Published Online:

Clean And Sober

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Sarah Mason-Couch, a bright 16-year-old with a history of drug and alcohol abuse, sat at a desk in an empty classroom picking at her lunch, which consisted of leftover pizza, granola, a banana, carrot slices, and celery stalks. The food was neatly packed in a purple Sesame Street lunch box. "Alcohol is my drug of choice,'' she said, as if she were describing her favorite ice cream flavor. "Hard alcohol. Vodka. But I really got into hallucinogens, and I did a lot of over-the-counters, like caffeine pills, Robitussin--anything I could get. It was hard to get alcohol. It was a lot easier to get pot, or acid, or just to drink Robitussin, NyQuil, rubbing alcohol.''

Sarah is a student at Recovery High School in Albuquerque, N.M. Housed in a nondescript brown stucco building not far from the entrance to the city's airport, the school opened three years ago as one of the nation's first public high schools for recovering alcoholics and drug abusers. Although ostensibly part of the Albuquerque Public Schools, Recovery High was established with grant money from the Princeton, N.J.-based Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Last year, however, the startup money ran out, leaving a wary school district holding the bag. Since then, the school--which currently serves about 75 students in grades 9 through 12--has been hanging on for dear life.

Led by a tireless principal by the name of Jan Hayes, the school offers regular classes, group therapy, and a 12-step recovery program based on the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous. To enroll, students must sign a contract promising to stay clean and sober and to submit to random drug tests. (The school is not set up to handle detoxification.) There's a sort of reverse peer pressure that permeates the place; students who have successfully kicked their habits encourage newcomers to do the same.

"All of these kids are what we call 'poly drug users,' '' Hayes told me. "It's not just alcohol. It's not just marijuana. It's a combination of things. And they're in pretty bad shape when they first get here. In fact, if you just look at them as you walk around, you can tell who's new and who's not because their whole physical appearance changes after they've been here for a while. They get smiles on their faces; they begin to get a sense of humor. Their whole attitude changes.''

The students who attend Recovery High come from all over Albuquerque. Many are current or former gang members. Some have been arrested and were urged to enroll as a condition of their being on probation. Others have been kicked out of their regular high schools. The goal is to provide the students with the tools they need to stay clean so they can return to their previous institutions without relapsing. "The ones who do the best stay with us about 200 days,'' Hayes said. "We need about a year.'' Since it opened, the school has served nearly 300 students.

For teenagers like Sarah, Recovery High is a lifesaver. "I would literally be dead if not for the school,'' she said. "That's the honest-to-God truth.'' Sarah first started drinking when she was 11; a year or two later, she was addicted. "I always felt different. I always felt sad. I always felt depressed. So I just needed something to make it go away. And I found it.''

Sarah's problems with drugs and alcohol led to another addiction: self-mutilation. "Alcohol and razor blades are not a good mix,'' she said. As an honor-roll student at Albuquerque High School, Sarah kept her demons well-hidden. "I told the counselor that I was using drugs, and she didn't believe me. Nobody believed me. They said, 'Sarah, you're too good a kid to do that.' ''

Finally, Sarah heard about Recovery High from a friend who was attending the school. She went for a visit, liked what she saw, and, in September 1993, enrolled as a student. "When I first came here,'' she said, "I couldn't even look at myself in the mirror. And that's the epitome of low self-esteem. And now I take a shower, I wash my hair, and it's because I came here every day, and people said, 'Sarah, we love you. Sarah, you're worth it.' And you learn it after a while. It's very nurturing here. But it's also safe for people to confront you. They're not afraid to do that.''

Last June, Sarah felt confident enough to leave Recovery High and return to a regular high school, but two weeks later, she tried to kill herself. She ended up at the state hospital in Las Vegas. When I spoke with her, it was only her second day back at Recovery High, and she seemed optimistic about her future. "It's possible to move on, even when you've got a life like mine,'' she said. "The genuine happiness I've felt in the last five or six months is so much better than the best vodka blackout. I know that sounds sick! But it's so much better, I would never want to get back into that life. And it's always an option. I always could. But I'd rather not.''

