High Schools for Addicts
May 11, 2016
By: Dylan Peers McCoy
When Avalon Dugan got out of treatment for drug and alcohol abuse, she had a choice: head back to the mainstream high school where she spent her freshman year or enroll in a tiny high school on the campus of the rehabilitation facility. Dugan choose the school for kids in recovery—a decision she says has helped her stay sober for over a year.
Hope Academy, a charter school that has been operating out of Fairbanks Addiction Treatment Center in Indianapolis for 10 years, offers services for teens grappling with addiction along with typical classes like math, English, and art.
Dugan initially struggled with relapse after she got out of rehab but Hope Academy’s close-knit community and regular drug testing made it difficult for her to hide her drug use from her parents and teachers, she said.
Hope Academy is among about 30 recovery high schools around the country that offer a unique approach to helping students stay sober and graduate from high school but, as the programs mature, they’re finding that many students are enrolling earlier in their recovery processes. That has put pressure on the schools to offer more support to students. In Indiana, Hope officials say the problem is that insurance companies are offering less coverage for rehab for kids addicted to opioids as opposed to alcohol, since detoxing from opioids isn’t considered life-threatening.
The first Hope students had been through treatment at Fairbanks, and they were well into the recovery process, Gardner said. That helped build a foundation for the kind of supportive culture the school is based on, and for the first few years, most students came to them after long-term treatment.
But the landscape has changed: Students now are coming to the school after brief stints in recovery programs—or no treatment at all, Gardner said. These teens need more support and they can struggle to integrate into the school culture. “That’s a different student then we had five years ago,” she said.
Located on the second floor of a Fairbanks building, Hope has just eight classrooms and seven teachers. Enrollment fluctuates, with students joining and leaving the school throughout the year, but it usually hovers around 35 teens.
Andy Finch, a Vanderbilt University researcher who is leading the first large-scale study into recovery-school outcomes, says many of the recovery schools around the country are also serving new, more challenging students because they are intentionally targeting more diverse students. “When you look at recovery high schools historically,” Finch said, “they are not very diverse racially and ethnically and really not all that diverse economically.”
Hope is a free, publicly funded charter school, but many recovery schools are private schools that charge tuition. The teens served by recovery schools in the past tended to be relatively privileged, with access to substance-abuse treatment, Finch said. But that is changing as some schools have actively tried to open their services up to needier kids including those with limited or no health insurance. “Recovery high schools are having to face the fact that not everybody has access to treatment,” he said.
The first recovery high school opened in 1979, Finch said. But there hasn’t been much rigorous research into how well the programs work compared to traditional schools. In fact, Hope is at the forefront of site-based research, he said. A study of Hope’s program from 2014 found that when students stop using drugs, their academic outcomes improve, said Mary Jo Rattermann, an educational consultant. Hope students who don’t relapse actually show more growth than similar peers at mainstream high schools.
Rattermann initially evaluated Hope for the Mayor’s Office of Education Innovation, which charters the school. When that contract ended, she continued to study the school, first through a contract paid for by Hope and now as part of a national project funded by the Association of Recovery High Schools, she said.
“What Hope Academy is doing is nationally acknowledged as a very successful model,” Rattermann said. “This is a school and it’s about academics, and it’s about being a high-school kid as much as you can give that to them.”
Part of the reason the bill is so high is because the school is committed to having teachers for every subject rather than relying on online learning, said Gardner. The school can serve as many as 60 students without increasing the number of teachers, she said. Since only about 35 students are currently attending, Hope could push down per-student costs by increasing the number of teens enrolled.
Hope won’t work for every teen. Some students drop out or leave for more intensive treatment. When teens continue to use drugs and alcohol, they are sometimes suspended or expelled. In fact, Dugan herself was briefly expelled from Hope. In her second year at the school, she had fallen deeper into addiction, going from using alcohol and marijuana to injecting heroin. It got so bad in the spring, that she was expelled from the school. But she continued to come back for tutoring and regular drug tests. It was her drug tests that changed everything for Dugan.
For months, she had managed to clean up enough for her heroin use to slip under the radar, Dugan said. But on a spring day in 2014, she made a mistake and her drug test came back positive for opioids. When Dugan’s mother walked into her room to tell her the test result, Dugan could see the pain and resignation in her face. “I just didn’t lie to her,” she said. “I just said, ‘Yeah, I’m still using.’” And that was the end, Dugan said. She stopped using drugs that day and she’s been clean ever since.
When she came back to Hope that fall, she was totally changed, said principal Linda Gagyi. “We had kind of a contract,” she said. “She did amazing … She was truly committed to recovery.”