Recovery Schools Keep Kids Sober and Smart
By Meghan Mandeville, News Research Reporter

Camouflaged within the nondescript landscape of a commercial section of Nashville, Tenn., Community High School looks more like its office building counterparts than a secondary school for recovering teenage addicts.

Within the brick walls of this 4,300 square foot facility, 27 students ages 14-19, attend school everyday alongside other adolescents whose drug and alcohol dependencies make public school a dangerous place.

"[Recovering addicts] cannot stay sober in a public school, there's no getting around that," says Community High School co-founder and Principal Judy Ide. When they return to public schools after treatment, "they have to go to math class with the same kids they used with," she adds. "It's kind of a death note."

As a sober educational facility, Community High School offers teenagers an alternative to returning to the schools where they originally fed their addictions. "The kids who are here are the kids who've been using for a long-time," says Ide about the severity of the students' problems.

Ide, who also founded Nashville's Oasis Learning Center, a school for runaway children, researched recovery schools for nearly two years before receiving $100,000 from The Memorial Foundation in Tennessee to start Community High School in 1997.

"Teaching our children is not standardized work," says Ide, explaining why she wanted to open the first and only sober school in the Southeastern United States. "It's very hard to find a place for these kids to go," she adds about teenagers who have been released from substance abuse treatment programs.

To continue along the road to recovery, students can go to Community High School for $750 each month. Because of grants and donations, families are charged only half of the cost per student per month to operate the private school, which currently has a waiting list. 

In order to gain admittance to Community High School, students must fully recognize that they have substance abuse problems and make strong commitments to changing their lives, says Ide.

"They're all kids who come in and tell me they want to be sober," Ide says about the students who are typically referred to Community High School by large area treatment facilities where they received in-patient care. 

Prospective students must interview with Ide and spend a day at the school before being accepted "so we get to watch them and they get to watch us," she says. 

During this visit, Ide makes its clear to the teens that they can't hide at Community High School like they can in larger public schools. "We know where everybody is all the time," she says. "There's a lot of community and a lot of accountability."

Succeeding in Sober Life

To reinforce that sense of community, the school's six classrooms are not set up traditionally, with desks in rows. Instead, Community High School's small, three or four-person classes are conducted with students sitting around tables to encourage discussion.

"We try to be as conversational as we can," says Ide. "That seems to be working."

Community High School, with its five teachers, has the same class requirements as all Tennessee public high schools and the credits students earn there are equivalent to those earned in public schools.

"A big piece of what we're doing is trying to help them to piece together their portfolios," Ide says. Students enter the school at different grade levels and have taken different courses so they are placed in classes based on what credits they need, rather than according to ages, says Ide. "It's very individualized."

While a small percentage of students do spend all four years at Community High School, the majority of them arrive there as juniors or seniors and need to complete their high school transcripts in order to go on to college.

"I have no trouble with the kids getting into [college]," says Ide, noting that a diploma from Community High School has the same significance as a diploma from a Tennessee public school. "All of our good public and private [post-secondary] schools here in the state have been great with our kids," she adds. 

Community High School graduates have gone on to institutions like Belmont University in Tennessee, Augsburg College in Minnesota, and Texas Tech University, Ide says. "The kids usually do very well," she says, noting that both Augsburg College and Texas Tech have recovery programs for their students as well.

Ide recalls one student in particular who came to Community High School six years ago with a strong desire to turn his life around.

"[He had] used everything you can use," she says about the 16-year-old drug addict and dealer. "He could barely read."

After graduating from Community High School, however, the boy attended a two-year junior college and then enrolled as an art major at a state school, where he is currently finishing up his final semesters.

"He just really embodied what it meant to have a spiritual life," Ide says about the boy who often returns to visit her, relaxed, happy, and, most importantly, sober. Ide enjoys watching her former students "begin to love their own lives and begin to love themselves."

This month, four Community High School students will embark on similar journeys when they receive their high school diplomas at a ceremony at the Hospital Corporation of America auditorium in Nashville.

Each student will talk about his or her sobriety in front of an expected 250 family members and friends from the local recovery community.

"It's very moving," says Ide. "The recovery community really loves these kids," she says about the adults who have gotten to know the children through their contact with them at Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings.

Students are required to go to AA meetings every day after-school during their first 90 days at Community High School, and, after that, they are allowed to go to four meetings per week.

"That's their club," says Ide, comparing AA to the more traditional after-school clubs at other high schools. "That's where they hang out."

Getting By With A Little Help From Your Friends

The camaraderie among students is an important function of recovery schools because, in facilities like Community High, everyone is trying to stay sober and no one is using alcohol or drugs. The children then become a network of support for each other because they are all facing the same challenges, unlike in public schools where some of their peers may still be using substances.

"These are kids that have to live and breathe with the other young people who are still using," says Lisa Laitman, Director of the Alcohol and Other Drug Assistance Program for Students at Rutgers University. Recovery schools allow children to return to their studies, "without having to return to the scene of the crime," she says.

Because providing recovering teenage addicts with a safe, substance-free educational environment after treatment is so important to their success in staying sober, Laitman and thirty-nine other health and education professionals came together in Washington, D.C. last July and formed the Association of Recovery Schools, an organization that brings together students, secondary and post-secondary schools and professionals to share information and ideas about recovery schools.

"The key was really just getting the funding [from the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment] to bring us all together," says Laitman, a member of the Association's Steering Committee. 

"One of the issues at hand here is that any time you don't have an association, the information about any of these schools is very hard to get," Laitman says. 

The Association, which has nationally recognized 19 recovery schools and four programs under design, is a resource for both parents and children who don't know where to turn after treatment is complete. 

One of the main goals of the Association is to educate people about the importance of recovery schools and develop more throughout the country.

"Probably one of the weakest links in our treatment system is the follow-up care," says Laitman. Without a post-treatment support system, "it's all going to fall apart," she adds.

"When they've completed treatment, that's just the first step," says Laitman.

Sober schools are becoming the next step for students in recovery who don't want to return to the places where their addictions flourished.

Schools like Community High School are "popping up because parents and professionals are saying, we've got to have a better answer than this," says Ide.



For more information on Community High School and the Association of Recovery Schools, go to:
159 Burgin Parkway | Quincy, MA 02169
617-471-4445 | Fax 617-770-3339