Many schools, particularly private ones, like to bill themselves as "communities,'' but few actually live up to that claim. Recovery High, on the other hand, actually feels like a living, breathing community. At least that was my impression during the two days that I visited the school last February. Although the staff members had recently been asked to take a pay cut, I found them to be unabashed in their praise of the school. A number of students--even some of the newer ones--credited the institution with turning their lives around. Some, like Sarah, told me that they'd probably either be out on the streets or dead if the school didn't exist. "For some of us,'' one girl told me, "it's our last chance at anything in life.''

What makes Recovery High so special? Certainly not the school's physical characteristics. The classrooms are small and have the usual desks and blackboards. The overhead lights are fluorescent. The carpet is industrial gray. One notable difference, however, is the scale of the place; if anything, it feels more like an elementary school than a high school. The intimate setting is no mistake.

"I'm a real believer that high schools shouldn't be too big,'' Hayes said. "You get over 600, 700 kids, and you're shooting yourself in the foot. You can't form a sense of community. And that's what this school is about. Forming a sense of community. Mutual caring and trust. Ownership in the school. Elementary schools can still do that, and some middle schools can do that by breaking into 'pods.' But you can't do it in a traditional high school. A lot of kids get lost.''

At Recovery High, students do much of their academic work on their own, at their own pace, even when they are in class. Teachers lecture occasionally, but, for the most part, they act as tutors, working with students one on one. "The teachers here know a lot about you,'' one student said, "so they know how to work with you. They don't push you to do the work; they teach you responsibility. It shouldn't be their responsibility to force you to work. You should want to do it for yourself.'' Some students thrive in such an atmosphere; others find it daunting, particularly at first.

The school is open from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. During that time, students are not allowed to leave the campus. Not that there's anyone forcing them to stay. The door is always open. But if a kid decides to take off, he or she had better be prepared to do some explaining.

No one beats around the bush at Recovery High. Staff members have no qualms about directly challenging a student regarding his or her behavior, particularly if it is related to drugs or alcohol (and it usually is). These encounters, however, do not take place behind closed doors; for the most part, they are conducted at the daily 9 a.m. "community meeting,'' during which all the students and staff members gather in a circle in the school's largest room.

On the first day of my visit, the meeting was short and uneventful, but on the second day, it was an entirely different affair.

Before the meeting got under way, someone unplugged the Coke machine to help cut down on the noise. A girl wearing baggy blue jeans was, inexplicably, eating from a jar of Gerber's baby food with a plastic spoon. The assembly began in the usual way: Each student said his or her name, followed by the date on which he or she last drank alcohol or did drugs. (Some of the staff members are also recovering substance abusers, so they, too, spoke up.)

"January 13th,'' said one student. "August 11th, 1994,'' said another. And so on. As they went around the room, it became apparent that while some of the students had been off drugs and alcohol for months, many had only been clean and sober for weeks, days, or even hours. A new student named Gary--a nervous-looking kid with short-cropped hair, a wisp of a mustache, and what appeared to be knife scars on his face--said "last night'' when his turn came. His tone was matter-of-fact, not defiant.

After everyone had said his or her name and date, the student leading the meeting opened the floor to "confrontations.'' During these encounters, a teacher may challenge the behavior of a student, or a student may question one of the school's strict rules. Everyone gets a chance to speak his or her mind, but the school makes no pretense of being a democracy. Ultimately, the staff members have the final say.

Not surprisingly, the first confrontation on this particular morning was directed at Gary, the new student. Jan Hayes wanted to know if the boy was really committed to being at the school. "Are you sure you want to be here?'' she asked. "Are you sure you want to quit using?''

"Yeah,'' he mumbled.

Another staff member asked him, "What is your drug of choice?''

"Pot,'' he replied.

When one of the teachers suggested that perhaps Gary wasn't ready for the rigors of Recovery High, several students jumped to his defense, pointing out that they, too, had a hard time staying clean when they first enrolled. A girl named Angel, who was about to graduate after having been at the school for nearly three years, said, "At least he admitted that he used last night. We should give him credit for that.'' Others nodded their heads in agreement.

