It's Time For Recovery High Schools To Be The Norm

by Susie b Cross
Originally Published: 
Four people sit in a circle while an older woman holds a girl by her shoulder during recovery high s...
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We live in a country where nearly 21 million people have at least one addiction. More than that, over 90% of those 21 million used alcohol or drugs before their 18th birthday. “Just say no” is still a joke and I’m not sure the three-trillion dollar war on drugs was money well-spent. These large-scale-yet-meager efforts (and others) are falling amazingly short of addressing the substance-abuse problem that is long-standing and ubiquitous; you’d think we would use every tool imaginable to combat this problem as early as possible. You’d think we would be investing in proven resources like recovery high schools, which are specifically designed to meet the needs of students in recovery from substance abuse and co-occurring disorders, like depression or anxiety. Unfortunately, though, not many people have even heard of such schools.

Traditionally, our public schools have not taken on that onus of meeting the needs of students with substance abuse issues. Honestly, how in the world could they? Educators are expected to stand in loco parentis, complete interminable paperwork, manage their classrooms, and actually teach; understandably, they are already expected to do too much, and they simply do not have the training and time to work with this specialized subset of students. Andrew Finch, co-founder of the Association of Recovery Schools and an associate professor of human and organizational development at Vanderbilt University, knows this. “There has been a gap in adolescent treatment for many, many years,” says Finch. “[Recovery] schools are one of the programs that fill in that gap.”

Like any other public school, recovery high schools meet the state requirements (though students may go at a different pace), and the teaching staff is typically buttressed by substance abuse counselors and mental health professionals (or access to them). Many programs expect their students to participate in outside treatment programs—while working on their degrees. Recovery high schools may also integrate whole families into their model, helping them learn how to support their teen, and themselves, as the student enters into the recovery lifestyle. An almost impossible job.

Though the Association of Recovery Schools purports that their primary mission is “to educate students in their recovery from substance abuse and co-occurring disorders,” they are doing a whole lot more than just educating. Badih Rask, a Harmony Academy parent, credits the school for helping students accept themselves and discover what they are capable of. “It’s not just about recovery,” Rask told the Oregonian. “It’s about recovering the whole person.”

(Unfortunately, Harmony Academy is the only recovery high school in the entire state of Oregon).

Recovery high schools understand that creating an atmosphere of fellowship is one key to helping students meet their recovery goals. These students are able to escape the isolation that often led to (or was caused by) their substance abuse by connecting with others in their position, others that understand. This lifting each other up is essential, according to Emily Rask. “It’s a very close community…it’s like a second family” she explains. “Everyone feels welcomed and loved. I definitely didn’t see this in Portland Public Schools.”

Seth Welch, a counselor at a Seattle recovery high school, Interagency Queen Anne, agrees with Rask: “Unless these kids get engaged with other young people in recovery, they don’t stand a chance,” he told Time. “This becomes their new community.”

So, if you uproot a student who feels connected to their fellow students, who are also working to embrace a recovery lifestyle, and throw them back into the mix of non-sober peers, that is creating a recipe for disaster. Friends definitely have more influence than parents during the high school years, and it doesn’t matter if their decisions are “good” or “bad.”

According to a 2020 Monitoring the Future Study, nearly 37% of high schools seniors report using illicit drugs in the past year, and over 56% report drinking alcohol. I think we can safely say that, in terms of drug use, our kids’ peers are leaning toward the not-too-great choice category. Studies also show that within six months of completing a recovery school curriculum, students have a relapse rate of only 30% – less than half of normal intervention programs. In the words of Kristen, a student who attended the Philadelphia’s Bridge Way for two years: “I think I would probably be dead [if I had returned to my old high school]– just being candid.” And we should believe her.

In spite of their successes, recovery high schools are few and far between–with only 34 peppered throughout the U.S. With an average enrollment of 30, these proven-to-be-successful schools are only serving an estimated 2,000 students struggling with addiction–when we have in excess of two million 12 to 17-year-olds using drugs even within the last month alone. That is an incredible number of at-risk youth who are being abandoned by the school system.

But you certainly can’t blame recovery high schools themselves. According to New Jersey State Sen. Raymond Lesniak, co-founder of the state’s only recovery high school, districts are reluctant to lose per-pupil funding. “They’re heartless and they’re cruel because they don’t care about the child; they only care about the money,” Lesniak told U.S. News and World Report. “And they only care about their reputation because they don’t want to admit that there’s drugs and alcohol in their school.”

This is not always the case, of course, but funding is a definite issue. A district’s cost per recovery high school pupil cost generally runs $16,000 to $18,000 each year, compared to the average $11,000 of traditional high schools. And, whether school districts are “heartless and cruel” or not, some are not convinced that diverting funding from their established schools is the best route to go.

Without a doubt, societal stigma plays a hefty role in this reluctance. As Minnesota’s White Bear Lake Area Learning Center teacher Traci Bowermaster told the Huffington Post: “We hear a lot that young addicts are just kind of throwaway kids that aren’t worth the time…But we’re seeing that these are great kids with such wonderful potential…These are kids with huge challenges to deal with who are working on a plan to get through those challenges.”

It’s time this country sees things the way Bowermaster does. Our struggling students aren’t “throwaway” kids. And recovery high schools aren’t “throwaway” schools. These schools shouldn’t be an anomaly–they should be the norm.

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