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Kids at risk

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At the entrance to the Wright School in Durham, a sign reads, "Wright Refuge." For the 24 children who live and study there, that's exactly what it is: A refuge from often unstable homes and a place where teachers are also counselors, trained to help kids with behavioral and emotional disabilities. The nationally recognized school enrolls students from 6 to 12 years old. They live on "campus" during the week, visiting their families on weekends.

These are kids that you don't hear much about--kids who are often pushed onto the sidelines of debates about education in North Carolina. And so, a few weeks ago, when the state Department of Health and Human Services announced a decision to close the school, you probably didn't hear much about that either.

The state wants to move the Wright School, along with Whitaker School--an adolescent treatment program in Butner--to the campus that now houses the North Carolina Central School for the Deaf. Open since 1975, the School for the Deaf is one of three state schools constructed to help hundreds of children left deaf by the Rubella outbreak of the 1970s. Set on a sprawling 68 acres north of Greensboro, the school once held upwards of 200 students. Now, with dwindling attendance and a larger state budget crisis, its future is in question.

State officials want to close the central school, reassign deaf students--mainstreaming many into public schools--and transform the building into a secure facility for students with emotional disabilities, all by July 2002. Martha Kaufman, chief of state Child and Family Services, lists the advantages of the move, including new quarters and more outdoor space. Newer buildings would be a plus, she says, especially for Whitaker, which is housed at John Umstead Hospital in facilities built in the 1940s.

But supporters of both Wright and Whitaker schools worry that the move is a smokescreen for reducing the state's commitment to programs for troubled kids. They point to a handout distributed last week at a legislative committee meeting that recommended closing Whitaker for good. The handout claimed children in the program would be better served in the community.

Supporters of Wright's "re-education" model of child-centered treatment also worry that with low teacher salaries, even devoted teachers--some of whom have been with the school for more than a decade---may not be able to afford to relocate to Greensboro. At Wright, they say, teachers are the strongest advocates for children who have few champions.

Kaufman admits both schools may lose valuable teachers because of the move, but she maintains a positive spin.

"We certainly want to keep the staff and we will do everything we can to keep them involved in planning," she says. "We do have the luxury of planning time."

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