The staff members, apparently satisfied that Gary had gotten the message, moved on to other students.

Barbara Romero, the school's office manager, raised her hand and said she had a question for Alicia, who had just returned to the school after having been in and out several times before. "Why are you back?'' she asked bluntly.

Taken aback, the girl replied, "I think it's time to prove something to myself, not to you guys.''

"I want to believe that,'' Romero said, "but that's exactly what you said the last time.''

"You guys can believe what you want,'' Alicia said, "but I don't have to prove anything to you--just to myself.''

Clearly, most of the teachers were skeptical. "I want to feel some assurance that something is different this time,'' one said. "And I want to know what you can offer this community.''

"You're really going to have to convince me,'' another said.

But Alicia didn't say anything. Sitting on the floor, she stared blankly at the carpet.

Hayes confronted the girl about her physical appearance. "Alicia,'' she said, "you look really bad. Your face is puffy.''

"That's because I've been using for the last couple of weeks,'' she said. "I was sick; I was throwing up blood.''

Hayes suggested that she get some medical attention as a condition for her coming back to school; the girl agreed and promised to make an appointment before the day was over. (The school used to have its own medical clinic, complete with a part-time physician and a full-time nurse practitioner. It was closed, however, due to budget cuts. Now, medical services and individual therapy are provided by the University of New Mexico's Center on Alcoholism, Substance Abuse, and Addictions.)

The meeting lasted 70 minutes. Before it ended, one student admitted to "partying'' the night before, and another confessed to relapsing on speed and pot. One girl said she had noticed some Satanic symbols drawn on another student's arm, which are expressly forbidden in the student dress code. "That personally offends me,'' she said, "because I believe in God.'' This led to a general discussion of the dress code, which prohibits, among other things, gang-related clothes. Some students felt the code was too strict, but Hayes was adamant. "Those are the rules,'' she said. "End of discussion.''

The idea for Recovery High came not from Albuquerque school administrators but from a parent, Lou Sadler, whose son had been in and out of drug-treatment programs. The son, however, found it difficult to stay clean after returning to school, so his father formed a group called Parents Against Drugs in order to address the problem. What they came up with was a plan for an alternative high school expressly for students with drug and alcohol problems. With a $75,000 planning grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Sadler and his colleagues wrote a 300-page proposal outlining their vision for such a school. In April 1991, the foundation agreed to support the project, pledging $800,000 for the first 18 months of operation. (It later contributed another $800,000.) The Albuquerque Public Schools added $267,000 in matching funds. Sadler, hired by the school district to be the project coordinator, began searching for a building to house the school and a staff to run it. Recovery High was scheduled to open its doors on Oct. 15, 1991.

By the time Jan Hayes was hired as the school's principal, everything seemed to be in place. Then, word got out that Sadler had lied on his résumé, claiming a college degree that he didn't have. When the school district found out about it, Sadler was fired, leaving the school's future in doubt. Hayes, who had left an administrative position in Farmington, N.M., to take the job at Recovery High, suddenly had her doubts about the venture. "I thought, Boy, I didn't check into this job well enough!'' Hayes said. She weathered the storm, however, and the school finally opened in February 1992, with a staff of 12 and a student body of three. Some school board members wanted to give the school a suitably Southwestern name--Mariposa High was one suggestion--but others felt that it was important not to mince words. After all, the first step for anyone involved in therapy is to admit there's a problem. Thus, candor prevailed, and the school was officially dubbed Recovery High.

Hayes credits Sadler with laying a good foundation for the school, but she admits that his résumé embellishment was "a tremendous mistake.'' It didn't help matters when Sadler decided to fight his dismissal by suing the city school system for breach of contract. He lost the suit, but the incident cast a shadow over the school that lingers to this day. "Some people never got over that,'' one school board member told me.

