By Jeffrey Smith, The News On 6

PRYOR, OK -- Hundreds of Oklahoma kids started their first day Sunday at the Thunderbird Youth Academy in Pryor.

Academy leaders say if they graduate 25 more cadets than they did last year, they're eligible for $800,000 in federal aid.

This year is one of the largest recruiting classes in the 17 year history of Thunderbird Youth Academy. For hundreds of kids from across the state, Sunday is the start of an emotional and psychological transformation.

It was an emotional day for Gina Brumaghin. Her 16-year-old son is signed in to the Thunderbird Youth Academy.

"I'm sad he's going, but I know it's for the best," said Gina Brumaghin.

The 22 week quasi-military program reinforces structure, discipline and academic achievement. Gina's son is a high school dropout who struggles with discipline.

"Maybe he'll come back with a little ‘yes ma'am' and ‘no ma'am,'" said Gina.

Cindie Lou Coleman has already been through the experience of saying goodbye to a child. Ten years ago, her oldest son went to the academy after getting expelled.

"He was very rebellious. He was so unsure of himself. He didn't have any self confidence, low self-esteem. And then he came here and when he graduated he was like a whole other person," said Cindie Lou Coleman.

Cindie's other son, Tanner, says he's also struggling in school.

"Mainly discipline issues and my focus in school. I've been having a problem with that," said 16-year-old Tanner Coleman, who joined Thunderbird Youth Academy.

Thunderbird leaders say only 10 percent of cadets go into the military. Most are trying to pass high school. Some are struggling with drug or alcohol addiction.

After a brief orientation Sunday and some emotional hugs goodbye, things started and Tanner had to say goodbye to his thick head of hair. 

There are more than 240 candidates in this year's program, 45 are female.

"Every parent that I've talked to has nothing but great things to say about the change in their cadet from the time they start to the time they graduate," said Sgt. Trevin Powell, recruiter.

It'll be a five month stretch unlike anything the kids have experienced. Tanner says he's there for the right reasons.

"Have a focus, good head on shoulders and just have a plan for my life," said Tanner Coleman.

All of the kids are still technically candidates; they aren't called cadets for another two weeks. If Thunderbird Youth Academy graduates more than 125, then they're eligible for thousands of additional dollars in federal aid.