez, who found his way to Sunburst through flyers on a restroom floor and a dean’s wall, was chosen to be a graduate speaker. He received academic excellence awards, athletic awards and was named the Chargers platoon’s “Most Inspirational Cadet.” He also received his high school equivalency diploma.

The 18-year-old, whose father was deported when he was in first grade, addressed the audience of several hundred, including his two guests – his girlfriend and her mother. “I was rejecting school because I saw it as part of the system,” he said. “And the system is what broke up my family.”

Because he tried to be a parent to his younger siblings, he said he sacrificed childhood traits like curiosity and adventurousness – “experiences that often teach us vulnerability, creativity and patience.

“SYA gave me an opportunity to regain some of these attributes and experiences I will never forget.”

The Rangels, who several months earlier felt like their daughter was standing on a precipice, were surprised to learn Jazmin earned top honors for perfect grades and discipline. “I always knew she had it in her,” Junior Rangel said. “She has made us so proud.”

At the end of the ceremony, Edwards stood on stage in his uniform and Army commendation medals and gave the cadets their final orders: Academy! Ten-hut!

Then, in succession, each platoon shouted its name: Wolfpack! Chargers! Bruins! Firehawks! Sunburst!

The 156 graduates – of the 210 who started the session – were dismissed.

An imposing and authoritative figure, Master Sgt. Timothy Edwards gets ready to dismiss Sunburst Youth Academy's 32nd class after graduation ceremonies at La Mirada Theatre on Wednesday, December 13, 2023. 156 cadets finished the credit-recovery program in five and a half months. Twenty cadets ended up graduating from high school while others will return to their schools and graduate with their class. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)
An imposing and authoritative figure, Master Sgt. Timothy Edwards gets ready to dismiss Sunburst Youth Academy’s 32nd class after graduation ceremonies at La Mirada Theatre on Wednesday, December 13, 2023. The 156 cadets finished the credit-recovery program in five and a half months. Twenty cadets ended up graduating from high school while others will return to their schools and graduate with their class. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Staff writer Teri Sforza assisted with research for this article.

Epilogue: Next steps for Sunburst graduates

Victor Rodriguez enlisted in the Army on a four-year contract to serve in the infantry, Sunburst Youth Academy recruiter and Air Force Staff Sgt. Crystal Housman said. Rodriguez leaves for basic training in February.

Samantha Capistran, who was awarded the Principal’s Honor Roll certificate for perfect grades and behavior, started at a new school in January, as a junior at Ocean View High in Huntington Beach.

Cedric Ige is working on getting his driver’s license and plans to take the high school equivalency test when he turns 18 in March. His goal is to get a job as a lineman for the L.A. Department of Water and Power, Housman said.

Jazmin Rangel finished Sunburst with extra credits. She also started attending a new school as a junior at Yorba Linda High School a week before winter break. She said the academy “helped me respect my parents more than I did before and what they do for me.” The experience, she said. helped her become more independent. She has seen a change in her parents, too. “They are not as harsh now and they talk to me about how I feel.”

Stephanie and Junior Rangel said life at home with their “strong-willed child” is a lot better than before, but the relationship is still a work in progress. The Padres Unidos classes helped them see that change has to come from both sides. Now, they said, they have more confidence and better ways to deal with the “bumps in the road.”

“We learned that instead of being reactive we need to communicate. When we let our emotions take over, it becomes a power struggle,” Stephanie Rangel said.

On Jan. 14. Sunburst started its 33rd session with a fresh set of 197 candidates.



Source: Orange County Register

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