Keeping Clean

High schools for addicts face new challenges as students receive less treatment

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Hope Academy serves students who are recovering from drug and alcohol abuse.

When Avalon Dugan got out of treatment for drug and alcohol abuse, she had a choice: head back to the mainstream high school where she spent her freshman year or enroll in a tiny high school on the campus of the rehabilitation facility.

Dugan choose the school for kids in recovery — a decision she says has helped her stay sober for over a year.

Hope Academy, a charter school that has been operating out of Fairbanks Addiction Treatment Center in Lawrence Township for ten years, offers services for teens grappling with addiction along with typical classes like math, English and art.

Dugan initially struggled with relapse after she got out of rehab but Hope Academy’s  close-knit community and regular drug testing made it difficult for her to hide her drug use from her parents and teachers, she said.

“Teachers at larger schools don’t really see one kid out of like 300 walking through a hallway,” Dugan said. “There’s a lot of people in recovery that work here, so they … pick up on things because they were there are one point.”

Hope Academy is among about 30 recovery high schools around the country that offer a unique approach to helping students stay sober and graduate from high school but, as the programs mature, they’re finding that many students are enrolling earlier in their recovery processes. That has put pressure on the schools to offer more support to students.

In Indiana, Hope officials say the problem is insurance companies are offering less coverage for rehab for kids addicted to opioids as opposed to alcohol, since detoxing from opioids isn’t considered life-threatening.

When Hope opened in 2006, it largely served students who had abused alcohol or marijuana — and typically had been in treatment more than 30 days before enrolling in Hope. But as more kids use opioids like heroin and oxycodone, even students with access to healthcare are less likely to get the kind of long-term treatment they used to, said Rachelle Gardner, the school’s chief operating officer.

“We may have students that come to us with a week or so of inpatient treatment,” Gardner said. “They’re just starting to get clean.”

The first Hope students had been through treatment at Fairbanks, and they were well into the recovery process, Gardner said. That helped build a foundation for the kind of supportive culture the school is based on, and for the first few years, most students came to them after long-term treatment.

But the landscape has changed: students now are coming to the school after brief stints in recovery programs — or no treatment at all, Gardner said. These teens need more support and they can struggle to integrate into the school culture.

“That’s a different student then we had five years ago,” she said.

Located on the second floor of a Fairbanks building, Hope has just eight classrooms and seven teachers. Enrollment fluctuates, with students joining and leaving the school throughout the year, but it usually hovers around 35 teens.

Andy Finch, a Vanderbilt University researcher who is leading the first large-scale study into recovery school outcomes, says many of the recovery schools around the country are also serving new, more challenging students because they are intentionally targeting more diverse students.

“When you look at recovery high schools historically,” Finch said, “they are not very diverse racially and ethnically and really not all that diverse economically.”

Hope is a free, publicly-funded charter school, but many recovery schools are private schools that charge tuition. The teens served by recovery schools in the past tended to be relatively privileged, with access to substance abuse treatment, Finch said. But that is changing as some schools have actively tried to open their services up to needier kids including those with limited or no health insurance.

“Recovery high schools are having to face the fact that not everybody has access to treatment,” he said.

At Hope, incorporating teens who are new to recovery can be a strain on committed students who’ve been at the school for months or years, Gardner said.

“They’re still living in the old mindset of an addiction kind of culture,” she said. “You lie, you cheat — those kinds of values.”

About five years ago, Hope leaders decided they needed a place to help new students, or students who had relapsed, acclimate to the school. That’s why they created the STARR room, a therapeutic setting where students spend their morning catching up on academic work and their afternoons doing art and discussing recovery with school staff.

Usually teens spend about three weeks in the STARR room before integrating into traditional classes, but with an increasing population of high-needs students, the school is considering expanding the services or extending the time students spend there before joining the rest of their peers, she said.

The first recovery high school opened in 1979, Finch said. But there hasn’t been much rigorous research into how well the programs work compared to traditional schools. In fact, Hope is at the forefront of site-based research, he said.

A study of Hope’s program from 2014 found that when students stop using drugs, their academic outcomes improve, said Mary Jo Rattermann, an educational consultant. Hope students who don’t relapse actually show more growth than similar peers at mainstream high schools.

Rattermann initially evaluated Hope for the Mayor’s Office of Education Innovation, which charters the school. When that contract ended, she continued to study the school, first through a contract paid for by Hope and now as part of a national project funded by the Association of Recovery High Schools, she said.

“What Hope Academy is doing is nationally acknowledged as a very successful model,” Rattermann said. “This is a school and it’s about academics, and it’s about being a high school kid as much as you can give that to them.”

The per student cost at Hope is about $23,000. The school receives more than half that amount from the state, including the per student funding every charter school receives and a special grant for support services. The rest of the school’s funding comes Fairbanks, grants and philanthropy, Gardner said.

