I spent much of high school high. Wild Turkey Wednesdays marked a weekly ritual that saw my friends and I split a fifth of affordable—and uncomfortably warm—whiskey in the morning hours before first bell. For many of my friends, this behavior would prove merely a phase. For me, it was the tarmac to a 20-year odyssey of alcohol and drug abuse. Impossible hypotheticals are a reality in the recovering mind; so I have naturally imagined how my life would have been different had I found sobriety as a teenager.
After going through a painful and exhaustive process helping her daughter find sobriety after dealing with an opioid addiction a decade ago in high school, Rebecca Bonner decided to create a recovery school that opened in 2011. Bonner is offering 10 students the chance to find recovery with their peers at The Bridge Way School, a private recovery school in the Manayunk section of Philadelphia which is the only of its kind in not just the city, but in the state.
Recovery high schools are schools designed to provide an alternative ecosystem to students in recovery from substance use disorders by creating a space where all students are working to overcome addiction and maintain sobriety.
Nationally, there are 35 recovery high schools recognized by the Association of Recovery Schools across 15 states. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 27.2 percent of students from eighth grade through senior year have tried drugs in the past year. In 2013, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) estimated 2.3 million kids aged 12 to 17 had used drugs—with just 5.4 percent of those adolescents entering any form of treatment.
For many students in recovery, severing ties with their substance-using friends is pivotal part of the process, creating a critical need for new and healthy formats for social support. Conversely, the National Institutes of Health found approximately 80 percent of students who return to their previous high schools after substance abuse treatment will relapse within the first year.
The effectiveness of recovery programs is undeniable. Ninety-two percent of graduates from the Bridge Way School have gone onto college. Graduates from high schools designed for people in recovery from addiction are more than twice as likely to remain sober, compared to students in normal intervention programs. Students who attend such recovery schools have a relapse rate of 30 percent within six months, according to a report by Andrew Finch, assistant professor of counseling at Vanderbilt University.
“I ran into the mother of a student from our first graduating class and she’s still doing well,” Bonner explains. “It’s those stories and moments that confirm what we’re doing. We’re still small, we’ve served about 70 kids, yet we’re serving a niche. I would love to be out of business in that this wasn’t an issue facing our kids or because the public schools have infused their programs with such robust recovery support that recovery- specific schools aren’t necessary. I don’t see that happening in the near future, so recovery schools serve a really important part of the puzzle for supporting kids who are trying to get their lives back on track.”