Local Re-Education Schools Help Struggling Kids Develop Life Skills
Pete Rich, director of The Wright School in Durham, declines to discuss individual success stories at his school. He explains why. “Our families come and are overwhelmed, in crisis,” he explains. “They are grasping for easy fixes. We’ve had great outcomes, but if I give examples, it reinforces the idea that there’s a magic pill.” He adds, “Families can learn the skills to manage — to help their kids be happy and successful. I want parents to have a real hope in their ability to help themselves and their kids’ lives.”
Helping families find authentic hope rather than a magic pill is The Wright School’s business, and the business of Hope Creek Academy (formerly Just Right Academy), another Durham school that serves struggling children. Most families who need these schools’ services have tried everything they can imagine to help their special needs kids live successfully in the world. The students who attend these schools often have multiple diagnoses of mental, social and/or behavioral challenges. Their experiences at traditional schools have been disastrous. Many have been hospitalized for their problems.
“We are very empathetic to parents,” Rich explains. “The situation they’re in, trying to navigate this world with high-needs kids … They’re trying to help their child. We’re just trying to help them get to the next step.”
Both schools use Project Re-ED’s “Re-Education” principles, developed by renowned psychologist, educator and university administrator Nicholas Hobbs, as the basis for their methods of reaching out to students.
The Re-Education Approach
Hobbs’ approach treats children as parts and products of their ecosystems. He believed troubled kids can be trained to make changes — but their environments should adjust to support them as they learn the skills they require to be successful.
To help students achieve their goals, Re-Education programs provide leaders so kids have reason to trust in environments designed to promote success.
Instead of removing children from their day-to-day lives for treatment, both The Wright School and Hope Creek Academy emphasize helping students develop skills within the context of ordinary activities: academics, chores and, of course, fun. This approach emphasizes the core Re-Education principle that all children should live rich, enjoyable lives in the present rather than merely training for the future.
“A lot of these kids don’t experience joy because they’re in trouble all the time,” says Linda McDonough, director of Hope Creek Academy. “We try to build in daily opportunities for joy.”
Re-Education schools emphasize community-building as part of their curricula because school communities help students learn to interact productively with others. Many troubled students struggle for inclusion in social groups, and these schools offer them opportunities to belong.
For example, Rich describes how The Wright School’s student groups welcome new members with intricate rituals. One group, called the Royals, uses a round table and “dubs” new kids in like knights. “[The rituals] make them feel like they’re part of something – because many of these kids never have been before,” he says.
Both The Wright School and Hope Creek Academy emphasize building students’ sense of competence in handling challenges. The schools celebrate students’ achievements. A child at The Wright School who learns to tie his or her shoes after weeks of effort, for example, is encouraged to demonstrate this ability to multiple enthusiastic staff members. “We not only want kids to have success, but to celebrate their success,” Rich says.
McDonough agrees. “Competency matters,” she says. “We make the kids feel competent.”
The Wright School
3132 N. Roxboro St., Durham
The Wright School is a free, state-run residential school and mental health facility for children ages 6-13 years. It operates under the aegis of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. Students attend for an intense six-month training period, after which the children transition back into their home environments.
Students spend five days a week at school and weekends at home so they and their families can practice the skills they are learning. While in residence, students learn in a structured environment about handling personal conflicts, academics, basic life skills, anxiety and other skills or issues. Goals vary for each child.
“The big work we do is really with the parents,” Rich says. “We have liaisons who go into homes and help [families] develop the skills to support the kids in what they’re learning.” Families receive extensive training in how to manage their children’s special needs, as well as gain access to outside support services. School liaisons work with the children’s regular schools as well, interacting with teachers and individual education program (IEP) teams to help them create academic environments that will help these children succeed.
“The goal is to get them into their home public schools and their homes,” Rich says. “For about 75 percent of our kids, that’s what happens.”
Hope Creek Academy
4723 Erwin Rd., Durham
Hope Creek Academy is a private day school that accepts children from kindergarten through 12th grade and offers a long-term option for families who have struggling kids. Each student’s length of stay depends on that student’s individual needs.
“Some stay through high school,” McDonough says. “Some we nudge out of the nest … Sometimes our accommodations are enough to reduce anxiety enough that a child can be successful in the outside world.”
Work at Hope Creek Academy is structured toward supporting each student’s goals. Students earn rewards for achieving short-term goals, while school activities are structured around their long-term goals. If the family wants the child to function independently, for example, McDonough says, “we focus on teaching him how to do things for himself — how to fix his own lunch, how to ride a bike.” The school also offers guidance on how to improve academic abilities.
“If a child says they want to go back to public school, we will start working for that goal,” McDonough says. “We start upping the pressure on them, and our kids who have gone on have generally been successful.”
McDonough hopes to start attracting younger children to Hope Creek Academy in the coming years because her program works especially well for children who are still forming behavioral habits. “You have to work harder with older kids with behavior problems, because the behaviors are more ingrained,” she says.
As for The Wright School, Rich hopes it will be able to keep growing as it has for the past 50 years. He says the school’s goal is “continuing to evolve in the field while continuing to serve hard-to-serve kids. Over 25 years, our philosophy hasn’t changed, but we’ve grown with the mental health field. We’d like to continue on that trajectory — learning what is the most effective way to help these kids get back home and be successful.”
Elizabeth Brignac is a freelance writer and mother of two boys. She lives in Cary.