The Wright School was founded in 1963 as part of a pilot grant program and uses the re-education philosophy, which includes twelve principles, like "intelligence can be taught" and "a child should know some joy in each day." Photo credit: Jasmin Singh

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By Jasmin Singh

A nice lawn, cozy dorm rooms with private bathrooms and brightly decorated hallways.

This might sound like a typical college or an elite boarding school, but it’s actually the only residential facility in the state that specializes in treating elementary school-aged children with severe emotional and behavioral health problems.

The Wright School, which opened in 1963, uses an approach that relies on a highly structured schedule to help troubled 6-to-13-year-olds who have acted out regain their equilibrium so they can return home.

The school’s three classrooms model a typical school classroom and is filled with signs and a daily schedule for the students. Photo credit: Jasmin Singh

Pete Rich, director of the school, said that before children are sent to the Wright School, in Durham, they must be evaluated by their local educational review boards and mental health management entities.

“We’re going to get the kids that no one has the services to be provided for,” he said. “We’re the safety net for the state.”

Susan Alberts, a professor at Duke University whose daughter attended the school, said the Wright School is “the whole package.”

“They have teaching and they have behavioral therapy all rolled into one system that is intensive,” she said. “They also have training and treatment for the parents. They approach the problem in a holistic way.”

But the school has once again become a political football. The Senate budget passed last month removed the $2.7 million of funding for the school, meaning the school would close this fall. However, the House restored the school in the budget it presented this week.

“That is one of the most impressive treatment programs operated anywhere in the state for incredibly challenging behavioral issues with children and their families,” said House budget writer Rep. Nelson Dollar (R-Cary).

It’s a model that he said he would like to see expanded.

Despite the support of House lawmakers, the fate of the school remains in limbo until a final concurrence budget is passed.

Leadership roles

Before the Wright School, Alberts tried home schooling her daughter and placing her in public schools, but she said it was challenging. Her daughter had so many emotional problems and so much anxiety that she couldn’t deal with a classroom.

Pete Rich, director of the Wright School, outside of the main building. Rich has been part of the school for over 20 years. Photo credit Jasmin Singh

“Public schools didn’t work because they didn’t have the resources to help a child that was struggling so much,” she said.

When kids like Albert’s daughter come to the Wright School, Rich said, they’ve already failed at their local schools.

“You’ve been in the back of the class, you’ve been made fun of. So they come in already thinking, ‘I’m going to fail,’” he said. “Our job is to show them how they aren’t.”

Rich said his teachers and counselors strive to bolster the kids’ self-esteem and to help make them leaders in the classroom.

“We put our kids in a situation that they are never in,” Rich said. “No one ever asks a child that comes here to be the leader of the class.”

Alberts said the school taught her daughter how to interact with her peers and how to learn.

“She came home as a changed person because she had learned how to be successful in a school setting,” she said.

Alberts’ daughter transitioned from the Wright School to a private school and, her mother said, is doing “extremely well.”

“They gave her a future she didn’t have otherwise and they gave her tools that she didn’t have and that I didn’t know how to give her,” Alberts said. “She’s able to function in the classroom in a way that nobody would ever know that she had those problems.”

Making connections

Rich said the school is unique in that it is a boarding school that runs five days a week instead of seven, with a requirement that kids go home on the weekends.

“We can provide a level of structure for the kids,” he said. That structure includes strict schedules with lots of visual cues to remind children where they need to be at any given time. Rich said it gives kids a sense of stability.

Linda McDonough, and her daughters Brianna (middle) and Molly (right). Photo courtesy Linda McDonough.

School staff also work with parents to find the best way to meet their child’s specific needs and to build a structure at home that will allow the child to succeed. Wright School staff also work with the schools the children will be returning to and help connect parents with support groups.

“We can get the kids more receptive to the things we are also teaching parents,” Rich said.

He said the school’s main goal is to give kids the skills they need to go back home and thrive:

“Everything is set up so that the kids are consistently hit with, ‘You can be successful; look at how successful you are.’”

But once out, they’re going to require that support.

‘Just didn’t happen’

Linda McDonough’s daughter Brianna suffers from multiple emotional and behavioral problems. McDonough said she had tried everything before she finally enrolled Brianna at the Wright School.

The Wright School was founded in 1963 as part of a pilot grant program and uses the re-education philosophy, which includes twelve principles, like “intelligence can be taught” and “a child should know some joy in each day.” Photo credit: Jasmin Singh

“By the time I hit Wright School, I was not a very nice person,” she said. “But they were absolutely wonderful. I was sure they would kick my kid out too, but they didn’t. They just kept working with her.”

McDonough said Brianna did well at the school. But when Brianna returned to public school later that year, it all went downhill.

“The Wright School made all of these recommendations, none of which the school followed,” she said. “I think that if we could have had her in a decent school setting when she came out, she would have been OK. But that just didn’t happen.”

Brianna is now at Central Regional Hospital at Butner because McDonough said there is nowhere else for her to go.

“Brianna begs to go back to the Wright School. And she’s too old now,” she said. “She loved the Wright School.”

Nowhere else to go

Rich said he doesn’t know what will happen if the school is forced to close.

“Kids come to us because they don’t have other options,” he said. “I don’t know what their options would be.”

McDonough said too many people see mental illness as a character flaw and as a choice.

Students are encouraged to work together in outdoor activities, like making a garden. Rich said the “garden fairy” will help out as well. Photo credit Jasmin Singh

“No child wants to be bad,” she said. “Every child wants to succeed, but they just don’t know how to.”

The Senate budget states that after closing the school in the fall, children would be sent to appropriate facilities. But McDonough said there are none.

“There is no place to send those kids to, but they don’t get that. They don’t know that,” she said.

“If they could be served in their communities, they would be being served in their communities,” Rich said. “They wouldn’t come to us.”

McDonough said keeping the Wright School open would save the state money.

“My daughter costs the state $1,200 a day at Central Regional,” she said. “She’s been there for 300 days. And if you think about how much these kids cost when they aren’t at Wright School, that $2.7 million looks pretty small.”

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Jasmin Singh

Jasmin Singh, was our intern in 2014. She was an editor at the Daily Tar Heel during the 2014-15 school year and graduated in 2015. Jasmin said her experience with NC Health News left her more likely to...