If Recovery High had a theme song, it would be "Staying Alive,'' for that is what the school has managed to do--just barely--since the startup money from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation ran out last December. (In February, the foundation kicked in an extra $100,000 so the school could stay open through the end of May.) The school's board of directors was supposed to have lined up enough outside funding to keep the school going indefinitely, but that didn't happen.

The result is that the school district has had to come up with much more money than it intended just to keep the school afloat. Several school board members are not amused by the situation.

"It's a very expensive endeavor,'' said board member Agatha Lopez, one of the school's most outspoken critics. "It's too expensive to be funded just by us.''

"I've never been overly supportive of the program,'' said school board president Bill Rothanbargar, "because it costs so much money per child.'' Rothanbargar opposes the school for another reason: "Substance abuse is more of a health problem than an educational problem. I'm not sure that we should be in that business. You can't change these children overnight.''

"It's a difficult program to justify,'' said deputy superin-

tendent George Bello, "because it takes money away from other school programs.'' He pointed out that the average annual cost per student in the Albuquerque Public Schools is approximately $2,500. For Recovery High, however, the figure is somewhere between $5,000 and $6,000. "In a budget that is already strapped,'' he said, "we just have a hard time spending that much money per student.''

Jan Hayes has heard it all before, and her response is always the same: Yes, Recovery High costs a lot of money to operate, but it's worth every penny. "Particularly,'' she said, "compared with what would happen if you leave these kids alone and don't give them any treatment for recovery. You're going to end up spending a lot more money.''

Other Recovery High supporters, including parents and students, told me the same thing. "You either pay for it now, or you pay for it later,'' said Patricia Baca, whose daughter Kristen kicked her drug and alcohol problems at the school and whose daughter Suzanne is currently enrolled. "And if you pay for it later, it's going to be a lot more expensive.''

When I spoke with Agatha Lopez, she told me that a school like Recovery High wasn't fair to the other students in the school system, the ones who go to school regularly, do their work, and stay out of trouble. Why, she asked, should the district spend money on kids who have taken--as she put it--"the wrong path,'' when those funds could go for other school programs?

It's hard to argue for the existence of a school that costs twice as much money per student as a regular high school. Yet most of the students I spoke with told me that they wouldn't be in school at all if they weren't going to Recovery High, and many of them said they were scared to return to their regular high schools because of the easy availability of drugs and alcohol. "In public schools, there are so many drugs,'' one student told me. "You can't get sober. Every day, there's someone walking up to you and saying, 'Let's do this, let's do that.' '' Another student said, "This is the cleanest school I know of.''

Clearly, you can't judge a school like Recovery High solely on the basis of money. There's also the human element to consider. When I asked Agatha Lopez if she had ever visited the school, she said, "No.'' Why not? I asked. "Because I work 40 hours a week,'' she replied. It struck me as odd that a board member would condemn a school without looking at it first.

Had she stepped foot in the place, she would have come face to face with success stories like Ted Nichols, Heidi Mobbley, and Suzanne Baca (Patricia Baca's daughter). I met with the three students in Jan Hayes' office, and I was struck by their intelligence and their candor.

Ted is a skinny 16-year-old who has been at Recovery High since last January. He wears his hair in tight braids that dangled as he spoke. He first started smoking pot when he was 13. "The first time I got high,'' he said, "it was just the best feeling in the world. And I just wanted to keep doing it because it felt so good. Slowly but surely, you start to get addicted to it. And, for me, eventually it became a kind of escape. You don't have to worry about your problems when you're high. Life just feels good. But the reason I wanted to come here is because it just wasn't doing that no more. I was just addicted to it.''

Eventually, Ted was doing so many drugs--"pot, acid, coke, meth, anything I could get my hands on''--that he pretty much stopped going to school altogether. "Bad things just started happening,'' he said. "I knew I needed a change. I needed something to happen. My mom told me about this school, and I told her I'd come. I felt that enough was enough. I needed to get help. And seeing how this was basically a school for addicts to recover, I knew this was probably the only place that I could do that. Because at every other school I've been to, there are drugs everywhere.''

