'This could really be something'

RANTOUL — When Brandon Crouch began teaching Lincoln’s Challenge Academy cadets at Grissom Hall 6 1/2 years ago, at first he was impressed by the size of his “huge” classroom.

But then reality set in.

“It rained for the first time, and my classroom leaked,” said Crouch, lead instructor for the academy. “Then you learned where to put a garbage can on days it’s raining or snow is melting” to catch the water. “You know to move students because one prominent (leak) spot is right above the desk.”

The rooms were also dark (no windows). Many a time, a cadet would ask Crouch what the weather was like outside. He didn’t know because he hadn’t been outside since arriving to teach.

Crouch and the other six teachers at the academy are living the dream now. They recently moved into the new Lincoln’s Challenge educational facility built on the west side of the former Chanute Air Force Base.

It is the second of three buildings that are part of the academy’s new campus, located just north of the current campus.

Finished first was the new gymnasium. In a few weeks, the new administrative office and billeting building will be ready for move-in.

After the village closed Grissom Hall due to its condition, the academy leased classroom space at the Rantoul Business Center. Since the academy opened in 1993, cadets have marched to and from class.

Crouch is enjoying teaching in a classroom with natural light (windows).

“You don’t feel like you’re in an institution,” he said. “You just feel like you’re part of the world. I used to call Grissom Hall ‘The Cave’ because you couldn’t see in or out.”

As supervisor of the educational program, Crouch now has his entire department under one roof “instead of hopping between buildings.”

One teacher told Crouch she now feels she’s part of the process.

The different buildings, located far away from one another, often made it difficult for Crouch to deal with any problems that would arise.

The lead instructor said he thinks the new campus will help recruiting. (There’s more competition in teaching at-risk youth. Lincoln’s Challenge teaches and trains high school drop outs in a military setting).

He said the new setting feels more like a campus and will feel even more so when the grass and landscaping have greened up.

“That main building and all that glass just looks more inviting than (Building 303) with that red brick,” which reminds Crouch of a prison.

Building 303 houses staff offices and is where cadets are billeted. Michael Camacho, public relations specialist for the academy, said the building will be demolished, and the site will be used as a parade ground. Monuments onsite will be relocated.

Residential Deputy Director Colin Waxham said Building 303 was built in the early ‘70s.

“It was one of the old 1,000-man dorms,” Waxham said. “This facility wasn’t designed for that type of program. There’s a lot of wear and tear. The (Air Force) tech schools, (the airmen) were out of here anywhere from a few months to maybe a year where we go through two classes a year here for 5 1/2 months at a time. So it’s a constant wear on the facility.”

Building 303 can sleep up to 600 cadets, with two to three per room. The new facility will house 400 and will house eight to 10 per room.

The new campus means the days of leasing buildings are over for the academy. Lincoln’s Challenge formerly leased gymnasium space from Amerinvest and classroom space from the village of Rantoul (Grissom Hall and later Rantoul Business Center).  

The gymnasium includes two basketball half-courts and a full-court with modern scoreboards. A portion of the building is used for logistics supply, where uniforms and other items issued to cadets are stored.

A modern circular drive located near the educational facility and the new four-story office/billeting building also includes areas for parking.

Construction on the new campus was twice halted by state budget impasses.

The gymnasium was originally scheduled to be finished in September 2015, with the other two buildings to be finished one year later. The buildings encompass 136,000 square feet.

The academy will not only celebrate the new $38.9 million campus this June. It will also mark its 25th anniversary.

“I think people have looked and seen this is a long-time-coming process,” Crouch said. “I started hearing Aug. 2, 2011, when I started” rumors about a new campus being planned. “Now that it’s here, it’s not only a sigh of relief, but you look around and say, ‘This could really be something.’”

Crouch said his staff has indicated the educational facility is better than they imagined. It also brings the academy into the 21st Century with many of the same teaching tools used in public schools such as smart boards and other tech devices.

The educational facility is equipped with computer and GED labs.

Mentors help cadets after they qualify for their GED. The academy has a 12-month post-residence action program that includes the mentors assisting cadets to work toward whatever their goal is post-graduation, whether it be employment or additional education or military service.

“The last 25 years, Lincoln’s Challenge has had graduates achieve high-ranking military status, become lawyers, an airline pilot, ministers. They go back to their communities and become part of it,” Camacho said.



Categories (3):News, Education, Living


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