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Recovery High

By Paul Gaita 10/16/14

For teenage addicts, recovery high schools can help tremendously in giving them a clean, safe environment. But funding can be a problem.

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In September of 2014, New Jersey became the latest state to embrace the growing educational movement of high schools designed to aid students in recovery from drug and alcohol abuse.

The Raymond J. Lesniak Experience, Strength and Hope (ESH) Recovery High School, located on the Union County campus of Kean University, is scheduled on November 1 to begin serving 10 area students who have been through treatment programs. Organizers and administrators hope to accommodate at least 90 more in the coming years. Lesniak ESH is New Jersey’s first recovery high school, and the end result of a long struggle by its namesake, veteran State Senator Lesniak, who has championed recovery issues throughout his 37 years in office, along with Pam Capaci, executive director of the non-profit substance abuse treatment program Prevention Links. 

Recovery high schools—in existence since the late 1970s—reached a peak number of between 70 and 80 during the mid-1980s. Funding has always been the schools’ most difficult hurdle, and today only 35 are in operation across the United States. But the sheer number of high school age children with drug-abuse disorders prompted Capaci to consider the idea of a recovery high school for New Jersey youth. (According to a report by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, of the 76% of high school students who have used tobacco, alcohol, marijuana or cocaine, one in five meet the medical criteria for addiction, not to mention the wave of heroin addiction that has gripped the United States in recent years.)

Inspired by a county assistant prosecutor’s suggestion to look at the work done at William J. Ostiguy High School in Boston, Massachusetts, Capaci examined the school’s model and found that it resonated with her. “In my current position, my organization does primarily prevention and family strengthening work,” she tells The Fix. “But in a previous life, I was an alcohol and drug counselor. I understand the need to change your environment [after treatment], and youth coming out of treatment and back into their school environment—which is really their primary environment—have limited to no resources to succeed in their recovery. The [recovery high school] model builds recovery into their typical school day.”

The road from concept to completion was fraught with a host of difficulties, not the least of which was finding the funds to launch a recovery school in earnest. “The biggest issue [was] funding streams,” notes Capaci. “Education [funding] takes care of education [needs], health and human services takes care of health and human services, and they don’t mix well.” More disconcerting was the fact that federal mandates do not require schools to accommodate the learning needs of children with substance abuse disorders. “We were forced to look at an education system that, despite the best of intentions, had no support, no financial resources, and no requirements to help our kids succeed academically,” says Capaci.

Alternative models such as charter or private, state-approved schools were considered and dropped due to their own restrictions regarding admission policies. But Capaci found an invaluable ally in Senator Lesniak, who recognized the “compelling need” for the specialized education provided by a recovery high school. “There was a study done in 2004 and 2005 that reported an excess of 34,000 children who needed some form of rehabilitation from substance abuse problems,” the senator tells The Fix. “Couple that with a report that stated 90% of children returning to public school from rehab are offered drugs or alcohol on their very first day of school, and 50% relapse within the first month. So [the recovery high school model] demonstrated an effective way to meet their needs.”

Despite the senator’s influence, the New Jersey recovery school project still faced numerous challenges, as well as questions from state and local education groups. “I met with the New Jersey school board association, the education association, and talked through their points of concern,” recalls Capaci. “I had to remain flexible and set up partnerships that would be win-wins for everyone involved.”

Senator Lesniak also found resistance within his own sphere of influence. “We met with two of Secretary (of Education Arne] Duncan’s top staff, who were somewhat antagonistic to the issue and the effort,” he recalls. “What was remarkable was that Secretary Duncan came into the room, sat down, looking totally uninterested, and then left after five minutes without saying a word. It showed total disdain for what we’re trying to do here.”

The combined efforts of Capaci and Senator Lesniak overcame such roadblocks, and the necessary financing was secured through fund-raising by Prevention Links, and from the home school districts of each student. For the senator, the high school that bears his name will hopefully serve as a shining example of the importance of aiding recovery efforts by high school students.

“The long-term impact will be multifold,” he says. “First and foremost, we’ll be saving lives because without this types of recovery efforts, those children will end up in the criminal justice system or dying from a premature death. Second, we hope that it will raise awareness of the magnitude of substance abuse in our youth, and the increasing efforts to help them avoid it. And third, we hope to spread that message nationwide, particularly because New Jersey is often a beacon of light on many national issues.

"I’ve recently stated that [our] nickname should be changed from the Garden State to the Humane State.”

Paul Gaita is a Los Angeles-based writer. He has contributed to The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Amazon and The Los Angeles Beat, among other publications and sites. He last wrote about buying drugs online, the 'blame the victim' mentality of campus rape and taking the stigma out of addiction.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites. 

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