Monday, April 16, 2012

Court-ordered basketball in nonmetropolitan Tennessee

A story in today's New York Times reports on a somewhat novel effort by juvenile justice authorities in Carroll County, Tennessee to meet the educational needs of "troubled" youth there, and to get them on a better, more productive life path--and back to "regular school." The story is headlined "Court-ordered Basketball and No Fans," and the school it features is the Carroll Academy, "A State-Licensed Facility for Grades 6-12 Operated by the Carroll County Juvenile Court."

The school was founded about 20 years ago by Judge Larry Logan of the county's juvenile court. He was frustrated at the lack of options he had for disciplining teenagers: probation or state custody, the latter meaning foster care or reform school. Logan developed Carroll Academy as a "middle road," and the school was founded with a $1.45 million grant from Tennessee's Department of Children's Services. It continues to operate on a much smaller budget, out of what was once the wing of a hospital. One of the novel aspects of it is that students there--the vast majority are boys and young men--are required to play basketball for the school's team, the Jaguars.

Journalist John Branch focuses, in this installment of a series of articles about the school, on the girls basketball team, which hasn't won a game since 2006. This isn't terribly surprising since most of the young women are novices, not having played basketball before coming to Carroll Academy. The turnover in the school's population is no doubt another significant factor. This "basketball as punishment" model reminded me of a couple of things. One is how basketball crazy these parts of the rural south are; I know because I grew up in a similar place--where many schools are too small to field a football team, making basketball king. This means that most girls play basketball--and being a good basketball player can be a ticket to popularity. So, I guess it is not surprising that these girls who end up in the juvenile justice system were not the basketball-playing types before getting to Carroll Academy.

Carroll Academy is in Huntingdon, Tennessee, population 4,349. Huntingdon is the county seat of Carroll County, a non metropolitan county with a population of about 28,000. But Carroll Academy, with between 70 and 100 students at any given time, serves four counties in addition to Carroll County. This sharing of juvenile justice services no doubt helps justify the school, achieving an economy of scale that no single county could alone.

Branch paints a depressing portrait of this slice of northwest Tennessee, noting that manufacturing jobs (mostly in the garment industry) that formerly anchored the economy have dried up, making double-digit unemployment a new "normal." The population in this part of Tennessee, where median household incomes are about $30K and only about 15% of adults have a college degree, has been stagnant in recent years. Branch also notes the persistent problem of drugs, including methamphetamine and prescription abuse. While Tennessee had the highest number of meth lab seizures among all states in 2010, Carroll County had twice as many per capita as the rest of Tennessee. Meanwhile, Tennessee has the highest number of prescriptions per capita in the country and the sixth highest rate of youth aged 12-17 who abuse pain medications. Having provided this bleak statistical background, Branch characterizes the place through which the Carroll Academy vans "meandered" to pick up students as a "quiet, complex setting."
They picked up students, some an hour away, and returned past the scrubby trailers along two-lane roads and the tidy brick homes along High Street ...
Sad as this depiction is, the story features several uplifting angles. It suggests the positive impact that organized sports can have on the young men and women at Carroll Academy, many of them from troubled families--families who rarely attend their basketball games. That's the "no fans" part of the headline.

Future stories in this series promise to interview parents and students, and I'm looking forward to reading them, tissue in hand.

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