In 2021, Deborah was able to get her son, B., into the Center for Resilience, a groundbreaking therapeutic day program located on Calhoun Street, near Audubon Park. 

She felt she couldn’t keep him safe, that he had spiraled out of control. She did not know what to do. Whenever his mother drove somewhere, she would meticulously plan the route, with backup options, avoiding busy streets on the passenger side of the car, in case he opened his door and ran. At school, he would disrupt an entire classroom. He couldn’t deal with peers, with a school environment. 

But the center’s staff knew how to work with B. to calm himself, and to help reduce incidents for him and for the center’s other students, all children with severe behavioral needs. It changed her family’s life.

Then, last week, the Center for Resilience abruptly shut its doors.

Parents expressed deep sorrow to The Lens about the loss of what they considered their children’s only hope. Nearly all of the center’s children arrived there after being asked to leave their traditional schools, after exhibiting verbal and/or physical aggression, causing property damage or refusing to do classwork. 

“I thank god we got our three years … they changed everything,” said Deborah, who asked that The Lens use only her son’s first initial, to protect his privacy. He is now 11 years old and is back in a mainstream classroom, doing well. 

The center saved B.’s life, she said.

Officially, the center’s K-8 students are eligible to transition to a different program, the ReNEW Therapeutic Program. It’s unclear where its high school students can go. The nonprofit’s CEO said that the transition from the center to ReNEW would “creat(e) opportunities for children that didn’t exist within the two stand-alone programs.”

Despite that messaging, Alex Gray, the center’s CEO, emphasized that the center’s closure was just that, a closure. “This is not a merger,” she said. 

Though ReNEW’s Therapeutic Program is being positioned as a solution, ReNEW Schools CEO, Tanya Bryant, made clear that it is not a replacement. Without additional funding from the district, ReNEW’s program cannot meet the needs of all of the center’s children at the same level as the center. 

The center’s programming was intensive enough to help keep children in school who may have otherwise been sent off to a state institution, like Pinecrest. 

ReNEW is willing to continue to provide the center’s services, “pending adequate funding” from the district, said Bryant, who explained that, as of now, they don’t yet have the capacity to fully take on the center’s work. 

If ReNEW receives enough money from the district, the day program will add additional clinical and psychiatric services, she said. But ReNEW cannot “provide a hospital setting and RTP will remain as a school setting and integrate the students that currently attend CfR into that setting,” Bryant said.

NOLA Public Schools did not respond to questions about when the contract would be awarded. ReNEW’s first day of school is August 5. 

These events can be at least partly traced back to a change from NOLA Public Schools, which changed the Request For Proposals it issues every year for a recurring pot of money that comes from Harrah’s Casino, now called Caesars. 

This year, the district dropped psychiatric services from its proposal requirements, a core part of the center’s work to help keep students in crisis in the classroom. 

In the end, that clause may have turned out to be the center’s death blow, because the district had been the center’s main sources of funding, though, as it had taken on more students, the center’s financial needs had been growing, prompting center staff to look for ways to tap into other funding sources. But this year, because of the revised RFP, the center didn’t apply, not wanting to offer a piecemeal program without psychiatric services, a crucial part of its programming. 

“We will no longer be open for our day treatment programming,” CEO Alex Gray told The Lens days before the center shut its doors. “We are closing because the resources necessary to support our program are insufficient and our program is unsustainable.”

B.’s mother wishes the world could see all the good within her complicated child. “He loves to goof around. He’s a bit of a prankster,” she said. “He loves pick-up football games. He loves the Saints. He loves Xbox. He loves anime. He is the most creative person you will ever meet. He’s a storyteller. His imagination is incredible.” (Photo by La’Shance Perry for The Lens.)

‘Failing’ in traditional classrooms

Starting when he was four years old, B. found it hard to regulate his emotions, his mother said. In school, his behavior could quickly get out of control and be unsafe for himself and other students. 

After an evaluation, he qualified for an individualized education program, called an IEP, for emotional disturbance. 

He was later diagnosed with autism too, which helped explain his urge to “elope” from her car – which is often a concern for children with autism, who may follow their impulses, if they see something they’re interested in. Or because many kids with autism can have a heightened sense of danger, something may trigger their fight-or-flight response.

