Lawmakers Fight for Recovery High Schools


USN writes

When Kristen was 14, she started drinking alcohol alone at night in her room. She suffered from anxiety and depression after her mother, a longtime alcoholic and anorexic, committed suicide when Kristen was 11. Over the next few years, Kristen also smoked marijuana, took pills, used LSD and experimented with crystal meth.

At her public high school outside of Philadelphia, she was a partier, one of the “cool kids” and “a badass who used [drugs] all the time,” she recalls.

At 15, Kristen entered her first treatment center, which she ran away from the first day and left for good after less than a month. After returning to school, she began using again and was seated next to a drug dealer in a class meant to help students suffering from mental health issues.

Eventually, Kristen returned to treatment for six months, but it was a bumpy ride. She broke a coffee pot at a treatment center to cut herself with a glass shard and spent a brief period of time at an inpatient psychiatric unit.

Now, at 19 and with two-plus years of sobriety, Kristen is set to attend Pennsylvania State University’s Brandywine campus in the fall after graduating from The Bridge Way School – the high school that she says saved her life.

The Bridge Way School, which opened in 2011 and is housed in a Philadelphia synagogue, is one of 38 “recovery high schools” around the country. The schools have an average of 30 students and provide academic and therapeutic services to students working toward recovery from substance abuse or dependence.

At Bridge Way, students participate in group and individual counseling sessions, have an individualized program including structured events and meetings after school, and undergo random drug testing. Unlike at their old schools, where Bridge Way students say they were often offered drugs, students rely on a strong culture of support to stay sober and hold each other accountable if they suspect someone has returned to using.

For students like Kristen, returning to the same school after treatment wasn’t an option. She needed a completely new environment where she wouldn’t be tempted to return to her old habits.

“I think I would probably be dead – just being candid,” says Kristen, who attended Bridge Way for two years after returning from her six months of counseling and treatment.

She now has a full life to plan. “I never thought I was going to live past 18, so to have to piece together this life I never thought existed, it’s kind of cool,” she says.

Kristen plans to transfer to Pennsylvania State University’s main campus in State College after two years and is already involved with its recovery community. She also represents Bridge Way through speaking arrangements to be a voice for young people in recovery, and is heavily involved in Narcotics Anonymous.

Research has shown the effectiveness of recovery schools and how they are helping students like Kristen, and state lawmakers are listening.

In a 2009 study evaluating students at more than a dozen recovery schools, participants said they only stayed sober 32 percent of the time before entering their respective schools, compared to 82 percent after they began their programs.

Among some other findings, the study showed that over 70 percent of the students said they were performing better academically in their recovery schools and nearly 60 percent said they felt better emotionally.

Andy Finch, one of the study’s authors and a co-founder of the Association of Recovery Schools, tells U.S. News he is analyzing data from a new study comparing students who entered recovery schools after receiving drug and alcohol treatment, and those who attended other schools.

“The general finding was the effects of recovery high schools was positive across many categories – the substance use categories, academic outcomes and mental health outcomes,” says Finch, who also co-founded a recovery high school (now closed) in Nashville and a collegiate recovery program at Vanderbilt University.

At Bridge Way, 92 percent of students who graduate from the program go on to attend college, and students express how much better they are doing in all aspects of life.

Other research shows that eight out of 10 students relapse within the first six months of returning to their old school, according to Bridge Way’s Head of School Rebecca Bonner.

Students at Bridge Way stress that they needed a completely new environment after treatment, where they wouldn’t be tempted to fall back into their old behaviors. They also say the extra resources their public schools provided them were not enough.

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