Recover school opens for teens recovering from addictions

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Alyssa doesn't know where she would be today if she didn't find the courage to send an email earlier this year.

Reaching out to Heartland High School on the Near East Side and admitting she needed academic help was one of the most difficult things the senior has done.

But after struggling with substance abuse, spending 18 months in a residential treatment program and overdosing during a relapse, the 17-year-old from Upper Arlington knew she needed to go to a recovery high school to stay on track.

Several months sober, Alyssa is on schedule to graduate this spring and, ideally, pursue a career in nursing. She is already taking college courses to prepare.

"It was terrifying, thinking 'What will people think?'" she told The Dispatch. "But at that point, I decided I didn't care what anyone thought, because I would rather better myself. I'm so glad I did."

This summer, Heartland High School, Ohio's first recovery school for teens overcoming addiction or substance abuse, finally opened its doors to students after three years of planning.

The private school hosted two weeks of summer programming in July for a handful of students, including Alyssa, and was holding two more weeks in August. Its first full school year begins Sept. 3. A formal grand opening celebration is planned for Sept. 20.

The idea is that students struggling with addiction have a better chance of staying on track —— both academically and in their recovery —— in a more intimate setting surrounded by students with similar challenges and people looking out for them.

The Dispatch is not using students' last names to protect their identities.

Though still rare, recovery schools have operated in the United States since 1979. More are gradually opening, and today there are about 42 nationwide, said Andy Finch, co-founder of the nonprofit Association of Recovery Schools, based in Houston. Before Heartland opened, the closest recovery school to Columbus was in Indianapolis.

To be eligible to attend Heartland, teens must have completed a recovery program and be ready to go back to high school and earn a diploma.

Officials expect to serve up to 45 or so students at maximum enrollment, which isn't unusual for a school of its kind, Finch said.

Based on the second floor of Broad Street Presbyterian Church, Heartland has a classroom and an office that serves as an informal gathering space. That includes a kitchenette, perfect for brewing tea and sharing meals; a futon and bean-bag chairs; shelves stacked with books on recovery; and a bulletin board full of community resources, like groups and upcoming events.

It was there that Alyssa spent a recent afternoon drawing in a sketchbook while listening to a presentation on financial literacy, including how to set up a bank account, budget and build credit. At her other schools, doodling during lessons would not have been tolerated, but she says it helps her learn because it prevents her mind from wandering.

Heartland isn't just about teaching reading, writing and arithmetic, Stewart said.

"We have to be flexible and meet kids where they're at," she said. "It's a totally different environment."

Students are given individualized education plans and work at their own pace in the classroom with help from teacher Leslie MacNabb. That allows them to catch up on credits they might have missed.

Each day includes time for mindfulness, when students reflect on emotions and impulses. They also discuss recovery strategies and life skills, from health and nutrition to job interviews, often with guest speakers.

The environment is usually a better fit for teens than recovery programs designed mostly for adults, said Jen Belému, the school's peer recovery coach.

Without such support, students who return to a traditional school may relapse or struggle to adjust. In a 2008 report on recovery schools, the National Institute on Drug Abuse said one study found that nearly all students returning to their old schools after treatment reported being offered drugs on the first day.

For Belému, recovery was an 11-year process that started at age 15.

"There weren't many schools like this then," she said. "These students have a chance to turn their lives around and not go down the road I did."

The schools also help reduce the stigma of addiction, said Belému, who has been sober for 20 years.

"We're not bad people trying to get good," she told her students during a group discussion. "We're sick people trying to get well."

Keeping an independent school operating can be financially challenging, Finch said. They typically rely on donations and fundraising.

Heartland's summer program costs $500 for four weeks, with an added weekly cost of $200 for students who needed to recover educational credits. Annual tuition is expected to cost about $20,000, said Paige Stewart, a psychologist who's heading up the new school. That's in line with prices at similar schools, Finch said.

The summer program's nine or so students and the five students already signed up for the full school year this fall all have scholarships, thanks to generous donors and community sponsors, Stewart said. But the school is in discussions with about a dozen more students who may still need help.

Gavin, for example, received a sponsorship from Performance Columbus, a central Ohio car dealership, to fund his education. It includes a work experience with the dealership to help the 17-year-old from Grove City learn trade skills.

Without the financial support, Alyssa isn't sure if she could have enrolled.

She's grateful it worked out. Grinning down at her sketchbook as her lessons wrapped up, Alyssa admired her finished creation: a large, intricately decorated semicolon, symbolizing a pause, not an ending.

"My story isn't over," she explained.

———

Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com


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