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Students fight addiction at 'Recovery High'

Students who suffer from drug and alcohol addiction are finding help at special schools where the kids work toward common goals: education, graduation and recovery. NBC's Kate Snow reports.


By Yardena Schwartz
NBC News 

Alyssa Dedrick was 15 when she began drinking and taking drugs. A year later, she found herself in her first treatment center. It wasn’t voluntary, and she missed hanging out with her friends, who were still experimenting with pot, OxyContin, Percocet and heroin. But her first treatment program didn’t work, because as soon as Dedrick went back to school, she went right back to her old ways. She received treatment four more times, with the same results.

Finally, she and her mother realized that the answer to her seemingly unstoppable problem was not the treatment she received, but where she went when it was over. After her fifth treatment program at the end of her junior year, Dedrick truly wanted to recover. This time, she and her mother decided, she wouldn’t go back to her old high school. Rather than facing the same temptations and triggers, surrounded by friends who weren’t committed to recovery, Dedrick started her senior year at Northshore Recovery High School. It was minutes away from her old high school in Massachusetts, but may as well have been on a different planet.

“I remember going in and thinking, ‘This is a place full of other kids just like me,’” said Dedrick, now 24 and a recent graduate of Clark University.  Dedrick has been clean for five years now, and believes her life would be very different  if she hadn’t finished high school at Northshore Recovery.

“There was a 50/50 chance of me either dying or getting better,” said Dedrick. “I think going to a recovery school really increased my odds, not only of recovery, but of survival in general.”

Recovery high schools on the rise

While teen drug use is nothing new, the proliferation of high schools designed for students in recovery is something of a 21st century phenomenon. The first recovery high school in the United States opened its doors in Minnesota in 1987, calling itself “Sobriety High.” Until recently, it was one of a handful sprinkled around the country. Today it is joined by at least 35 recovery high schools across the nation, with at least five more in development, Association of Recovery Schools founder Andrew Finch told NBC News.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, close to two million American students meet the criteria for drug or alcohol abuse. Yet less than eight percent of them receive the treatment they need. Those who do get treatment typically return to the schools they left in order to recover, and 75 percent of them relapse within their first year after treatment.

Michelle Lipinski, founder of Northshore Recovery High School in Beverly, Mass., on the importance of an environment that helps recovering students stay on track. Ian Belcher, one of her students, says that "Without this school, I really don't believe that I'd be sober right now, or maybe even alive."

“Many of these teens are offered their previous drug of choice on their first day back in school,” said Finch, a professor at Vanderbilt University who has been studying recovery schools since the first one opened in 1987. “If you've gone to treatment, you've learned the dangers of your alcohol and drug use and you've made a decision to stop,” he said. “For you to go back as a teenager and be right around those same kids again … it's going to be that much harder to stay with that decision to stop, if all of your buddies are continuing to use.”

The beginnings of Northshore Recovery High

Michelle Lipinski was working as a biology teacher at a public high school in Massachusetts when she noticed that entire rows of her classes would be missing on any given day. It didn’t take long to her to find out that many of them were skipping school to get high. But when students at her school in a suburban Massachusetts town began dying of overdoses, Lipinski knew there had to be a way to help addicted students before they disappeared.

In 2005, Lipinski opened Northshore Recovery High, in Beverly, Mass. Her students call her a superhero for helping them stay on track when they had lost hope in themselves. But Lipinski’s secret is simple: “Compassion,” she said. “You treat them with respect and kindness.”

According to Lipinski, students who stay sober at Northshore for 90 days or more have a 92 percent graduation rate.  In a typical high school, Lipinski said, drug users are treated as “those bad kids,” and schools give up on helping them. Her goal is to foster an environment where they feel supported in their efforts to recover, and for her, that means no zero tolerance policies. If a student relapses, she talks to that student and the parents, helps them figure out what led them back to using, and if necessary, helps them get back into treatment.  Above all, she stresses that there is no one size fits all model, and that working with the students and their families is key.

“I have kids who don't have parents, who go home to a homeless shelter,” said Lipinski, a mother of three. “I have students who live in million-dollar homes, and everything in between. So to implement a policy based on drugs seems really random to me. It has to be based on the needs of the child.”

At Northshore, the day is less regimented than a typical high school, with no bells announcing the start or end of a class period. Classes seem more like all-inclusive conversations than lectures performed by a teacher in front of a quiet classroom. Instead, the day begins with a reading of student poetry and introspective writing, and in addition to the traditional curriculum of math and social studies, students have a roundtable discussion of their progress.

'They're doing everything they can'

But not every recovery school operates like Northshore. Some follow the 12-step recovery model, while others adhere to a different school of thought.

“They're doing everything they can to support the needs of mental health, and support the needs of relapse prevention,” said Finch, the director of the Association of Recovery Schools, and founder of a recovery high school in Nashville.  “You’ll hear ongoing conversations about what a student needs to do to avoid alcohol and drugs, and have fun in sobriety. These are not the kinds of conversations we're hearing around the halls of typical high schools.”

Most recovery high schools are publicly funded and small, but the philosophy can vary from school to school. Northshore is funded by a grant through the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. That grant, originally set up by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, allots the school $500,000 a year, and each student is tied to a tuition grant from their district. Parents at Northshore don’t pay a dime, which is true for most recovery schools, but some are privately funded.

While the characteristics of each recovery school differ, they are all connected by threads of empathy and patience. Not only do the teachers understand that every student is struggling to recover and needs their unconditional support, but the students themselves are there for each other in a way that is not possible at a traditional school.

Ian Belcher is a 17-year-old junior at Northshore who has struggled with drug and alcohol addiction since the age of 14. He has been sober for eight months now, and said he has no doubt that this would not be the case if he were still at his old high school.

“A problem feels like it's you versus the world when no one's been through it, when you don't have someone to relate to,” said Belcher. “Here they always, kind of, have the answer to what I need. And it's that community that makes me feel like, ‘Alright, this isn't impossible. It's not me versus the world.’”

Building a nurturing environment on college campuses

The growth of recovery high schools has spawned a parallel movement of recovery dorms at college campuses. The longest-running program is at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., which started in 1988. Of approximately 20 colleges and universities with official recovery programs, Rutgers is one of a handful of schools that houses dorms specifically designed for students in recovery. What sets these apart from the more common “dry” dorm is that students in recovery dorms do not want to drink or use drugs, and the recovery community helps them achieve that goal.

At Rutgers, recovery counselor Frank Greenagel hosts weekly activities that let students have fun without involving alcohol.  Earlier this week, he took students to a diner after a late night recovery meeting. Later this week he’s taking 16 students tubing down the Delaware River, and next week they will be hiking the Appalachian Trail.

“People of all ages in recovery need to find fun things to do to fill their time and look forward to,” he said. “Most people in early recovery have no idea how to have fun.”

Skeptics of recovery schools criticize them for grouping addicted students together, or for being too lenient and understanding when a student relapses. But Lipinski has seen the opposite, and learned from her own experience that a welcoming, nurturing atmosphere is what recovering students need most.

“I feel like these students have been left behind by a lot of different people,” said Lipinski, who prides herself on being open and honest with her students.

She takes the time to check in on each of them every day, and usually, that involves a hug. “They're all worthwhile and they feel that.”

For more on the Association of Recovery Schools, please visit their website.

And for additional information about college recovery programs, please visit the links below.

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