AllTreatment had the pleasure of interviewing Helene Cross, President and CEO of Fairbanks (in association with LaVerna Lodge) and Rachelle Gardner, Director of Adolescent Services at Fairbanks and COO for Hope Academy about the current momentum and future challenges of recovery schools in the United States.
AT: What is a recovery high school?
Rachelle Gardner: It's a school that provides a safe and sober environment, where young people can achieve academic success and also success in maintaining sobriety and support. It's an environment that fosters relationships and long-term sobriety, giving young people the support in order to do that, and being able to achieve academic success, which in a normal traditional school, they haven't been able to achieve. This gives young people hope and a chance to go on to secondary education, whether that is a community college or a large university.
This gives young people hope and a chance to go on to secondary education
AT: Who makes a good candidate for recovery high school?
RG: A young person who is willing to address their addiction issues, willing to receive support around staying sober and who want to achieve academic success. The two key points are that they want to be sober and they are interested in their education. If those two answers are 'yes' then a support system can be built around them in any type of recovery school.
Helene Cross: We should highlight the distinction between a recovery school and a treatment school. In recovery school, a young person has gone through treatment first and they have those tools that you learn in treatment, so there's a common language and an opportunity to interact with peers in that culture using those tools.
RG: Most of the students are also receiving some sort of therapeutic support outside of the school. So they're in an intensive outpatient program, family counseling, they're seeing a private therapist, or they're in some sort of halfway house. Since they're treatment issues are dealt with outside of the school, the school is there to wrap their arms around them and support them in their recovery efforts.
AT: What should students and parents know before attending recovery high school?
HC: It's a small school. One of the things parents want to know is how it is different than a normal school. We need to emphasize the difference in the way we teach and the fact that we understand recovery and provide this supportive environment, but there are some things they will sacrifice. A small school doesn't have a football team, and a small charter school with a limit budget doesn't have money for electives. We have talented teachers who can teach art and creative writing and music and we can play sports outside, but we don't have organized sports the same way a normal school would. So they need to balance the sacrifices against the important goal – if we support the recovery and academic success, then this young person who is very vulnerable in terms of being able to graduate, will graduate. Sometimes it's harder for the parent to give up their aspirations of their daughter being the homecoming queen or their son being a football star, but that's a decision they have to make.
I asked him why he came back and he replied "because I can learn at this school."
We've had kids that will start with us and then leave after a year of good stabilization and academic performance because they want to be with their friends. I remember one young man in particular who was here his freshman year then left to go back to the high school in his area where his friends from grade school were, but after a semester there, he came back. I asked him why he came back and he replied "because I can learn at this school."
RG: The other thing to remember is it's not a cure. Coming to a recovery high school will not cure you of your disease. Kids are still going to struggle with their addiction, but what it does do is give them the support and knowledge of what to do. And we also provide parents with support of how to help their child when they're not at school. We only have the kids for a relatively short amount of time during the day since they do go home. We are a tolerant school, unlike public high schools, because we understand this is a relapsing disease. What we try and do however is one, learn from each relapse and two, try to lengthen the time between relapses because the longer they can go without a relapse the greater chance of recovery they will have.
AT: Can you explain what a typical day at a Recovery High School is like?
RG: For one, our school starts later, it starts at nine because we know that adolescent brains are slower to get started in the morning and therefore they are not as prepared to learn at 7 o'clock in the morning as they are at 9 o'clock. The first thing we do in the morning is meet as a community which sets the tone for the day, and then they go on to their regular credit courses. They have math, science, social studies and English. Our English teachers for example will teach all levels of English, so 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th grade, and an elective, so they're very busy. The real challenge is to keep all the students engaged, so to help with that we do a lot of project-based learning because we've found the kids really respond when they do something that connects to something in everyday life. And then they have a recovery wellness class everyday where they do a check-in to see how many meetings they've gone to or what kind of cravings they had that day or here are the areas where I've succeeded in recovery or here's where I need more support.
HC: If you walk into one of our science classrooms for example, you'll see the thread of addiction being part of the lesson. Last year they did a large cut out of their own body on a piece of paper and they showed how their brain is affected by addiction and how genetics plays a role in addiction and the physical effects of addiction on their body. So it's very interesting, wherever they can, the teachers will weave the science of addiction into the curriculum so they understand their disease more.
RG: They also do a lot of cooperative learning. Because this is the 40th anniversary of Woodstock, the English teacher and the social studies teacher will do a cooperative project looking at what Woodstock would have looked like if it took place in 1900. What would the drugs have been? And what would the impact on our society have been? And they will be doing a lot of reading and writing around those components and really looking at addiction and how it affects social, scientific, and emotional factors.
HC: So we really try to take real life examples and continue to incorporate those into the curriculum wherever we can.
AT: What is the ultimate goal of recovery high school?
HC: There are two primary goals, one is to complete high school and to be prepared for the workforce and the other goal is to support and retain sobriety so that they're graduating sober.
AT: What does the future look like for recovery schools?
HC: Recovery schools in general have seen a fairly large movement lately across the country. Massachusetts for example now has three recovery schools; in fact they have a statute that came from their state department of health that sanctions the development of recovery schools. Minnesota has claim to the first recovery high school that started in 1989.
RG: There are about 35 recovery high school programs across 19 states in the country and about 15 college programs.
These kids are very vulnerable and they need support.
HC: So it's really gaining momentum. When we met with the Association of Recovery Schools last week we were able to share what we're learning, successes, and methods of teaching so that we can support each other. And there are always financial issues when you're a small school, so there was an opportunity to develop methods of endowing our schools. And I find this very exciting, is now that schools have been around a while we have data to determine elements for us to study so we can come up with common benchmarks. So individually it's hard to come up with these data points, but when all of the recovery schools come together to share information we're able to learn more.
It's important for people to recognize that kids in recovery learn differently and they need an environment that supports the fact that they learn differently. If we want these kids to be successful we need to support them. It's very difficult for a kid in recovery to go back to a normal school. Teachers are bombarded with students and challenges on a daily basis, how should we expect them to know the challenges that kids in recovery face? That they learn differently? It's very difficult, that's why recovery schools are necessary. These kids are very vulnerable and they need support.