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More Recovery High Schools Help Teens Stay Clean

Specialized high schools can offer teens in recovery a vital support network of staff and fellow students.

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Students at Northshore Recovery High
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Adolescence is a turbulent phase of life for anyone—so battling addiction as a teen may seem insurmountable. But high schools designed for students in recovery are popping up all over the US to help kids get the support they need to learn, graduate—and hopefully stay clean. The first recovery school—“Sobriety High”—started in Minnesota back in 1987, and there are now at least 35 of them in the US. Nearly two million American students meet the criteria for substance abuse according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, yet many never receive the treatment they need. For those who do seek treatment, 75% relapse within one year after returning to high school. “Many of these teens are offered their previous drug of choice on their first day back in school,” says Andrew Finch, a professor at Vanderbilt University who has been studying recovery schools for years. "It's going to be that much harder to stay with that decision to stop, if all of your buddies are continuing to use.”

Michelle Lipinski is the principal of Northshore Recovery High, which she founded in 2005 when she realized tons of students were skipping school to do drugs—sometimes with fatal consequences. "I didn't want to go to any more funerals," she tells The Fix. At Northshore, which is funded by the state of Massachusetts, classes operate in a less regimented fashion than at a typical high school. Art and music are heavily integrated into the curriculum, and self-expression is encouraged. "These students have a really important story to tell—it's not just about addiction," says Lipinski, and the school helps students cope with a "litany of issues" they face, in addition to substance abuse and addiction. She hopes schools like Northshore can help change the face of recovery—illustrating that, especially for young people, "Recovery doesn't have to be painful. It can also be fun and exciting and rewarding." Even when students struggle with relapse, they're supported by an engaged community of fellow students and an "amazing" staff. "We reach our hand out," says Lipinski. "There's no such thing as enabling at this school—these are kids. We don't give up on them. And they don't give up on each other."

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