Recovery Schools Support Sobriety for Young People

People who are in recovery from addiction are often advised to avoid the “people, places and things” associated with their past drinking or other drug use. But adolescents who’ve been through treatment for drug dependence may find this impossible to do.

According to one study, almost all adolescents returning to their old school after completing a treatment program were offered drugs on their first day back. Findings such as this sparked a recent innovation in American education: recovery schools, which are high school or college programs designed to support young people in recovery from addiction.

Recovery schools have developed quickly over the past few years, but often in isolation from each other. That’s changing, however. Staff members at recovery schools are making connections with each other, a body of best practices is emerging to guide their work, and formal research to evaluate recovery schools is on the horizon. The bottom line: Parents and students looking for an academic environment that supports sobriety can now rely on more than guesswork and gut feelings when choosing a recovery school.

The need for recovery schools will not go away, as evidenced by the 2003 National Survey on Drug Use and Health from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which found that:


  • Nearly 1 percent of 12-year-olds in the United States either abused or became dependent on alcohol or illicit drugs in 2001

  • the percentage of abusing or dependent adolescents increased each year up to age 21, when 22.8 percent fit the abuse or dependence criteria

  • in both 2002 and 2003, nearly 2.3 million Americans aged 12 to 17 needed treatment for an alcohol or drug problem. Of this group, only 168,000 received care at a dedicated treatment facility.

Adolescents who are fresh out of treatment are also at greatest risk for relapsing to alcohol and other drug use. This is the time when such students return to their homes, schools and neighborhoods — the very milieu that supported their abuse or dependence in the first place.

Here is where the benefits of recovery schools click in. According to Andrew Finch, director of the Association of Recovery Schools, such programs offer a “protective cocoon” that supports recovery as students work towards graduation.

Since 2002, the number of recovery schools has doubled to 25 high schools and eight college programs. According to Finch, some lessons have emerged from all this activity. If a group is starting a recovery school, Finch recommends that the founders “be patient and persistent and reach out to people who have established schools. Also, be aware of referral sources and funding opportunities. One of the biggest mistakes a new school can make is to open but not have a consistent referral base of local treatment centers, schools, and other resources.”

Finch adds that recovery schools must stay on top of local and state education laws: “These must be followed, and they differ greatly from state to state and district to district.”

According to the ARS, recovery schools should:


  • Operate with state approval and be designed specifically for students recovering from chemical dependency.


  • Provide academic services and recovery assistance – but not operate primarily as treatment centers or mental-health agencies.


  • Require students to be sober and working a program of recovery.


  • Offer academic courses for credit and assist students to make transitions to college, a career, or another school.


  • Have a plan to handle student crises, including access to counselors on staff, on contract, or available by written referral.

Finch has written a new book, “Starting a Recovery School: A How-To Manual” (Hazelden, 2005), that offers a blueprint for developing an effective recovery school and includes details about existing schools. Related information and a list of sobriety schools in the United States are online at the Association of Recovery Schools website.

Source: Hazelden’s Alive & Free news column April 4, 2005

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