Part of the reason the bill is so high is because the school is committed to having teachers for every subject rather than online learning, said Gardner. The school can serve as many as 60 students without increasing the number of teachers, she said. Since only about 35 students are currently attending, Hope could push down per-student costs by increasing the number of teens enrolled.

Gardner is certain that more students in the region could benefit from recovery high school, but there’s a stigma to attending a school for teens with substance abuse problems and some families simply don’t know about Hope, she said.

“I tell new schools,” Gardner said, “if I would’ve done anything different, I would’ve put a lot more money in marketing.”

Hope won’t work for every teen. Some students drop out or leave for more intensive treatment. When teens continue to use drugs and alcohol, they are sometimes suspended or expelled.

In fact, Dugan herself was briefly expelled from Hope. In her second year at the school, she had fallen deeper into addiction, going from using alcohol and marijuana to injecting heroin. It got so bad in the spring, that she was expelled from the school. But she continued to come back for tutoring and regular drug tests.

It was her drug tests that changed everything for Dugan.

For months, she had managed to clean up enough for her heroin use to slip under the radar, Dugan said. But on a spring day in 2014, she made a mistake and her drug test came back positive for opioids.

When Dugan’s mother walked in to her room to tell her the test result, Dugan could see the pain and resignation in her face.

“I just didn’t lie to her,” she said. “I just said, ‘yeah, I’m still using.’ ”

And that was the end, Dugan said. She stopped using drugs that day and she’s been clean ever since.

When she came back to Hope that fall, she was totally changed, said principal Linda Gagyi.

“We had kind of a contract,” she said. “She did amazing. … She was truly committed to recovery.”

Walk it out

NYC mayor encourages school walkouts in wake of Florida shooting: ‘If I was a high school student today, I’d be walking out’

PHOTO: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio

In the wake of a school shooting in Florida that left 17 dead, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said students won’t face serious disciplinary action if they choose to participate in a national school walkout planned for next month to protest gun violence.

“If I was a high school student today, I’d be walking out,” de Blasio said Thursday. “This is too important a moment in history to try to hold back the desire of our young people to see fundamental change and to protect themselves.”

Students across the country are planning to walk out of class at 10 a.m. on March 14 “to protest Congress’ inaction to do more than tweet thoughts and prayers in response to the gun violence plaguing our schools and neighborhoods,” according to a Facebook description of the event.  The protest is scheduled to last 17 minutes, one for each person who died at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

And unlike one Texas school district, which threatened to slap students with suspensions if they walked out, de Blasio said students would not face serious discipline. “There’s no negative, lasting impact if they do this,” the mayor said.

De Blasio’s tacit endorsement of the walkout comes just days after he announced that schools across the city would deploy more “rapid-response lesson plans” about current events. On Friday, de Blasio told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer that the protests are a “teachable moment.”

We are going to do lesson plans around this issue leading up to that day,” de Blasio said. “We are going to make sure that there’s a real educational impact.”

The city also announced this week that every New York City school will hold a lockdown drill by March 15, and every middle and high school will be subject to at least one random screening with metal detectors this year.

Here’s more on what de Blasio told Lehrer this morning:

For high school students – we are going to be very clear, we want parents to weigh in, to let us know if they are comfortable with a young person walking out. It is supposed to be for 17 minutes. We expect the school day before and after to proceed. For younger folks – middle school, elementary school — the model I’m interested in, we are still working on this, is to have it be within the context of the building, you know to gather in the building for the memorial to the 17 young people lost, 17 people lost I should say. And again that may be silent, that may be with young people speaking, that’s all being worked through.

Speaking Out

Students at Denver’s George Washington High say their voices were unheard in principal selection

PHOTO: Denver Post file

When Shahad Mohieldin learned that students, parents, and teachers at George Washington High School in Denver would have a say in who was named the next principal, the high school senior spent days recruiting representatives from all three groups to participate.

Mohieldin, a member of the school’s advisory board, said she and others worked hard to ensure the group vetting the principal candidates would be diverse. It was important to include students of color and white students, parents who speak English and those who don’t, and teachers of both International Baccalaureate and traditional classes, she said, especially since the high school has been working to heal years-long racial and academic divides.

The students particularly liked one candidate who they said seemed to understand the school’s struggles. He would have also been a leader of color at a school where 70 percent are students of color. Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg ultimately chose a different candidate, a more experienced principal with whom he’d worked closely before.

It was a whirlwind process that took just seven weeks from when the current principal announced his retirement. In the end, Mohieldin and other students said they were left feeling like their voices were ignored.

“We were often told that, ‘Hey, your voice really matters in this. Please, we want your input,’” Mohieldin said. “It really hurts. Now we don’t trust the district as much, which is really sad.”

District leaders said the process was quick but thorough. Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova said that while it was clear the students preferred one candidate, the input collected from parents, teachers, and community members was more mixed. The slate of three finalists was unusually strong, she said, and it was not an easy decision.