In hindsight, his mother wishes he had been sent to the Center for Resilience when he entered school. She was familiar with the center by then and had even toured it in 2015. “I felt like he might need it someday,” she said.

But the center, in part because of its limited capacity, only took kids who had essentially “failed” in traditional education environments. His school tried to give him a “‘robust’ IEP, BIP, and FBA,” she said, rattling off the educational acronyms for a variety of services. Only when those extra supports didn’t work was he eligible to receive the center’s highly specialized services, his mother said. 

“Only if he failed, then he could qualify,” she said.

Then, during first grade, an incident happened, involving over-restraint of her son. 

“It resulted in significant trauma for him and his classmates, no doubt,” she said. Afterward, “he spiraled out,” said Deborah, who took him to Children’s Hospital, where he remained for 11 days. Hospital staff couldn’t stabilize him and lacked beds for autistic children in crisis, she said. He spent the next six months in Methodist Children’s Home of Southeast Louisiana in Tangipahoa Parish.

It was during the start of the COVID lockdown and B.’s parents couldn’t visit him. She believes that he lost trust in adults during that long, lonely hospital stay, she said. Since that time, he has experienced amnesia that his counselor thinks is a result of post traumatic stress disorder, because he can’t remember that time. 

After leaving the hospital, he enrolled at the center. Their lives have improved during the three years that the center’s staff worked with him, Deborah said. His ability to attend school in a general classroom feels revolutionary, she said. Plus, they can go to a restaurant together. She can drive him to visit his grandmother. “Our house is safer, our life is calmer,” she said. “We’re able to have a weekend and maybe relax just a little bit.”

She wishes the world could see all the good within her complicated child. “He loves to goof around. He’s a bit of a prankster,” she said. “He loves pick-up football games. He loves the Saints. He loves Xbox. He loves anime. He is the most creative person you will ever meet. He’s a storyteller. His imagination is incredible.” 

She credits his counselor, who spent lots of time with him every week and taught him how to regulate his emotions and his behavior.

“His counselor has been able to break through all of the walls that he’s put up,” Deborah said. “She was able to stay there when he tried to push her away so much because she was there every day. Their focus was on their relationship. It wasn’t on sticks and carrots. Their focus was on building trust.”

The Center was also physically designed to keep the kids safe. “A regular school is not set up for someone who is going to go into crisis,” Deborah said. “CfR was set up so you can’t flip over tables or throw projectiles because it was a hospital-type environment.”

A 2018 photo shows a Center for Resilience student playing cards with an instructor. The Center opened in 2015 to serve students with severe behavior issues struggling in traditional classrooms and provided them with additional psychiatric and therapeutic support until they could return to their home school. Credit: L. Kasimu Harris for HuffPost

From the center, back to classroom

The Center for Resilience served 15 students when it opened under the state-run Recovery School District in 2015. In 2018, it shifted to a non-profit model contracting with the Orleans Parish School Board. The program worked to expand capacity to up to 50 students. 

Students technically remained enrolled in their home school and paid a daily rate to the Center for their schooling. This ensured an easier return to their home school by maintaining their seat. 

The goal of the program was not to take on kids full-time, but to help them stay in school through crisis, and give them the skills and support they needed to return to their original school. 

B.’s transition back to a mainstream classroom is an example of this.

By last fall, three years into his time at the center, staff said he was ready to begin transitioning out of the intensive day program. In February he enrolled part-time at a traditional school. By the spring, he was in class full-time. 

Thanks to his family’s insurance and Medicaid coverage, he is always accompanied by a trained therapist, who can help calm him or remove him from the classroom if needed.

The behavioral therapist goes with B. to all his classes and activities, as a part of his special education plan, forged jointly by the family and school. 

Yet, it’s not without hurdles. The school recently advised them that he couldn’t come to school on one occasion, because they had concerns about being able to support him that day due to a staffing change, she said. So they are trying to work through that situation, because she believes it is unfair, both to other students and her son, for him to be in a classroom without support causing disruptions that affect everyone’s learning, including his.

Still, she is optimistic about ensuring the school can provide the proper support to make his return to the general-ed classroom a success. “It’s been challenging, but nobody thought it wouldn’t be,” she said.

But B. is so much better off than he was four years ago. Other families are likely in crisis right now, with no Center for Resilience to turn to, she said. “I think about what’s going to happen to the other kids like him out there.”

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...