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The work behind changing lives

December 17, 2012
by Dale K. Klatzker, PhD
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Every agency has one—that idea for a program that, if you could just find the support for it, would transform lives. An idea that would help clients recover from substance use and reach their full potential. For The Providence Center, that idea was a recovery high school.

But how does an organization, especially in a tough economic climate, make a life-changing idea a reality?

The Providence Center’s recovery high school came to fruition after several years of applying a process that involved research, planning, information dissemination and coalition building. Finally, in September 2012, Anchor Learning Academy became Rhode Island’s first recovery high school.

Gathering information

To make the argument to start a recovery high school in Rhode Island, we had to do our homework. The need for services for this population is significant. According to 2012 data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the nation’s smallest state has the nation’s highest rate of drug use among residents 12 and older who used illicit drugs in the last month. For teens who complete treatment, rejoining their peers at their high school becomes challenging after months of work at changing their lives to make recovery a priority.

Without a program to help students stay sober while successfully completing high school, students lack the support they need, causing them to fall back into old patterns of behavior and to lose the gains they have made academically and in their recovery. Research states that 93% of these students report being offered drugs on their first day back at school. Within 90 days of returning to school, 50% of students who have gone through treatment are using substances at levels at or above where they were prior to treatment.

Our comprehensive two-year research of the recovery high school model involved observing several schools across the country. We also consulted Rhode Island College professor Thomas Kochanek, who conducted an evaluation of three recovery high schools in Massachusetts, where the recovery high school model has been successful. His evaluation found that over a five-year period in our neighboring state:

    •    80% of students maintained a commitment to their recovery.
    •    A majority of students earned grades in the range of A- and B.
    •    20 months after graduation, 90% of students were enrolled in higher education or were employed.

Recovery high schools produce a cost savings in the short term by reducing the number of students who become involved in the juvenile justice system, avoiding the cost of repeated treatment and increasing on-time graduation rates. In the long term, by helping at-risk students graduate from high school and avoid impacts of high school dropout such as public assistance, poverty, poor health and incarceration, investment in students’ recovery becomes an extremely cost-effective choice. By opening a recovery high school, The Providence Center could change the status quo for high school students in recovery.

Sharing information, building support

While the recovery high school model has been in existence nationwide for about 25 years, it was a new concept to Rhode Island’s decision makers and educators. To make this program work, it was necessary for The Providence Center to secure the support of the political and education communities and the financial support needed to establish a recovery high school in the state.

Convincing the state’s political leaders that high school students in recovery need an educational environment specifically dedicated to them required an outreach campaign to call their attention to the staggering facts about teen drug use. By creating a culture that supports students in long-term recovery, the recovery high school can change the trajectory of a student’s life—one that may have included dropping out of school or incarceration.

We gained the support of local political leaders such as State Sen. John Tassoni and State Rep. Frank Ferri, who sponsored legislation to establish a recovery high school in Rhode Island. At a hearing before the Rhode Island General Assembly in July 2011, The Providence Center presented its case for a recovery high school, citing the population’s need and the outcomes of increased graduation rates, improved academic achievement and increased rates of long-term recovery.

The legislation to direct the state Commission of Education to establish a two-year pilot recovery high school program was passed, and later signed into law by Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee. The law allowed student costs at the recovery high school to be covered by the per-pupil allotment from each school district, in the same way in which state-operated schools are paid.

The Providence Center’s application to operate a recovery high school was subsequently approved by the Rhode Island Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education in March 2012, making Rhode Island only the 11th state with a school dedicated to students returning to high school following treatment. The stage was now set for making Anchor Learning Academy a reality.

Educators come on board

Despite the state’s compelling statistics related to high school students who use drugs, buy-in from the educational community was a hurdle to overcome as staff set out to find students who would make up the school’s inaugural class. Among administrators and educators, the concept of the recovery high school was not yet proven in Rhode Island, a challenge that confronted Anchor Learning Academy director Paula Santos as she began outreach to local high schools.