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Sober High

High school is a rite of passage for teens heading into early adulthood. But this exciting and valuable life experience could take a sinister turn when drugs and alcohol are introduced. For some students, addiction can completely erase any hope for education – or a future.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 27.2% of students in grades 8–12 have tried drugs in the past year. This fosters a dangerous environment not only for the kids who experiment with drug use, but for their classmates around them. It can also create an extremely unhealthy situation for those who are struggling to break free from addiction as well.

In 2013, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) estimated that 2.3 million kids aged 12 to 17 had used drugs. Only about 5.4% of those adolescents entered into any kind of a treatment program. And the vast majority of drug-using teens will receive non-intensive outpatient therapy (primarily individual and group counseling.)

There are better alternatives. Recovery high schools often provide a safe haven where students will not be pressured by, or exposed to, other drug-using peers. The curriculums are intertwined with treatment and support, and the results are promising.

Types of Programs

Traditional services such as therapeutic boarding schools and treatment center schools can help, but may not always be an ideal fit for young adolescents. Recovery high schools attempt to minimize the impact of treatment by providing a local option that allows students to continue living at home. They are usually affiliated with other schools, not treatment centers. Most importantly, they are available to students who need them and are not restricted by ability to pay like other options.

[Ostiguy] is giving me a life that I never had. I went from literally having nothing to having my whole life in eight months.


One ironclad requirement for entry into a recovery school is that students must express a strong desire to kick their habits. This no-nonsense approach is working; students who enter these schools are surrounded by like-minded individuals who wish to conquer their addictions and reap a better future.

Early studies show that within six months of completing a recovery school curriculum, students have a relapse rate of only 30% – less than half of normal intervention programs. With such strong results, it’s hard to understand why recovery schools are not receiving more attention. Two-time Emmy Award–winning actress and author as well as Executive Director & Co-Founder of SLAM Kristen Johnston expresses her concerns about the lack of awareness, stating: “The fact that I’m still screaming into a wind tunnel about this issue is shocking to me.


The student makeup and performance metrics of the Ostiguy Recovery High School in Boston show great results. Out of 81 students enrolled at the school, an overwhelming majority of them made significant progress toward their goals. Many students either graduated or moved up to the next grade, while some advanced grades and returned to their home schools.

These results are owed to a serious level of commitment from the staff and students alike. The curriculums fuse traditional classes with electives geared toward personal growth and development, which better prepare students for life after school.


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There are currently 34 recovery high schools in operation across the U.S., with eight more planned. California, Texas, Massachusetts, and Minnesota have the largest concentration of schools of any state, and there are currently more recovery schools than therapeutic boarding and treatment center schools combined.

The first recovery schools opened in the late 1980s in Minnesota, and as many as 80 have opened since then. The process of maintaining these programs hasn’t always been a smooth one. Still, Andy Finch, a Vanderbilt University professor who previously ran a Tennessee recovery high school, says that recovery schools have seen steady growth in the past 15 years.


Despite their many benefits, recovery schools are not always easy to establish and maintain, and some of them do end up closing. Dr. Andrew J. Finch, a leader in recovery school research, tweeted last year that there are four reasons recovery high schools close: transportation, stigma, awareness, and funding. But he also believes recovery school leaders can overcome each of these issues. Still, creating an environment where these schools can open and flourish is not something every state has done equally.

We analyzed a long list of items from school funding laws to establish support groups in every state, determining which states were the friendliest to recovery schools. Our base information came from the Association of Recovery Schools and its Recovery School Favorability Scorecard report.

The results show plenty of states in which there are not favorable conditions for the creation of recovery schools. California, Massachusetts, and Minnesota score highly on this list, but what about Texas? It has established seven recovery schools in adverse conditions, showing where there is a need and a will, there can be progress. Still, there are challenges such as states’ suggestions to close recovery schools due to budget constraints; this has not gone over well with those who advocate for the schools. As Joe Schrank of put it: “If you like having these kids in high school, you’ll love having them in prison.”

What specifically causes a state to rank negatively on the recovery school friendliness metric (RSFM)? Many of the measurements revolve around laws that encourage charter and alternative schools and their funding. These are critical because lack of funding is listed as a primary reason for many recovery school closings. Kansas, for example, allows for charter schools by state law, but it offers no funding to help make them possible. There is no official legislation regarding alternative schools, and several statewide support programs that are available in other states are absent in Kansas.

States that rank at the very bottom of the RSFM are not nearly as likely to get approval and funding for recovery schools. This should be an eye opener for their residents and serve as motivation to get involved with school-related legislation.

Searching for Growth

A review of Google search results provides a powerful look at the awareness of recovery high schools. In a time when the need for innovative and effective solutions is more significant than ever, familiarity with the concept of recovery schools remains stagnant. Recent spikes in search volume coincide with launch dates of new recovery schools, and with more on the way, it’s hopeful that the positive results will increasingly garner more attention.


Recovery schools are proven to be successful, and they’re growing in popularity. Even Canada is jumping on board, having recently opened its first. The positive impact on the lives of teens who participate is of remarkable value to not only the students themselves but their friends, family, and society as a whole. Through continued efforts of recovery school advocates, and those who have benefited from their efforts, this innovative rehabilitation and recovery approach will hopefully continue to grow and reach more of those in need.

Call To Action

If you know of a student who is currently struggling with drug or alcohol addiction, we can help connect you with resources in your area. Visit or call for more information.

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