As former Wright School teacher-counselors and current professors of special education, we are saddened by the news that Gov. Beverly Perdue intends to close Wright School.
Wright School has provided residential treatment for some of the state’s most troubled children since the early 1960s. It treats youth whose behavior and multiple needs require that they receive intensive, multi-faceted, collaborative intervention. Throughout the state there are many, many families, schools and communities that could tell wonderful stories about the tremendous benefits of Wright School for children who have attended.
Recently published research on Wright School supports these anecdotes and shows that Wright School leads to significant improvement in behavior and functioning for the vast majority of youth who attend and that these improvements continue once the child is discharged to his or her home community. But, in addition to these direct benefits of Wright School, there are other reasons it is a vital part of North Carolina’s ability to effectively serve and treat the state’s youth.
Perdue’s decision to close Wright School is an economic one. On its face, the decision to save money by discontinuing specialized residential services for youth with severe emotional and behavior disorders seems plausible. Such a closing would appear to affect only about 50 children and their families annually. But the impact of Wright School goes well beyond direct services to such children. We feel a responsibility to highlight three hidden benefits of Wright School that are critical to schools, teachers and children throughout North Carolina.
First, Wright School is a fertile training ground for teachers and administrators who go on to lead behavioral intervention programs at schools across the state. The staff, program structure and the children themselves provide a unique learning experience for all who pass through Wright School as teachers, assistant teachers, clinical interns or student teachers. While there is a strong core staff that has been at Wright for many years, others move on to take what they learn to public districts all over North Carolina. It is common to go to the Department of Public Instruction or to special education programs in many districts and find an administrator or teacher who began their career at Wright School or was trained by someone who worked there. Effective programs tend to have a direct lineage to Wright School.
Second, Wright School promotes training and effective collaboration between schools and related service agencies in the communities of the students they serve. A unique aspect of Wright School is that interventions do not focus only on the student or her or his family. Rather, while the student receives residential services, Wright School professionals also work with teachers, mental health professionals and social service workers in the child’s home community to establish collaborative interventions to meet the student’s needs. The outcome of this ecological approach is that the efforts with one child tend to help build capacity within the community that enhances the services to other children as well.
Third, Wright School promotes safe schools across North Carolina. It is difficult to prove the absence of something. But during this time of increasing school violence, every morning parents wake up and don’t read about a tragic event at an elementary or middle school they should be thankful that North Carolina has Wright School. By providing the training and services described and by giving schools an outlet for procuring specialized care for children who are experiencing extreme emotional and behavioral difficulties, Wright School has helped numerous schools and communities reduce disruptive and aggressive classroom contexts that lead to youth violence.
We understand that these are difficult economic times, but we believe that the benefits to the children served and the hidden benefits to the state warrant Wright School’s continued operation. While only a small proportion of children have severe emotional and behavioral problems, the challenges experienced by these children can impact the school experiences of all students. By keeping Wright School, North Carolina will be investing in the adjustment and growth of all children in the state.
Thomas W. Farmer
Pennsylvania State University
Kevin S. Sutherland
Virginia Commonwealth University
State College, Penn.