NJ gets a Recovery High School

Photo taken from a Star Ledger article in March, 2014 that covered the NJ Heroin & Other Opiate Task Force Report. This photo is of a girl at the Bridgeway Recovery School in Philadelphia.

This fall, NJ will finally get its own Recovery High School. That school is the Raymond Lesniak ESH Recovery High School and it will be located this year at Kean University in Union County. It is open to students throughout NJ.

A Recovery High School is exclusively for kids that have substance abuse or substance dependence. Many of the students enroll voluntarily, while others are coerced by their parents or the authorities (this is ok…people can get sober through coercion). Every member of the staff, faculty and administration in each school has to attend numerous trainings regarding addiction and recovery. There are lots of social, academic and counseling supports available to the students. More and more kids are going to treatment each year (although the length and quality of that treatment is often a concern), but foolishly, those kids are usually sent back to the exact same school and home environment that hastened their demise in the first place. It’s a poor public policy.

There are currently over 30 Recovery High Schools in America. Minnesota has many of them and Massachusetts has three of them (one of my favorites is the North Shore Recovery High School, which was covered in a great article on MSNBC back in 2012). NYC, despite a vigorous effort to create one, does not have one. Most of the Recovery High Schools are members of the Association of Recovery Schools, which has had an annual conference since 2000.  This year, ARS has begun to come up with criteria and standards for what makes a quality Recovery High School.

From 2010 to 2012, I was one of eight Founders of the New Day Recovery Charter School in Newark, NJ. The group was led by Marc Wurgraft of YCS and was made up of board members from the New Hope Baptist Church, Rutgers, YCS and the Newark Public Schools. We met every Monday for two years, won a $500K federal start up grant, hired a principal, developed policy and looked for a site. In 2011, we were ordered to take the “Recovery” out of the name and agreed to be called the New Day Charter High School. It was a frustrating blow, but we heeded Ben Franklin’s words that “Half a loaf is better than no loaf” and kept moving forward. At the end of June, 2012, we were informed that our charter was again denied and the Board voted to disband. It was heartbreaking. We were met with obstacles and roadblocks from various institutions in Newark, the Department of Education and Governor Christie’s office (I’m sure that they will all deny this). Later, I learned that the Division of Youth and Family Services tried to put together a Recovery High School in the early 2000’s and met similar opposition before giving up.*

Some of the particularly galling aspects of all of this are:

(1) I have spoken around the state about how we spend $10K to $30K a month on in-patient substance abuse treatment for teenagers only to send them back to the same schools

(2) 93% of those kids are offered substances their first day back in school

(3) and most of them are using at the same rate they were before treatment after a few months

(4) People nod their heads and say, “I’m with you” and “A Recovery High School makes perfect sense”

(5) but when it comes time to fund it or put it in someone’s back yard, everyone turns their backs.

That is why I am so thrilled and pleased that Prevention Links has joined together with State Senator Lesniak to finally create a Recovery High School in NJ. The Executive Director of Prevention Links (and key figure in pushing this thing forward) is Pam Capaci. She can be reached at pcapaci@preventionlinks.org and you can donate money to the school here. The Rutgers Recovery House has agreed to send successful students in sustained recovery up there to volunteer at the school, speak to the students, be role models and even sponsor students who have made a commitment to recovery. Hopefully, some of the graduates of this new Recovery High School will find their way to Rutgers and other institutions of higher learning in order to further their education and recovery.

Back in March of this year, the NJ Heroin & Other Opiate Task Force released our report. One of our suggestions was that NJ needs a Recovery High School. Ron Susswein, a Deputy Attorney General in NJ, and I co-wrote the following passage:

Even in the best of circumstances, drug rehab is not easy. It is even more difficult when adolescent addicts must also endure the normal stresses associated with school. In 2004-2005, 37,790 New Jersey students were referred to a school-based program or outside service for reasons related to the use of alcohol or other drugs (excluding smoking cessation). Studies indicate that the prognosis for students who complete a treatment program is poor, with relapse rates as high as 85% upon returning to school.

The problem lies not in the quality of the treatment services that were offered, but rather in the nature of the environment that school-aged recovering addicts must return to. According to Dr. Dale Klatzer, President and CEO of the Providence Center – a community behavioral health organization in Providence, Rhode Island – 93% of students who return to their high school are offered substances on their very first day back at school. Dr. Klatzer also reported that within 90 days of returning to school, 50% of the students who have gone through treatment are using substances at levels at or above where they were prior to treatment. Most of those who relapsed did so within the first month out of treatment.

There is a growing body of evidence that relapse rates can be greatly reduced if recovering students had the opportunity to attend a “recovery school” – a small supportive community that fosters an environment within which these students feel safe. At such institutions, students would not be stigmatized by their addiction. They would not be outcasts, and they would not be pressured by other students to return to active substance abuse. To the contrary, the conclave of students sharing the experience of recovery would become a natural support group, encouraging sobriety.

Thomas Kochanek, a Rhode Island college professor, conducted a study of the three recovery high schools in Massachusetts. He found that after five years, 80% of the students had maintained a commitment to their recovery and that a majority of students earned a B average or higher. Twenty months after graduation, 90% of the students were either enrolled in college or were employed.

Despite the research that shows the potential effectiveness of recovery schools, past efforts in New Jersey to replicate this model have not been successful. Notably, those who have attempted to start a recovery school have run into legal problems in trying to fit the recovery school model into our statutory and regulatory framework for “charter schools.” Those efforts were also met with skepticism by officials who questioned the need for such educational programs. As noted throughout this report, denial of a substance abuse problem can paralyze many things, including the incentive to innovate.

Given the exponential increase in prescription drug abuse, we believe that local authorities can no longer deny the dimension of the problem and the need for action. At the very least, the idea of establishing a pilot recovery school in this State is worth discussing, not just to save lives, but also to conserve resources and save taxpayer dollars. If the successful institutions in Massachusetts could be replicated here, we could reduce the strain on the juvenile justice system, cut down on the cost of repeated treatment, and increase high school graduation rate


* Education in NJ is a mess, especially in Newark. I can’t suggest this article from The New Yorker enough. It details the public school and charter school fights that have taken place in Newark over the last 4 years and how Governor Christie and then Mayor-now-Senator Booker were both ultimately failures in reforming any of them. It all reminds me of this clip.


Addendum (8/24/2014)

This research report did a nice job and found the following:

Retrospective pretest to post-test analysis suggests significant reduction in substance use as well as in mental health symptoms among the students in recovery schools. Students were very positive in their assessment of the therapeutic value of the schools, but with less enthusiastic but positive ratings of the educational programs. The school programs do appear to successfully function as continuing care to reinforce and sustain the benefits students gained from their treatment experiences.


Addendum (10/1/2014)

The school held its opening ceremony yesterday and is scheduled to open on November 1, 2014.

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