Wright School Fights, Again, To Stay Open

Jul 28, 2014

The Wright School serves the most challenging students from across North Carolina.
Credit Dave DeWitt

Doris Tilley has driven by the Wright School, on Roxboro Street in Durham, for 50 some-odd years. Many times, she’s thought of turning into the gravel driveway, to re-visit the place that had such a significant impact on her family.

Last Friday, she did just that, meeting with students and staff.

Tilley’s daughter was one of the very first students here, in 1963. It was one of the few positive educational experiences she would ever have.

Tilley’s daughter had severe ADHD and was borderline bi-polar -- a diagnosis she wouldn’t get until she was in her mid-40s. Her largely untreated condition led to challenges throughout her school years.

Doris Tilley remembers a conversation with a middle-school principal.

“He said, ‘you’re just an over-concerned and over-anxious mother’,” she recalls. “And I said, ‘Mr Morgan, if mothers don’t protect their children, who is going to?’”

The Wright School is funded entirely by the Legislature. It serves North Carolina’s most challenging 6-to-13 year old kids. On average, children have had two hospitalizations and three psychiatric diagnoses before coming to the Wright School. They are referred by local mental health agencies that can no longer serve them.

“We have a big variety of disabilities that come through, but the common thread is that they have all had a lot of failure in their lives,” says Pete Rich, the director of the Wright School. “Our goal, in everything we do here, is to show them when they are successful.”

Burton Sydnor is one of those success stories, and as polite a young man as you’ll ever find. He also smiles a lot, says “Yes, sir,” and shakes hands with everyone he meets.

That makes this middle-school story, told by his mother Elizabeth, hard to believe.

“He was cussing up and down the halls, he was turning over desks, he was making threats,” she says. “Everyone in the class had to be evacuated regularly. He was a different child.”

Elizabeth Sydnor calls Burton’s erratic and even violent behavior “continuous.” She says the Wright School changed their lives. First, as a Monday-to-Friday residential school, it offered families a break. And beyond the invaluable treatment and counseling, it also helped her realize they weren’t alone.

“And to find other parents who say ‘oh yeah, my son was out panhandling the other day because I wouldn’t buy him a magazine,’” she says. “You truly are like, ‘I love you, because your life is as crazy as mine.’”

Parents and supporters have started a Facebook page, a website, and an online petition to try to save the Wright School.

Five times since 2009, the general assembly has considered cutting the $2.7 million annual allocation that keeps it open.

Republicans in the House support the school, and have even said the model should be expanded. But Republican leaders in the Senate say the Wright School is too expensive and serves too few students.

None of those involved in budget negotiations returned requests for comment.

Burton has met with some Legislators in Raleigh to tell them his personal story, and to explain to them what Wright School has taught him about coping with his challenges.

“There’s going to be hard days and there’s going to be easy days, but that’s how it goes,” he says. “What you have to think is, is this the hill I want to die on? Is this thing I want to stay and complain about for the rest of my life? You just want to wait it out and try real hard.”

Life won’t be perfect for Burton, just like it wasn’t for Doris Tilley’s daughter. She was never able to fulfill her dream and become a nurse and her own son has had mental illness issues. But she persevered and graduated high school, eventually becoming an EKG technician and getting married.

“That’s why I say Wright School is right,” says Doris Tilley. “It has to stay here, because it doesn’t stop the day that child leaves here.”

Legislators are expected to hammer out details in the next few days, and vote on a final budget later this week.