Kristin Waters, the candidate who was hired, is a former district administrator with years of experience leading a comprehensive Denver high school similar in size to George Washington. The students’ top choice was an assistant principal at East High School named Jason Maclin.

Cordova said she wants to assure students that although district leaders didn’t choose students’ favored candidate, they did consider their opinions.

“It is important to use your voice,” Cordova said. “Sometimes your voice isn’t the only piece of information we look at, but in no way does that mean to stop speaking out.”

Not listening to community feedback is a perennial criticism of Denver Public Schools, and one district leaders are continually trying to address. Recently, several major decisions have been based on recommendations from committees of parents and community members. While the process hasn’t always gone smoothly, the district has followed the community’s advice.

In the case of the George Washington principal selection, the process worked like this: Current principal Scott Lessard announced in mid-December that he’d be retiring at the end of the school year. Lessard has helmed the school for two years, and students and teachers credit him with fostering a sense of unity and a culture of openness to new ideas.

But he said the daily challenges of being a school principal led to his decision.

“I was going to retire at some point,” he said. “It may not have been at the end of this year, but it was going to be soon. The school in such a good place, I thought it was a unique opportunity now to find somebody who would be a good principal.”

The district has a pool of pre-screened principal candidates who are invited to apply for openings as they come up, Cordova said. With every vacancy, the district convenes a committee of parents, teachers, and community members to interview the candidates. In the case of high school principal jobs, the district also asks students to participate.

For George Washington, the district assembled the committee and three separate focus groups, which Mohieldin helped organize: one of parents, one of teachers, and one of students. The groups and the committee interviewed five candidates selected by the district, and based partly on their feedback, district leaders whittled the field to three finalists, Cordova said.

The three finalists then participated in a community forum. Forum attendees were asked to submit written comments on candidates’ strengths and weaknesses, and Cordova said she personally read every single one. She said district leaders also read emails students sent afterward urging the district to pick Maclin. Students said they never received responses to those emails – one reason they felt unheard.

A week after the forum, on Feb. 6, the district announced its decision to hire Waters.

Cordova said she has every confidence that Waters will be “an amazing school leader.” Waters has been principal of three Denver schools: Morey Middle School; Bruce Randolph School, which serves grades six through 12; and South High School, whose demographics are similar to George Washington. More than 300 of the 1,239 students at George Washington are black and more than 400 are Hispanic.

“She has a strong track record working in similar communities,” Cordova said.

Students had some concerns about Waters’ approachability and her seemingly close ties with district leadership; Boasberg was listed as the first reference on her resumé. They said they liked Maclin’s presence, and that he seemed knowledgeable about the school’s past struggles and had concrete ideas for its future. Maclin submitted a proposed plan for his first 100 days as principal that included conducting a listening tour of the school community.

But students said their main complaint is not the outcome but the way the process unfolded.

“The district goes through this whole act of putting on these focus groups and interviews at the school and it’s like, ‘What really came out of that?’” said sophomore Andrew Schwartz. “At this point, it seems like the answer to that question is very little. I think that’s upsetting.”

Schwartz was part of the student focus group that interviewed all five candidates. So was junior Henry Waldstreicher, who noted that students missed an entire day of school to participate.

Waldstreicher said he was also left feeling disillusioned. “Why should we even try to talk to the district if they’re not going to listen to what we’re going to say?” he said.

The perception that the selection process was top-down wasn’t just among the students. Some teachers and community members said they felt the same way.

“We were given the opportunity to give our feedback and then it went into a black box and a decision was made,” said Vincent Bowen, a community member who participates in a student mentoring program at George Washington and was on the selection committee.

Pam Shamburg, executive director of the Denver teachers union, shared those concerns, adding that what happened at George Washington has happened at other schools, too: Candidates, she said, “go through this process, this rigamarole, but the district already knows who they’re going to pick.”

Parent Elizabeth Sopher said she feels district leaders weren’t as transparent as they could have been about what they wanted in a new principal, which she suspects contributed to the disconnect between the students’ top pick and the district’s ultimate decision.

“When you say to a group, ‘You tell us what the most important thing about this new principal is to you,’” she said, but then don’t make a decision based on that, “that’s a mistake.”

For her part, Waters said she’s excited to step into her new role at George Washington. She’s slated to start March 1 and finish out the school year alongside Lessard, a transition plan Cordova said was important to the district and the school community.

Waters said she wants to build a strong relationship with students. To that end, she has already met with a group of them to talk about their concerns.

“Once I get on board, they will see me out and about and hopefully feel comfortable coming up to me and letting me know what they’re thinking,” Waters said. “I want their input.”

Junior Cora Galpern said rebuilding that trust will be crucial. In the future, Galpern said the district should give students and others more of a say in principal selection by seeking a consensus on a candidate rather than simply soliciting feedback.

“Because at the end of the day,” she said, “our next principal has a huge effect on our day-to-day lives.”