Before high school student Matt Langley enrolled in Independence Academy, a recovery school in Brockton, Massachusetts, his life had become dismal and tragic as he struggled with drug addiction.
Langley was introduced to marijuana at the age of 13 by a friend's mother. Since then, he experimented with harder drugs like acid and ecstasy until a friend introduced him to Xanax. As a young man full of insecurities and self-doubt, he thought he had found the panacea for his internal struggles and soon became addicted. This prompted a recurring cycle that saw his parents admit him into several treatment facilities before returning him to his regular high school.
It wasn't until they discovered Independence Academy that life began to look brighter for Matt.
Recovery schools—also known as sober schools—are designed to assist students in learning how to lead lives of sobriety as they earn their diplomas. In addition to attending classes like math, language arts, physical education, and other online courses, students meet with counselors regularly and participate in daily support groups based on recovery programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous and SMART recovery.
Although these schools don't yet have the funding to provide an extended curriculum that might include foreign language classes or vocational training, recovery schools tailor their curriculum to individual deficiencies that are a result of students falling behind in their learning during active addiction. In addition, according to the Association of Recovery Schools (ARS), these schools provide support for families learning how to assist their teens as they embrace a sober lifestyle.
According to a 2017 study conducted by Vanderbilt University associate professor Andy Finch and other researchers, students in sober schools are significantly more likely to report being abstinent from alcohol and drugs six months after they were first surveyed than students who don't attend recovery schools. Among the 134 sober school students surveyed, the average reported absences were much lower than in traditional schools.
Recovery schools were first established in the 1970's and approximately 40 schools now exist throughout the country, including in Minnesota, Texas, and California. With opioid overdoses rising rapidly, more recovery schools are likely to open nationwide, as long as funding permits. Finch, also co-founder of ARS, states, "There has been a gap in adolescent treatment for many, many years. The schools are one of the programs that fill in that gap."
The success of recovery schools can be largely attributed to students being surrounded by sober peers, in addition to counselors and teachers who support their sobriety. According to Seth Welch, a recovery support counselor at Interagency at Queen Anne (IQA), a sober school in Seattle, "Unless these kids get engaged with other young people in recovery, they don't stand a chance. This becomes their new community.“
Furthermore, due to the recovery-focused nature of sober schools, sometimes mental health and sobriety need to come before classwork. Phylis Coletta, a teacher at IQA, recalls an experience with a student who had spent most of the day crying and clutching a blanket. Coletta intuitively hugged her and accompanied her on a long walk rather than taking the counterproductive approach of pushing her academically in the face of despair.
Instead, Coletta chose to teach the student that it's important in recovery to lean into negative feelings at times in order to gain power over them.
Although some recovery schools are private institutions or are run by treatment centers, about 85% are public or receive some form of public funding. Establishing a school is a complicated process, but starting a sober school presents extra complexities. Recovery schools have to recruit students, as well as impose and fund policies specific to each student. However, the need is there. In 2014, about 1.3 million 12- to 17-year-olds met the criteria for a substance use disorder.
Recovery schools hold the potential to drastically change the ways we help young people who struggle with addiction. By focusing on other aspects of recovery other than simply abstaining, sober schools provide meaning and hope for students who would otherwise be re-exposed to drugs or alcohol when returning to their high schools following treatment.