Recovery high schools make dent in teen substance abuse

Despite record of success, the often costly programs remain small-scale and rare

On the day in 2017 that she graduated from her Minnesota high school, Alex Leih wept—but not because her carefree school days were over. “I cried so much because I never saw myself living to that moment,” says Leih, 19.

Two years earlier, her daily marijuana-and-pills habit, coupled with a compulsion for self-harm that riddled her body with scars, had brought Leih to the brink of suicide. Today, she is a college student planning a veterinary career, and that’s thanks, she says, to her enrollment in a still-rare program for addicted teenagers: a recovery high school.

Recovery high schools, which aim to provide drug-free safe havens for students to continue their education after rehab, are not new. The first was founded 40 years ago in Maryland. And although adolescent drug use has fallen in recent years, the federal government estimates that 1 million 12- to 17-year-olds still struggle with substance abuse, with just 180,000 receiving treatment.

Despite research suggesting that recovery high schools help students stay clean and earn diplomas, the often costly programs remain small-scale and rare: The 38 recovery high schools in 15 states enroll just a couple of thousand students. For those who need them, proponents say, recovery high schools offer a lifeline.

Traditional high schools “are not really set up to serve young people who are in recovery,” says Michael Durchslag, the director of Leih’s alma mater, P.E.A.S.E. Academy in Minneapolis. “Students should not have to choose between their recovery and their education.”

Avoiding temptation

One recent morning, students at The Raymond J. Lesniak Experience, Strength and Hope Recovery High School clustered at tables running the length of a low-ceilinged, windowless basement room in a northern New Jersey office building. A handful of teenagers in hoodies and jeans tapped quietly on Chromebooks, working through online lessons and consulting with teachers.

A modest library filled a few bookcases adjacent to a bank of square lockers; on the walls hung maps, student art projects and posters bearing inspirational slogans.

Except for the small scale and the atypical setting, it could have been an average morning at any school—and that’s exactly the point. Recovery high schools aim to create a healthy new normal for students whose lives have descended into chaos.

Sidebar: Recovery high school students tell their stories

Operating as public alternative schools, charters or public-private partnerships—and typically drawing enrollment from broad geographical regions—recovery schools have a simple rationale: Because hometown high schools can bring dangerous temptations, recovery high schools offer students a fresh start among peers who understand their struggles.

If a student stays at the same school, old friends may want to use, and nonusers may not welcome recovering addicts whom they know only as part of an edgier crowd. “If kids can’t find new peer groups, it’s going to be really hard for them to change their behaviors,” says Andy Finch, an associate professor of human and organizational development at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, who is writing a book about the history of recovery schools.

Recovery high schools also help students escape the isolation of addiction.

“It is of utmost importance for anybody in their recovery to build a community of people who aren’t using, who are supportive of their recovery, and who are trying to do the same thing that they’re trying to do,” says Durchslag, of P.E.A.S.E., which stands for “Peers Enjoying A Sober Education.”

Typically, recovery schools keep drug counselors or social workers on staff to offer immediate help to students who feel anxious or stressed. Students commit to recovery plans that spell out what nonschool supports they will rely on, from yoga classes and church attendance to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and psychotherapy.

Students share their progress and help each other cope with setbacks in frequent group meetings. For example, P.E.A.S.E. Academy’s schedule includes a daily homeroom period led by a classroom teacher, and a weekly sobriety support group run by a licensed counselor. Random in-school urine tests ensure accountability, and relapses are handled case by case—perhaps with a modified recovery plan, rather than an automatic expulsion.

Read more: Programs to combat opioid crisis

Because recovery schools are so small, with enrollment at each averaging just 30, teachers and counselors can flag students’ struggles far more easily than in traditional high schools.

“I know everyone’s story,” says Syreeta McClain, principal of The Raymond J. Lesniak Experience, Strength and Hope Recovery High School, which currently serves 13 students. “When it comes to inspiring and motivating and trying to help them thrive, we have that to our advantage.”

Don’t lower the bar at recovery high schools

With minds still foggy from past drug use, students may show up midyear at recovery schools, bearing transcripts checkered with poor grades from multiple schools.

Educating these students while simultaneously supporting recovery is difficult, and a 2008 article co-authored by Finch, of Vanderbilt University, found that students gave their recovery schools higher marks for therapeutic supports than for academic rigor. Partly because of the findings, Finch says, recovery school administrators are working to provide more academic opportunities—often via newly available online curricula.

Experience, Strength and Hope Recovery High School students access the New Jersey Virtual School, a public nonprofit that offers dozens of teacher-assisted online courses ranging from credit recovery in basic English and math to Holocaust history, Gothic literature and AP calculus.

A recovery school student “should be given the specific supports for their unique situation. But when it comes to their academics, we shouldn’t be lowering the bar,” says Roger Oser, principal of Boston’s William J. Ostiguy High School. “We shouldn’t be afraid that it’s going to overwhelm them.”

Although recovery schools must meet state education standards, their size keeps them from providing the breadth of options available in typical high schools.

“We don’t have a marching band, we don’t have Russian literature and we don’t have Advanced Placement classes,” says Durchslag of P.E.A.S.E. “We get them prepared; it just might look a little different.”

Read more: The school drug-testing dilemma

The schools also find ways to offer nonacademic opportunities. Experience, Strength and Hope Recovery High School students visit a local YMCA in place of gym class, volunteer at a public library to earn community-service credit, and play board games in a lounge that is also equipped with comfortable chairs and an air hockey table.

On school-sponsored weekend trips, students may visit an aquarium or a video game arcade—filling otherwise perilous free time and learning to enjoy a drug-free life.

“Recovery is a really serious thing; people do die,” says Leih, the P.E.A.S.E. alumna. “But having fun in recovery, especially as a teenager, is so crucial.”

Complex and costly

Recovery schools work, research suggests. A recent study found that teenagers who had completed drug treatment and then spent at least a month in a recovery school were far more likely to be drug-free and on track to graduation a year later.

Nevertheless, recovery schools remain rare. Denial plays a role: “Communities often underestimate the amount of problematic substance use among their youth,” says Emily A. Hennessy, a postdoctoral research associate in the University of Connecticut’s psychology department. “It’s been stigmatized for a long time, and parents don’t like to think about it. Administrators don’t like to think about it.”

For receptive communities, recovery schools are expensive and complex to operate. Researchers estimate costs at $18,000 to $25,000 per student—well above most states’ per-pupil allocations—and that’s largely because small enrollments limit economies of scale.

To fill the gaps, recovery schools braid together education and public-health funding, share spaces or services, and partner with nonprofits to provide counseling services. It’s complicated work, and to be truly effective, proponents say, recovery schools must be part of a more comprehensive continuum of substance-abuse services.

“Recovery high schools were never meant to be large schools because the vast majority of young people don’t need recovery; they need prevention, education and early intervention,” says Oser, of Boston’s Ostiguy High School.

“The only way a recovery high school is going to work in a district is if all those other things are in place. We’re kind of like the top of the pyramid, but you only get to the top of the pyramid by building out from the base.”

Deborah Yaffe is a freelance writer in New Jersey.

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