Recovery Schools: An Introduction

By John Schuderer

A Story We Hear All Too Often

In this hypothetical scenario, Jennifer was in the seventh grade when her parents divorced. Her mom didn’t handle it well, falling into alcohol abuse and multiple short-term relationships with men. Her dad had a new girlfriend. Jennifer felt abandoned by both parents.

During eighth grade, Jennifer was introduced to alcohol and discovered that drinking helped alleviate her emotional pain. However, drinking only worked temporarily. She quickly found herself progressing from alcohol use to marijuana to cocaine and finally to methamphetamine. During this time, her school performance plummeted.

By the end of her sophomore year in high school, Jennifer realized she needed help. Her parents withdrew her from school and placed her in a substance abuse treatment program. During her six weeks in treatment, she gained her sobriety and learned specific coping skills.

After her discharge from the treatment facility, she returned to her home and school. Although it was difficult, she was able to maintain her sobriety for a short time using the new coping skills she had learned. Unfortunately, she felt alienated from both her old friends with whom she had used drugs, and from the “normie” kids to whom she couldn’t relate. She wanted desperately to fit in. It wasn’t long before she slipped back into using again just to feel accepted. When she was caught on campus with marijuana in her purse, she was expelled. Jennifer never returned to school.

Why Didn’t Treatment Work?

In a scenario like Jennifer’s, many people are quick to blame the treatment program. “If only they had done a better, more thorough job of treatment.” Granted, not all treatment programs are created equal, but let’s assume this one utilized an effective, evidence-based, cognitive behavioral approach that helped Jennifer change both her thoughts and her behaviors as they related to her substance abuse and her self-esteem.

A glaring problem with this scenario is that after treatment, Jennifer went back to the same school where her using buddies were still attending. This is the equivalent of sending an alcoholic straight out of treatment back into their old neighborhood bar. We all can guess how well that will turn out, can’t we?

In his pre-conference presentation, Partnering with Recovery High Schools to Strengthen Adolescent Continuing Care, for the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers, Andrew J. Finch referred to the following studies:

– According to Tomlinson, Brown & Abrantes1 (2004), 35 to 75 percent of all teens who have attended a treatment program return to drug and alcohol use after leaving treatment.

– Winters, et al (2000)2 found that 77 percent of adolescents had used at least once and that 47 percent of all students returning to non-recovery high schools resumed full-blown drug use.

What Are the Alternatives?

School-based recovery support services were first introduced at Brown University in 1977. Since then, the concept of recovery schools has expanded. Without a working model, the first recovery high schools opened in 1987. These programs were developed somewhat by “the seat of their pants”.

What is a Recovery School?

The Office of National Drug Control Policy website describes recovery schools in this way:

“Recovery high schools provide a service-enriched and supportive school environment for students recovering from drug and alcohol problems. These schools offer standard academic courses combined with continuing care and/or recovery support services. Generally, recovery schools do not provide substance use or mental health disorder treatment. In the U.S., there are approximately 35 recovery high schools. The Association of Recovery Schools (ARS) website, www.recoveryschools.org, provides additional information on these schools. Collegiate recovery programs can be found on the campuses of community colleges, major state universities and private institutions of various sizes. There are approximately 18 programs nationally.”

According to Andrew J. Finch, PhD, author of Starting a Recovery School: A How-To Manual, the Association of Recovery Schools (ARS) has developed five basic criteria of a recovery school, summarized as follows:

  1. Operate as state-recognized high schools or colleges with programs or departments specifically designed to support abstinence and recovery for chemically dependent students.
  2. Operate primarily in support of academic services and recovery support (aftercare), but not necessarily as a mental health or substance abuse treatment agency.
  3. All students must work a recovery program (negotiated between student and school) and maintain their sobriety while enrolled.
  4. Academic studies are provided which allow credit toward a diploma and offer services to assist student transition into either a career or other educational institutions.
  5. Plans are in place to address the crisis and therapeutic needs of students. Plans may include referrals to state licensed and/or certified on- or off-campus professionals. Utilization of substance abuse professionals is preferred.

Locating a Recovery School

The two primary ways to locate a recovery school are through the ARS website, http://recoveryschools.org, and the Association of Recovery in Higher Education website, http://collegiaterecovery.org. If there is no recovery school in your area and you want to support this kind of school, consider starting one. Finch’s book is a great resource which addresses all of the areas to consider.

An Alternate Ending to Jennifer’s Story

Following Jennifer’s six weeks in substance abuse treatment, her aunt heard about a local recovery high school and suggested that Jennifer attend. Although reluctant to give up her “friends”, Jennifer realized that their continued drug use would be a threat to her sobriety and recovery. She decided to give the recovery school a try.

Jennifer had some periodic challenges with anxiety and depression as part of her newfound sobriety, but the school staff worked with her and collaborated with her outpatient therapist and other support. The school not only held Jennifer accountable, but also helped her catch up academically. She surprised herself by graduating from high school. Because of her participation and success in a recovery high school, she decided to attend a local community college which also had a recovery support program.

Consider for a moment where Jennifer would have ended up given the two very different endings to her story. I think you’ll agree that recovery schools are beneficial not only to the individuals who attend them, but also to their families, friends and communities. It is my hope that you will both promote and support the recovery school concept in your area.


John Schuderer

John Schuderer

1Tomlinson, K. L., Brown, S. A., & Abrantes, A. (2004). Psychiatric comorbidity and substance use treatment outcomes of adolescents.Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 18(2), 160-169.

2Winters, K. C., Stinchfield, R. D., Opland, E., Weller, C., & Latimer, W. W. (2000). The effectiveness of the minnesota model approach in the treatment of adolescent drug abusers. Addiction, 95(4), 601-612. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1046/j.1360-0443.2000.95460111.

John Schuderer MA, LPC, LISAC, is a licensed mental health and substance abuse counselor in Prescott, Arizona.

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