A Sporting Chance, Therapyland, and a Comeback in Philly

By Rich Shea — December 03, 2004 3 min read

Everyone’s heard about the Florida tennis academies that churn out teenage phenoms, some of whom go on to win big tournaments and endorsement deals. Well, tennis is no longer the only game in town. Of the roughly 640 students at IMG Academies in Bradenton, more than 200 are “majoring” in soccer, basketball, or baseball—and for the low, low starting price of $30,000 per year, for those who live on campus. Others dwell in condos rented or purchased as part-time residences by their parents, who insist they’re simply nurturing their child’s love of the game. That love is rewarded with just a few hours of academic study in the morning, followed by intense training and exhaustive analyses of the sport itself. So what’s the payoff? Of the 80 baseball players who’ve graduated from IMG in the past 10 years, only one has gone pro. The rest, according to a school official, have received “the best baseball education available.”

Farther north, in the Washington, D.C., area, special-needs kids may be finding the best therapy available. One journalist, whose 13-year-old daughter’s developmental disorders were successfully treated, refers to the region only half-jokingly as Therapyland, where kids with unique neurological problems that affect information-processing, coordination, and social skills find safe, if expensive, havens in specialists’ offices. A recent tsunami-style wave of brain research has enabled doctors to know much more about such problems. So some parents are traveling hundreds of miles and spending thousands of dollars a month to offer their kids all kinds of sensory-integration, occupational, auditory, and visual therapies, most of which have proven only anecdotally effective. If that sounds shaky, consider this description of what it’s like to be a parent of a special-needs kid: “We’re in a car, we don’t know the make of the car or what kind of gas it takes, we’re on a road that is parallel to the main road, and one day we will come to a crossroads and hit the main road.”

If they’re not already on the main road, ADHD sufferers can at least see it from where they sit, in part because of the stimulant methylphenidate, better known as Ritalin. But there are concerns about the ways that MPH-based drugs are marketed by drug companies. William Pelham, a 30-year ADHD researcher, claims that the studies he did in the late ‘90s for a company seeking FDA approval for one of its drugs were fixed. And his reports, he adds, were heavily edited by company officials. (The company says the allegations are unsubstantiated.) Pelham’s charges are relevant when you consider that some experts say continued use of stimulants stunts growth and, in the long run, has no beneficial effects. Pelham is also the recipient of a lifetime achievement award from an ADHD advocacy group that receives generous donations—close to $700,000 in 2002-03—from drug companies. “I have come to believe,” Pelham says, “that the individuals who advocate most strongly in favor of medication ... have major, undisclosed conflicts of interest with the pharmaceutical companies that deal with ADHD products.”

Conflict is pretty much the middle name of Edison Schools, the New York-based educational management company that’s received mixed reviews of how it runs problem urban schools nationwide. When the Philadelphia school district’s CEO, Paul Vallas, awarded Edison a contract to take over that city’s worst schools in 2002, residents and the teachers union were up in arms—fearing that the every-six-week student assessments and Edison’s corporate approach wouldn’t wash. But two years later, the for-profit Edison has steered many of its dismally performing schools in the right direction. The average annual gain for 5th and 8th grade students scoring at or above proficiency level on state tests was 10 percentage points in 2003-04, compared with less than one-half of one percentage point before the company took over. But Philadelphia schools, plagued by problems, not the least of which is violence, are still “nowhere near where we need to be,” according to a district official.

One place a teacher wouldn’t want to be is India’s northeastern state of Manipur, where separatist guerillas don’t take too kindly to unethical educational practices. The Kanglei Yana Kan Lup recently shot six male teachers in the leg and severely beat two female teachers after discovering that they’d taken up to 5,000 rupees (about $110) for helping students cheat on exams. The KYKL also has reportedly terrorized drug dealers, producers of porn films, and makers of heroin. Punishing cheating teachers, a representative for the group indicated, is simply part of an overall plan to instill morality in society.

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