Amid Opioid Epidemic, States Experiment With Recovery High Schools

Lyonel Traversiere, school operations coordinator at William J. Ostiguy High School in Boston© The Pew Charitable Trusts

Lyonel Traversiere, school operations coordinator at William J. Ostiguy High School in Boston. Recovery high schools like Ostiguy are designed to help teens with addiction stay sober.

BOSTON — This summer, Melvin Matos did something that he never thought he would do: Graduate from high school.

He’d started drinking at 14, and quickly moved on to pills and pot. By the time he turned 16, Matos could see where his life was heading — some of his buddies already had died from drugs and drink.

After a stint in rehab, Matos decided to enroll at the William J. Ostiguy High School in downtown Boston, one of five public “recovery high schools” in Massachusetts. There, in addition to his academic classes, he participated in group therapy and 12-step meetings, submitted to regular drug tests — and formed friendships with kids facing similar struggles.

This fall, Matos will enroll in a local community college and pursue his dreams of a pro baseball career. He’s convinced that if he hadn’t gone to Ostiguy, he’d still be using alcohol and drugs.

An estimated 1.3 million 12- to 17-year-olds have a substance abuse disorder. Those 12 to 19 years old account for nearly 12 percent of all admissions to publicly funded rehab facilities — and about half of all students who return to traditional schools after treatment relapse within a year. Teens who relapse are less likely to stay in school and are more likely to skip school.

Proponents say recovery high schools like Ostiguy greatly reduce the chances of a relapse and ultimately save taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars by diverting one teen from the criminal justice system.

As the nation struggles with an opioid-addiction epidemic, states increasingly have experimented with recovery high schools that enroll only kids who have drug and alcohol addiction problems as a way to help treat and support them.

Today, there are 27 public or charter recovery high schools in 11 states, including Texas, Minnesota and New Jersey.

This month, Florida will open its first public recovery high school, in Jacksonville. In July, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, signed a bill to create a four-year pilot program to allow public school students to attend the state’s lone recovery high school, which is private.

Other schools are slated to open soon in Chicago, Denver, Las Vegas, Washington, D.C., and Colorado Springs, Colorado, according to the Association of Recovery Schools (ARS), a Denver-based nonprofit membership organization that provides support and accreditation services to the schools.

“Recovery high schools can be a potential diversion for these kids, keeping them out of homeless shelters, foster care and the juvenile justice system,” said Kristen Harper, executive director of the ARS.

Obstacles to Overcome

Getting a recovery school up and running is far from easy. The schools are expensive. Recovery high schools typically spend $16,000 to $18,000 per student each year, according to the ARS. That’s compared to the national average of $10,700 for regular public schools. (Ostiguy spends about $32,000 per student, according to its principal, Roger Oser.)

Class sizes typically are small — the better to give students, many of whom have fallen behind academically, intensive support. Some schools have fewer than 15 students and none has more than 100, according to Andrew Finch, an associate professor at Vanderbilt University who has researched recovery schools for more than a decade.

Because recovery schools serve two functions — educating youth and providing therapy to them — they also are complicated to operate. There’s considerable bureaucracy to navigate, from ensuring that academic curriculums meet state standards to finding a suitable location to securing transportation for kids who live far from the school.

And there are questions of who pays and who’s responsible for what.

Most public and charter schools rely on a combination of public funding and private donations. Some charge a small tuition fee to cover the costs of drug testing and support staff.

Because students often enter midyear, after completing rehab, and others may relapse, the size of the student body fluctuates, which can make it hard to set a budget. Schools treat relapse as part of the recovery process and usually re-admit students when they return from treatment.

“We try to give kids as many chances as they need,” Oser said.

Often schools are run by a patchwork of agencies and nonprofits. For example, the recovery schools in Massachusetts were formed as alternative public schools a decade ago as part of a statewide, interagency plan to combat substance abuse.

One out of 10 people aged 12 and older in the state was dependent on alcohol or other drugs. The state estimated that addiction costs $77 million each year in incarceration and $167 million in hospitalization.

