A Clean And Sober

March 01, 1990 5 min read

“If it hadn’t been for this school,’' says Sean, an 18-year-old former addict, “I’d either be dead or in an institution.’'

Education and health officials in Santa Clara County, whose departments jointly pay for the 31-pupil school, say the program was born out of their frustration with the limited number of drug-treatment options available to teenagers.

The troubled adolescents who attend West Valley are the lucky ones, they stress. Both nationally and in this affluent Silicon Valley environment, relatively few drug-rehabilitation programs are specifically designed to meet the needs of teenage drug-abusers. And young people who lack health insurance and must rely on public agencies for treatment face a severe shortage of program slots.

A survey last year by the National Association of State Alcohol and Drug Abuse Directors found that more than 123,000 adolescent alcoholics and addicts in 41 states and the District of Columbia were being treated in public programs in 1988. But the group’s members who responded to the survey estimated that more than 10 times that number--1.6 million teenagers-- needed services but could not be accommodated by the public sector.

“There are not that many options out there for youngsters,’' says Elizabeth Houston, director of the alternative-schools department within the Santa Clara County Office of Education. “Many of them move from one household to another. The one stable center for them is the schools.’'

The West Valley Community School was established at the beginning of the 1988-89 school year. To be admitted, a student must have a drug or alcohol problem, be a county resident, and go through an extensive screening process. Most of the students have been in trouble with the law and were referred to the school by a probation officer or by social-service agencies that work with problem youngsters.

The students are expected to stay in the year-round program for a minimum of nine weeks, and many are enrolled for a full semester. A teacher and two aides guide them through five core subjects. Three therapists provide each student with about five hours of group therapy, family therapy, and individual counseling every week.

The students are also strongly encouraged to attend several meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, or Narcotics Anonymous weekly, including a CA meeting held on school grounds during lunchtime one day a week.

All students are subject to random urine tests. Those who test positive are not necessarily punished, however, because school officials believe relapses are a normal part of the recovery process for many people.

The students are typically addicted to more than one drug, and counselors have developed strategies for dealing with different addictions. Those hooked on cocaine, for example, might need a more structured day and would be prepared to expect and withstand intensive drug cravings, says Annette Graff, a county psychiatric social worker stationed at West Valley.

On the other hand, teenagers dependent on marijuana, a more socially accepted drug, are more likely to deny they have a problem, says Graff.

Educators at West Valley say the impetus for starting the program was learning that about half of the students who attended another alternativeschool program housed at the same site were substance abusers. “There is nothing in our society that is dealing with this problem,’' says Frank Adams, the teacher at West Valley. “Every school ought to have a component like my school.’'

Elizabeth Rahdert, a research psychologist with the National Institute on Drug Abuse, says that the schoolbased model for drug treatment “holds tremendous promise’’ because it meets, simultaneously, a student’s educational and psychological needs. “Everything is marching forward at the same time,’' she explains. “The holistic approach is the way we need to go.’'

Over the past 18 months, about half of the 150 students who have entered the program have had a positive outcome--they have either returned to a regular high school, graduated with a diploma, or stayed out of the criminaljustice system.

The others, school officials estimate, have sought additional drug treatment, dropped out, or gone to jail.

School officials say they believe many of their students have been able to succeed because of the school’s informal atmosphere and its emphasis on individualized instruction.

Students at West Valley often have reading or math skills that are about five years below grade level, and most of their academic day is spent completing individualized lessons at their desks. Adams and his aides go from student to student, serving as both troubleshooters and cheerleaders.

At the heart of the program is an atmosphere that encourages honesty and support for each other. During the morning “check-in’’ session that begins each day, the students sit in a circle and tell what they did the night before or discuss anything that is troubling them.

Sean announced at one such session that he had been sober for more than six months. His fellow students cheered. The day before, however, several teenagers had admitted having relapses over the winter break.

“Kids have seen other kids become successful,’' says Adams. “That’s important.’'

The school’s treatment philosophy is based on a 12-step model popularized by AA, which encourages participants to acknowledge that alcohol and drugs have made them powerless. Members seek help from God or a higher power of their understanding, and from each other to change their behaviors and lifestyle.

The students begin each day with the AA prayer, which asks God to help them accept the things they cannot change and have the courage to change those things they can.

Students say this spiritual component is important in helping them make the transition from drug addiction to sobriety. “When I have a problem and I can’t deal with it, I turn it over to God,’' says Carol, age 17.

Equally important, the students say, is the school’s emphasis on teaching them what to do once they leave West Valley--and how to avoid the people and situations that have tempted them to use drugs in the past.

“In a normal high school, there’s lots of drug dealing,’' Carol says. “There’s really no support for dealing with drug problems. I could go talk to my guidance counselor, but it wasn’t that easy. I needed peer support, too.’'

--Ellen Flax, Education Week

A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as A Clean And Sober