Heidi, who was about to graduate when I met her, told a similar story. A pretty 17-year-old with blond hair tied back in a bun, she wore faded blue jeans, a maroon T-shirt, and a gold chain around her neck. "I have six months and 14 days clean,'' she told me. "I was basically an alcoholic. I mean, I would use pot, but alcohol was my problem. I first started drinking in 5th grade. I would drink and get drunk, but it wasn't an everyday thing. As time went on, it progressed, and my self-esteem went down. A lot of things started happening. I ended up in Heights [a private psychiatric hospital]. I was suicidal.''

How much were you drinking? I asked.

"As much as my body could hold,'' she said. "A lot. It just got to the point where I would drink so much that I would get alcohol poisoning. I never learned from it. Every single weekend, I would end up with alcohol poisoning. I'd just drink myself to death.''

It was Heidi's therapist who suggested she enroll at Recovery High. "When I first got here,'' she said, "I didn't think I had a problem. It took me about eight months to realize that I was an alcoholic.''

Heidi seemed very much at home at Recovery High. "It's the safest place for me to come,'' she said. "I have my friends here.''

I asked her if she was nervous about leaving such a nurturing place. "Oh, yes,'' she said. "It's very scary because I never imagined myself graduating, you know what I'm saying? I'm graduating ahead of my class, but when I came here I was a year behind my class. I caught up real fast. My priorities started coming to me.'' Now, she has a data-entry job lined up, and eventually she plans to go to college, perhaps to become a therapist. "To help teens like me,'' she said.

Like Heidi, Suzanne--a talkative girl dressed in a black T-shirt and baggy blue jeans--began drinking at an early age. "My grandpa gave me my first drink when I was 10 years old,'' she said, tugging at a crystal around her neck. "He gave me a shot of Seagram's 7, and it was in a glass that was about that wide.'' She used her fingers to form a large circle. "I had asked him for a drink one day, and he said, 'Well, if you want to drink, you have to drink like a man.' So I took that drink, and I'll never forget how it made me feel. I mean, I just felt like this was it. No more problems. I didn't have to think about anything. I could just run to the bottle. It helped me sleep. It helped me get going in the morning. It helped me do everything I couldn't do for myself, until finally it ran out. It didn't do the things that it did for me anymore. It became a necessity for me to have it.''

After Suzanne got kicked out of several schools ("For fighting, not going to class,'' she said), her mother asked her to consider enrolling at Recovery High. "I finally told my mom, 'I'm ready. I need help,' '' she said. "My mom knew about the school because my sister came here before. She's still sober today, and that really gave me a lot of hope.'' Suzanne, 17, has been a student at Recovery High since October 1993. She has no intention of going back to her old ways. "I plan to do something with myself,'' she said. "I want to be a drug and alcohol counselor.''

Teaching at Recovery High is not for the fainthearted. The students are tough and suspicious of authority figures. They can erupt at the smallest provocation. When, during one of the community meetings I attended, a boy raised a girl's arm in the air as a joke, the girl turned to him and yelled "FUCKER!'' at the top of her lungs. An awkward silence came over the proceeding until Jan Hayes said to the girl, "When you get upset, you use foul and abusive language. And I think you need to work on that.'' Several teachers agreed. The girl said she'd try to control her temper, but after the meeting, she took off and didn't return for the rest of the day.

"You have to have a certain type of personality to work in a school like this,'' Hayes told me.

Karla Schultz apparently has what it takes. Short and spunky, with cropped black hair and piercing blue eyes, Schultz has taught English at Recovery High since last September. "I love teaching at alternative schools,'' she told me after one of her classes had ended. "I like that the students are more experienced with the world, with life. I mean, it's not always in the best way. But they've got a little living under their belts, and I think that makes them more interesting and more thoughtful. It's more of a challenge, though.''

I asked her how she felt at the end of the day. "It depends on the day,'' she said. "When I first started working here, sometimes I would go home, and I just couldn't get their stories, their life experiences, out of my head. I'd have nightmares, I couldn't sleep. It was sort of there all the time. And I thought, You can't do this all the time. It'll just kill you. It'll drain you.'' Eventually, she realized that she could be compassionate and caring with her students at school and still have a life of her own at home. "Otherwise, you'll last two months,'' she said. "I'm not sure where that comes from, except practice.''

