Most Sober High Schools Are Very Successful. So Why Are They Facing the Ax?

By Jeff Forester 06/28/11

One in five teenagers meets the medical criteria for addiction. But as the nation's 33 recovery high schools prove increasingly successful in treating young addicts, why are they now threatened with extinction?

For many alcoholic teens, sober high schools offer a fighting chance

Bill W. could never have imagined 18-year-old Jeff Bunes, a well-spoken, sandy-haired Opie from Grand Rapids, Minnesota. And yet his story—which includes hard drugs, trafficking, detox and jail by the age of 15—certainly qualifies him as one of Bill’s friends.

Jeff has been sober 22 months, he tells me. Without blinking or ducking, his clear blue eyes looking straight at me, he says that if it were not for Sobriety High, he’d be dead.

I believe him. Yet many recovery high schools now face cuts or closures which could have devastating consequences for the students who rely on them—and for wider society. 

While it undoubtedly feels like a school, the wall banners feature phrases like “Turning It Over Is A Turning Point” rather than, say, a sign for the prom. 

Sobriety High started in Minneapolis in 1989 with just two students. It has 100 more today, and sober high schools have sprung up in eight other states. While Minnesota, the land of ten thousand treatment centers, leads the pack with 11 of the 33, there are others in Dallas, Houston and Los Angeles—though none in New York, Chicago, or San Francisco. According to a National Institute on Drug Abuse study, 78% of the students in sober high schools attend after receivingB formal rehab. Judi Hanson, the Director of Community and Family Outreach at Sobriety High, explains, “In Minnesota, the treatment centers do a good job of advising teens they will do better in a recovery school following treatment.” In areas where there aren’t any good treatment centers for teens, it is harder to start a sober school.  Says Hanson, “One girl came from Boston—she found an article about us and we told her she needed housing, so she contacted the Minneapolis AA Intergroup, and found a family willing to sponsor her. She stayed with us for two years.”

Enrollment is similar to any other school—students arrive with transcripts and all the typical paperwork. At Sobriety High, there is an interview with both the prospective student and the parents. The staff tries to determine where the teen is in their recovery and how committed they are.

During lunch hour at Sobriety High, students busy themselves eating, emptying trash, running mops through the classrooms and wiping down blackboards. Taking responsibility for themselves and their school is a part of recovery but it’s also a way for administrators to stretch strained budgets. There is no cafeteria, and the students use a small kitchenette with a fridge, microwave and sink for lunch.

While it undoubtedly feels like a school, the wall banners feature phrases like “Turning It Over Is A Turning Point” rather than, say, a sign for the prom. The students are diverse, with hair of all different lengths and colors; some have the seemingly requisite addict tattoos while others are decked out in Goth garb and still others project a distinctly Midwestern Wonder Bread aura. Their journeys are also diverse, with the lucky ones landing here after treatment but many coming from the courts, detox or the streets. Their paths are as different at their backgrounds; they are a rainbow of races and economic backgrounds.

Only a few telltale ankle monitors, or the hair-thin cross hatch of pink scars on the thighs of one young female cutter, betray the complicated lives these students lead. Some have never been to an AA meeting when they walk in the doors. Recovery schools must take them one student at a time, adapting as they go. “We meet them where they are,” says Michelle Lipinski, the principal of Northshore Recovery High School outside Boston. “We learn how to work with kids—first by figuring out what they need and then teaching them that.” Northshore Recovery School formed in 2006. “My Superintendent had a light bulb moment and suggested I take it on,” says Lipinski. “I was not that excited, had just had my third child. And this is really hard.”

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Jeff Forester is a writer in Minnesota. His book, Forest for the Trees: How Humans Shaped the North Woods, an ecological history of his state's famed Boundary Waters, came out in paperback in 2009. Jeff is the Executive Director of MN Lakes and Rivers Advocates MLR and you can follow him on Twitter.