Students who return to their high school after leaving to deal with substance abuse issues often find that getting thrown back in with old friends quickly leads to relapse. Around the country, a small number of recovery high schools offer a safe and sober alternative for students struggling to avoid falling back into old harmful routines.
“It’s just too easy for these students to go back to using drugs and drinking at their old school,” says Andrew J. Finch, PhD, a co-founder and former Executive Director of the Association of Recovery Schools, who is currently Assistant Clinical Professor of Human and Organizational Development at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN. “We want to create a safe place for them so they’re not confronted by drugs and alcohol during the school day.”
The first recovery high school was established in 1987 in Minnesota. Currently, the Association of Recovery Schools has 22 member high schools in nine states.
“Recovery schools are a unique intervention that can help students sustain their abstinence, which in many cases can save their lives,” says Kevin Jennings, Assistant Deputy Secretary for Safe and Drug-Free Schools at the U.S. Department of Education. “Throwing kids in recovery back into their old high schools is setting them up to fail, so we need to look for alternatives for them. We do a lot of primary prevention in this country, but the further you go down the spectrum of prevention, treatment and recovery, the less help there is.”
Jennings says that some preliminary evaluations indicate that students are much less likely to relapse if they attend a recovery high school than if they go back to their regular school, but more research is needed. “We are funding a study with the National Institute on Drug Abuse that will evaluate recovery schools to see if they are effective in terms of sobriety and helping students complete their education,” he says.
No Cookie-Cutter Approach
While recovery high schools tend to have similar philosophies, each runs differently. “There’s no cookie-cutter way to do this—the schools are structured based on their resources and what they are allowed to do in their state,” Dr. Finch says.
Recovery high schools tend to be small, with an average enrollment of 30 students, although some are smaller and some have as many as 80 or 90 students, Dr. Finch says. Because of the small size of these schools, students from different grades are often grouped together. “How each school approaches academics is variable, but they teach the curriculum in accordance with state standards,” he says. “Most of these schools individualize the curriculum for students because many of them have missed big chunks of school due to substance abuse.”
All of the schools try to put up some boundaries between their students and those in other programs located in the same building, either through physical separation or through different schedules, Dr. Finch says. “This is important because a lot of recovery schools share a building with other alternative high schools, and a lot of students in those schools may be wrestling with substance abuse issues but are not being treated.”
The staff of recovery schools includes therapists and substance abuse counselors, as well as mental health professionals, who help the students with co-existing disorders such as anxiety, depression or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Some schools also have built-in services for students who need primary treatment. But most students in recovery schools have already been through treatment and need reinforcing messages at school to stay sober, Dr. Finch says.
Dealing With Relapses
Schools’ responses to a student’s relapse varies, but in general the response is supportive, not punitive, Dr. Finch says. “The important thing we’ve learned is that what’s more important than the fact that they’ve slipped is what happens next,” he says. “Who do they go to for support, what help is available for them, do they know why they slipped, can they identify the people they were with and the feelings that caused them to use again?”
When a student does relapse they are immediately surrounded by peers, teachers and staff who can help them. Dr. Finch says that in a recovery environment, students are more likely to be honest about a relapse. “In a more punitive environment, or a large school where they get lost, it’s harder for them to admit they used again and to get the help they need,” he says. While schools often allow students to stay following a relapse or two, if they discern a pattern of dishonesty and manipulation, the staff may decide they are not helping the student and will recommend the student be transitioned to more rigorous treatment or to another school.
Recovery schools also provide extra support for families who are trying to learn how to live with a teenager in recovery, Dr. Finch says. “Some studies indicate that 70 to 80 percent of students coming into a recovery school have a co-occurring disorder such as physical, sexual or mental trauma,” he says. “When their alcohol and drug abuse goes away, the co-occurring trauma may become prominent and families need to make sure treatment is in place for that trauma.
Recovery Coach is Key
Hope Academy in Indianapolis, IN, is a charter school housed on the grounds of a substance abuse treatment program. While most students stay through graduation, some have tried going back to their old school and then returned, says Rachelle Gardner, Chief Operating Officer of Hope Academy. “They say it’s too hard to stay sober, and the classes are too big,” she says.
Every student meets with the school’s recovery coach on Monday, who reviews their progress, asking them how many meetings they attended and whether they stayed sober over the weekend. The coach also meets with parents and provides support for the staff, all of whom are trained in basic recovery skills.
Students who self-report substance abuse are given support. “Honesty is key,” Gardner says. “If they’re honest, we will help them.” Random drug tests are an incentive to keep them honest, she adds.
During the five years the school has been operating, 34 of its 35 graduates have been accepted to a post-secondary educational institution, Gardner says. “Not everyone goes straight to college—some decide to stay out for a year and work.”
The school has compared students’ sobriety days with their academic achievement, and found that the more sober days they have, the better they do academically, especially in math. “A lot of their success has to do with the individual attention they receive—we have no more than 15 students in a class,” Gardner says.
Showing Up is Important
At the INSIGHT program in White Bear, MN, the school’s 15 students meet daily with a drug and alcohol counselor. If they complete their schoolwork during the day, they are not required to do homework. “A lot of our kids are involved in meetings, aftercare, counseling sessions, therapy –if they don’t have homework they are freed up for these obligations,” says Traci Bowermaster, Lead Teacher and Special Education Teacher at INSIGHT, who is also Board Chair of the Association of Recovery Schools.
INSIGHT is located within an alternative school, the White Bear Lake Learning Center. The school has a close relationship with Augsburg College in Minneapolis, whose StepUp recovery program includes recovery housing.
Bowermaster says that over the past 10 years, the school has enrolled more than 200 students. “Of those students that we were able to locate for our 10-year reunion, only two didn’t graduate, one received a GED and the rest either graduated or are currently enrolled in school,” she says.
Beth Samuelson, the school’s licensed alcohol and drug counselor, says that much of the success of the school is due to the students’ willingness to come to school every day. “A lot of them didn’t go to class or were on probation in their old schools,” she says. “Here, they are starting fresh and the teachers don’t have any preconceived notions about them.”
For a list of recovery schools, visit the Association of Recovery Schools website.