Patti Gronewald, who teaches math and science, also had a difficult time at first. "I used to go home,'' she said, "and just curl up on the couch into a little ball and say, 'Don't anybody talk to me!' Now, I go home and I'm happy and I'm a normal person. I had to learn how to deal with these children, with this population, and to have realistic expectations. That took a while.''

Gronewald agreed that certain personality traits are necessary in order to be a good teacher at Recovery High. "I think you have to have a sense of humor,'' she said. "These kids are very therapy-wise. They know how to dig. So you have to be a pretty strong person not to respond to that, to stand back and realize where they're coming from and what they're doing. You just have to really care about them and believe in them.''

I sat in on one of Karla Schultz's classes, during which she passed out copies of several short pieces of writing to the seven students in the classroom. (Classes are small at Recovery High, but this was unusual; some of her students were away on a field trip.) Schultz asked them to take turns reading aloud. A boy named Juan read the first three paragraphs easily, but a few of the other students read slowly and haltingly, stumbling over easy words. Yet when Schultz began asking questions about one of the stories, the students were eager to participate in the discussion, and some of their comments were right on target. They weren't exactly discussing Shakespeare, but at least their minds were getting a workout.

"A lot of people have this idea that these are a bunch of dumb students here,'' Schultz told me later, "but it's quite the opposite. I actually think they're much brighter than the average student. You probably know about dropouts, that they have higher IQs than students who stay in school. In some ways, I think that's part of the reason why they've gotten to the point where they're at.

"They may not be highly educated,'' she continued, "but they're really smart. We've got some really intelligent students, some really creative people who can just blow you away sometimes with what they know and can do, with very little training. The stuff that comes out of them--if you could just direct it somewhere!''

Two weeks before I visited Recovery High, the Albuquerque school board had agreed to give the school $24,000, which, along with the extra $100,000 from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, would allow it to stay open until May 25. The board, however, made it clear that it would no longer subsidize the school beyond the roughly $110,000 it receives under the state school funding formula. "If we don't have some substantial funding in place,'' Hayes told me, "then we're looking at probably having to close.''

Still, Hayes was optimistic. Several state legislators had vowed to sponsor bills that would change the method by which the state pays for alternative schools, which would direct more funds to schools like Recovery High. If that didn't work, they promised to earmark money specifically for the school. "We will bail them out if we have to,'' state Sen. Ann Riley said.

In March, however, the legislature failed to pass the funding-formula bill, and $150,000 set aside for Recovery High was vetoed by Gov. Gary Johnson, a conservative Republican who was elected last November. The school was running out of options. "It looks like we're going to have to close down,'' a resigned Hayes told me. "There's just no funding available.'' On March 20, Hayes met with district officials, who told her that although the school's fate wouldn't officially be decided until the end of April, she should assume the worst. Barring a miracle, the school would have to shut its doors.

"I'm in shock,'' Hayes said. "It's tremendous sadness. It's almost incomprehensible. Anyone who's ever come here is always amazed at what we do. But I feel proud that we kept it going as long as we did and that we helped so many kids. Our most important job now is to do the best we can for these kids, to get them into other schools, and to close down the school with integrity.''

I couldn't help but think back to my conversation with Ted Nichols, Suzanne Baca, and Heidi Mobbley. I had asked them, "What will happen if Recovery High has to close?''

"If this school wasn't around,'' Ted said, "there'd probably be 60 kids out on the streets ditching school right now, probably robbing your house. That's the way I look at it. That's why this school is so important.''

"When I first heard that this school might be closing,'' Heidi told me, "I was really angry. Because it seems like my whole life, everybody was always giving up on me. I never had anyone on my side. But you come here, and everybody's on your side. Everybody is there to help you.''

"I don't understand,'' Suzanne said, "why the school board would want to close down a school that keeps kids in school, keeps kids off drugs, and keeps them out of jail and off the streets. I just don't understand that.''

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login | Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories