Tennessee Guard opens Youth Program at former detention site

A residential high school equivalency program is opening at the site of the former Woodland Hills Youth Development Center in Nashville.

The new 22-week program will be administered and funded through National Guard Youth Challenge Program.

The center was known for its history of violent clashes, breakout attempts and attacks on guards.

Two mass breakouts and a riot in September 2014 caused Republican Gov. Bill Haslam and state officials to reconsider the use of the facility.

“Last time I was here was when we were in the middle of that,” Haslam said at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new Guard program. “In the end, I think this is a much more productive use of this property and I’m really proud of our team for putting this whole thing together.”

The detention center ceased operations in February, and staffers and 30 teens were moved next door to the former New Visions facility, which is now called Gateway to Independence. Meanwhile, the Guard has completed an overhaul of sleeping quarters and study spaces to prepare for the first class of 100 cadets at what is now called the Tennessee Volunteer Challenge Academy.

The program is voluntary and open to teens ages 16 to 18 with no criminal record. During a residential phase, cadets focus on core components in a quasi-military environment. That will be followed by a one-year mentorship program.

Haslam said the program is intended to help teenagers get on the right path and become eligible for the Tennessee Promise college program, which covers the full community college tuition for all students with a high school level degree.

“There are some kids that have just said, ‘high school’s not for me, and it hasn’t worked for whatever reason,'” Haslam said. “But they know they have to get their GED.

“This is a way to do that relatively quickly, in a focused environment that will add that level of discipline that a lot of them are saying they don’t naturally have,” he said.

Maj. Gen. Max Haston, the commander of the Tennessee National Guard, stressed that the new course is not an alternative sentencing program, though judges and guidance counselors may recommend it to troubled teens.

“It is where a judge looks at a young person and says, ‘you know, you’re really not on the path to goodness and here’s a program that might help you get a course correction,” Haston said.