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For Children Who Have Faced Serious Trauma, a Place to Learn

Students pouring through schoolhouse doors in the morning is a time-honored ritual. At the New Orleans Therapeutic Day Program, that ritual looks – and sounds – a bit different.

In late May, a handful of clinicians and staff members wait in the front office, their hands resting on walkie-talkies. Teachers wait in four classrooms along the school’s only hallway, and Liz Marcell, the program’s executive director, guards the door between the two.

The first arrival, a young girl, walks into the front office, cursing in the face of a clinician who doesn’t react. A few minutes later, two boys come through the door tussling. Bill Murphy asks, “Are we having a hug?” and wraps his arms around them.

“We let the kids take a little bit of the lead,” says Mr. Murphy, the program’s academic director, in an interview. “We also learn to celebrate incremental victories and to tolerate some background noise – sometimes a lot of background noise – in a way that it wouldn’t normally be in a [traditional] school setting.”

There’s a simple reason for this: The staff know that these children have nowhere else to go. The NOTDP is a public school that serves on a rolling basis about two-dozen children with such severe trauma and emotional disturbance that mainstream schools say they cannot educate them. In New Orleans – a city beset with high rates of youth trauma and a significant lack of mental health services – the two-year-old program is aspiring to expand, over the course of decades, to match the resources and expertise of its wealthier, century-old peers.