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Home > Research Articles > Sobriety High Schools Offer a Program of Learning, Recovery


Thursday, January 2, 2003


Feature article From Alive and Free

The writer Anais Nin said that "adolescence is like a cactus." The teenage years are indeed prickly ones, filled with uncomfortable emotions and uncharted terrain as teens enter high school and move self-consciously into young adulthood.

High school presents even more challenges for teens recovering from addiction who struggle to remain clean and sober after treatment. Drugs and alcohol are easy to come by in most schools, and the pressure to use them is often great. According to the national Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the number of students age 12-17 who received treatment for substance abuse rose 20 percent from 1994-1999, with well over 100,000 young people entering treatment each year.

Studies show that approximately 80 percent of students who return to their former high schools after treatment begin using drugs or alcohol again. "One of the first rules of recovery is that if you're trying to stay clean and sober you have to avoid your old playground and your old playmates," said Andy Finch, director of the Association of Recovery Schools and executive director of Creative Recovery Communities, a nonprofit organization that runs Community High School in Nashville, Tenn.

Community High School is one of 19 high schools nationwide designed to support the recovery of young persons who have either received treatment for their addictions or made a conscious decision to live a sober lifestyle. According to Finch, four more such high schools are set to open in the next two years, and three college programs are currently in operation.

Often called "dry highs, sober highs, or recovery highs," these schools provide what Finch calls a "protective cocoon" that nurtures students' recovery as they work to attain their high school diplomas. "Recovery schools are not treatment facilities," emphasized Finch. "Recovery schools are self-contained schools where students receive the full-range of academic services. Students are in school seven hours a day, just like in other schools, and they are expected to exist the other 17 hours a day in the 'real world.'"

The difference between recovery schools and traditional high schools is that 100 percent of the students are in recovery, and staff and fellow students are dedicated to supporting all students in their recovery. Every student is expected to work a recovery program, and all students are required to be alcohol- and drug-free. While some schools conduct random urine screens, other schools have students sign a sobriety contract. Anecdotal evidence shows that the relapse rate is substantially lower for students who attend recovery schools after treatment versus those who attend traditional schools. Most recovery schools give students a second chance if they relapse and are honest about it and if they agree to do whatever they need to do to make their recovery program stronger.

Recovery schools are quite small, ranging from six to 70 students. Many of the teachers, counselors, and staff are in recovery themselves or have worked in some recovery setting, and the individual attention a student gets can make the difference between flourishing and failing. However, it is the small student-to-teacher ratio and size of the school that makes it hard to get public funding in the current economy, and funding varies dramatically from state to state. For instance, the Nashville school receives no public subsidies, while other schools, such as the nonprofit Sobriety High in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, receive about 40 percent of their funding from the state and 60 percent from private donations.

Before the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment recently helped create the Association of Recovery Schools, schools developed on their own, through trial and error, with no blueprint and little guidance from other schools. It is Finch's dream that many more recovery schools will open now that an information and support network has been established and they don't have to start from scratch.

"Every state and most major cities could populate a recovery school, yet 40 states provide no such options," Finch said. "I would like to see schools develop around the country so that students coming out of treatment can easily commute to a school where they can learn life skills they need to maintain their sobriety and discover that being in recovery can actually be fun."

For more information on recovery high schools and colleges, go to the Association of Recovery School Web site at www.recoveryschools.org.

Alive & Free is a health column that offers information needed to help prevent substance abuse problems and address such problems. It is provided by Hazelden, a nonprofit agency based in Center City, Minn., that offers a wide range of information and treatment services on addiction. For more resources, call Hazelden at 1-800-257-7800 or check its Web site at www.hazelden.org.