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For Indiana Center, Recovery Is Academic

September 1, 2006
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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Facility takes uncommon step of establishing recovery high school

Sometimes the pursuit of a recovery vision can lead an addiction treatment organization to an unexpected but potentially rewarding destination. For the nationally known Fairbanks treatment organization in Indianapolis, improving recovery prospects for its adolescent clients would mean offering them an alternative to the relatively unfriendly school environments many encounter after emerging from treatment.

“When we began to strategize about recovery on the adolescent side, we asked ourselves, ‘How do we get to the teachers?’” says Helene M. Cross, CEO of Fairbanks. “Within 90 days, anywhere up to 85% of adolescents who go through treatment relapse. Their teachers don't know the language of recovery, and often these kids are ostracized when they return to school.”

As Fairbanks in 2001 began to work toward expanding its mission from that of a treatment-driven organization to a recovery-focused operation (its corporate tagline now reads “Experts in Addictions. Focused on Recovery”), a long-standing suggestion from its adolescent services director that it establish its own high school program resurfaced. A planning and fund-raising process that began in earnest two years ago was expected to culminate in the early August opening of Hope Academy on the Fairbanks treatment campus.

For the first year, classes will be held in modular structures that will serve as a temporary home until a new 37,000-square-foot multipurpose facility on the Fairbanks campus is ready for operation. About 30 students will attend the academy in the first year.

“We will have 10 or 11 high school seniors forgoing their last year at their ‘home’ school to attend school here,” says Rachelle Gardner, CADAC II, who first suggested the concept at Fairbanks and is serving as Hope Academy's chief operating officer.

Fairbanks could not have chosen a better place to be for seeing its innovative vision in education come to life. Indianapolis is the only city in the United States whose mayor has direct authority to establish charter schools (that initiative recently was awarded a prestigious Innovations in American Government Award from Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government). Facing several options for how to structure their program, Fair-banks officials and the organization's board of directors chose the charter school route, which subjects the school to state educational regulations but also allows operators to maintain the school's focus on furthering recovery.

Reinforcing recovery themes

Hope Academy is designed to offer a blend of education and recovery work. The first period of each school day will be devoted to recovery management, a strategy designed to enhance youths' overall learning experience, Gardner says.

Also, each trimester of the school year will explore a different theme associated with recovery. The first trimester will involve self-reflection, as youths examine how the foundation of their treatment (commonly the 12 Steps) applies to their everyday lives. The second trimester will explore the culture of addiction and recovery, and the third trimester will focus on how education and recovery help youths mature.

Fairbanks has hired four part-time teachers for the first year, and their backgrounds reflect the program's diversity of goals. One of the teachers began as an educator but later pursued a master's degree in social work; another worked in a public mental health department before pursuing a teacher's license. The other two teachers are a long-time math instructor and a former school principal.

The task of returning youths to a proper academic track will pose challenges, Gardner explains. “With young people suffering from addiction, their academic records are generally all over the place,” she says. “Some remediation will have to be done.”

And for this young population, the pressure to return to a life of using can be overwhelming. “The culture is so strong, and these young people haven't developed the inner voice that keeps them deciding to make the right changes,” Gardner says. With the consequences of using not as concrete to adolescents as they can be to adults who may face losing a job or a relationship, many youths will tend to drop out of school after having been in treatment and return to a pattern of using, she says.

More boys than girls will be enrolled in the first year at Hope Academy, reflecting the prevalence of young boys receiving treatment services in the adolescent system. Fairbanks officials say that most of the youths they will serve have a history of marijuana use and binge drinking, but that for many the overall number of substances they have used has been staggering.

The youths will share facilities such as the gymnasium and cafeteria with treatment clients on the Fairbanks campus, although they will use them at different times of the day. The school day will start after 9 a.m. and end after 4 p.m. with a “wrap-up” meeting in which the school community will convene to review the events that occurred that day.

Financial considerations

Besides the charter school option, Fairbanks officials considered establishing the academy as a public school under the local township system or as a private school in which families would be charged tuition. But under the township system, the school would have been considered an “alternative school” and could have become a placement location for students with other problems besides addiction, Cross explains. And under a private school structure, many families simply would have found themselves shut out of the option for their children because of finances.