For young people battling drug addiction, completing a treatment program is one of many challenges on the road to recovery. Where they go for that treatment and how long they stay can significantly affect their formative years. Substance use disorders are fewer among youths who graduate from high school and college than among youths who don't.1
Then there are the more distressing connections to job troubles, crime, and poorer mental and physical health.2
Teenagers may be dealing with trouble at home, gang or crime involvement, and mental health issues. With substance-using peers and easy access to drugs or alcohol, temptation is pervasive—testing even the strongest will to abstain. There is no safe haven in which kids can stay forever guarded from the lure of drugs, but when armed with the right coping skills and supports, a young person can rise above external pressures and learn to thrive in the community. At school, students benefit from the protective effects of peer bonding, cultivating personal interests, and academic achievement.
The first school dedicated to students recovering from chemical dependency opened its doors in 1979. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, more recovery high schools followed, in Minnesota, New Mexico, and Washington. Today there are 38 recovery schools nationwide.
Recovery high schools (RHS) are designed to address the emotional, mental health, and educational needs of students with substance use disorders. The programs are typically small, with fewer than 30 students enrolled at a time. Classes are even smaller, ranging from 2 to 15 students.
These students have a complex history of drug use, criminal justice involvement, and varying educational backgrounds. A very high percentage have a co-occurring mental health disorder or issue, often undiagnosed, and many have been traumatized. "Drugs or alcohol may have been their primary coping mechanism," says Andy Finch, Ph.D., associate professor of the Practice of Human and Organizational Development at Vanderbilt University and a co-founder of the Association of Recovery Schools. "When that's removed, you really start to see the underlying symptoms emerge."
RHS programs provide intensive therapeutic and peer recovery supports to kids who have never been treated, as well as those in post-treatment. Each school operates differently depending on available resources and state standards, but they all have common goals: to educate students recovering from substance use or co-occurring disorders; to maintain a non-threatening, supportive atmosphere; to provide students with the knowledge and tools to pursue recovery now and later in life; and to help them succeed academically.
"Data is showing positive effects of being in an RHS across a wide spectrum of outcomes," says Dr. Finch. "A pretty high percentage of these kids are finishing high school."
Dr. Finch and his colleagues conducted a study comparing students who had received substance abuse treatment and went to a recovery school with kids who didn't. "In the 6-month outcomes and what we've seen in the 12-month outcomes so far, virtually all of the effects appear to be positive," he says. "For example, when we asked about abstinence, there was a pretty strong difference for the RHS kids. Not only are they sustaining sobriety and having fewer days of drug use, they're also relapsing at a lower rate. There were fewer days of marijuana and other drug and alcohol use as well. The most statistically significant measure in academics was truancy—RHS kids had fewer days truant."
Equally important are the "global" measures of progress for students who say they are in a better place emotionally, academically, and with their families. "There's a real sense of empowerment," says Dr. Finch. "They are collaborative programs that involve the kids from day 1. Learning to give support to peers and receive it, accountability, self-regulation … these are life skills that all kids can benefit from. I hear students say 'I like school' for the first time and start to plan for college."
Recovery high schools vary in structure, size, and practice. Some are built as charters; others are alternative or private schools; and some are contracted by the public school system. They may share space with another school or nonacademic organization. Within each is a qualified network of teachers, counselors, peers, and other student support staff who provide coordinated, recovery-focused programming.
Many programs offer one-on-one and extra counseling and services for students who need it. Most days begin with a check-in, while recovery components like "life skills" development, peer support meetings, and community building are scheduled at the same time each day. Students are encouraged to be involved in each other's recovery in and outside the classroom.
Teaching and learning in a recovery high school is typically self-paced, flexible, often tutorial in nature, and sometimes supplemented with online coursework. Resources and staff training vary, as do student turnover rates. When students with severe cases require more therapeutically, there is a greater burden on teachers, which can compromise the academic rigor of RHS programs.
"On the strengths end," says Dr. Finch, "the [schools'] ability to remediate and accelerate is strong. They can assess a student's needs and be creative because class sizes are small enough for individualized instruction. A lot of schools almost structure themselves to readily address the gaps. Everybody might be in a different place in a math class, for example, but because there are only 5 to 10 students in that particular class, teachers can group them or walk around and make sure kids are getting what they need."
Still, the demands on an RHS student to stay clean and succeed academically mean maintaining a delicate balance. "There are a lot of expectations for them outside of school, like going to counseling and hanging out in clean groups, and schools really try to understand that," says Dr. Finch.
If a student relapses, there are procedures in place to address the setback without diverting him or her away from school. In most cases, the student reports the incident, and a recovery plan is initiated that may entail more time with a counselor or support group. "Schools realize they are dealing with a chronic, recurring disease," says Dr. Finch. "They don't see relapse as a failure. The staff get to know students so well that they can personalize a relapse agreement. It doesn't have to be a one-size-fits-all approach."
Although enrollment varies, most schools need a certain number of students to be financially viable. Funding is often a major challenge. "The most important part is knowing where your students will come from," says Dr. Finch. "Identify multiple pathways to the school. Once you know where your students are coming from, start building those relationships and learn how to maintain them. The relationships have to be cultivated in part because you want the people who support the development of your recovery school to be there for the long haul."
Dr. Finch says schools should start small, with manageable coursework. "You can have a very rigorous curriculum, but how effective is it if the kid isn't benefiting? If students really feel invested, taking in everything you're teaching because they are actually mentally and emotionally present … well, that feels pretty robust to me." 12013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health 2High School Dropout Rates, 2015 Other Sources
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