Ostiguy in Boston is funded by the Massachusetts Department of Education and the Department of Public Health. It operates in collaboration with the Action for Boston Community Development, a nonprofit human services organization, the Gavin Foundation, a substance abuse agency, and the Boston Public Schools.

“A lot of people say, ‘I’d like to have a recovery high school in my state,’ ” Finch said. “And then they look into it. But it can be overwhelming. That’s where having a state legislator on their side can make things go smoother. It can get very political.”

Starts and Stops

It took five years for New Jersey to open its first recovery high school. It was started by a community-based nonprofit, Prevention Links, and public school districts were leery, said Pamela Capaci, the nonprofit’s executive director. They didn’t want to open a school that only admitted students with substance abuse issues and excluded others, she said.

After many hiccups, including a failed attempt to get the Legislature to amend charter school laws, the nonprofit partnered with a local vocational-technical school district and opened the Raymond J. Lesniak Experience, Strength and Hope Recovery High School in Union Township. For now, classes are held in a building donated by a local college, Kean University.

The academic portion of the school is paid for with tax dollars, and the rest of the program is paid for through grants and fundraising. (The school’s annual budget is $450,000, Capaci said, but should be twice that to adequately fund its activities.)

The school welcomed its first students in 2015, but there were only five of them. This year, the school will admit at least 10 students, which Capaci considers a small victory after a year of efforts to find students willing to seek help.

“We had so many learning curves. But with the heroin epidemic, it really made sense to bring this program to our state,” Capaci said. “We just jumped in and I’m so glad we did.”

Last year, Republican Gov. Chris Christie signed a law to create three additional recovery high schools in the northern, central and southern portions of the state. But so far, no school districts have expressed interest, said state Sen. Raymond Lesniak, a Democrat, for whom the recovery school is named.

“The startup obstacles are so high,” Lesniak said.

A further complication, he said, is most superintendents are reluctant to refer students to schools outside their districts because that means losing per-pupil state funding.

He’d like to see federal and state laws changed so substance abuse is considered a disability. That way, he said, it would be easier to fund additional recovery high schools around the country.

Students with learning disabilities are protected under federal law and school districts are required to provide special education services to these kids. They are not required by law to provide special services for kids with a substance abuse disorder.

Without recovery schools to support them, teens who get out of treatment are forced to go back to the environment where they got into trouble, Lesniak said.

“They relapse within days and hardly any of them ever graduate and nothing good happens after that,” Lesniak said.

How successful the recovery schools are in helping kids avoid relapse is hard to gauge. Vanderbilt’s Finch said there is little data on the relapse rates for the schools.

But preliminary research shows “quite positive results,” particularly with reducing marijuana use, said Paul Moberg, a research professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. (The two are collaborating on a national multi-year study of recovery schools.)

At Ostiguy, where 61 students were enrolled for the 2013-14 school year, results were mixed. Sixteen of 21 seniors graduated. Eighteen students advanced to the next grade, six did not advance but remained enrolled, nine returned to their home school, four pursued a GED and eight are no longer enrolled in any school.

Encountering Defeats

Ostiguy High School is tucked away in a bland office building on a commercial strip in downtown Boston. A block or so away, in Boston Common, kids struggling with addiction sleep on park benches.

Inside the public alternative school, kids who once slept on park benches struggle to stay clean. The walls are plastered with inspirational quotes: “We may encounter many defeats but we must not be defeated.” “Words are free. It’s how you use them that may cost you.”

Students entering the school must be between 14 and 21, be sober at least 30 days and undergo a string of interviews to determine whether they’re ready to commit to recovery.

Students who don’t show up for class have to contend with Lyonel Traversiere, the school’s operations coordinator and all-round cheerleader and disciplinarian. Picking up the phone to check on students or taking a kid to a 12-step meeting is part of the job, he says.

Some kids can handle the discipline of showing up every day, staying sober and studying hard. Others can’t. But the doors are always open.

“For a lot of kids, this is their last option,” Traversiere said.