Monday, March 09, 2015

New Jersey's First Recovery High School!

There is a new movement in America. Recovery High Schools. So, the questions is, “What exactly are these?” Well, they are exactly what they sound like. They are schools that are devoted to teens who struggle from the disease of addiction. These schools provide a safe, sober and supportive school environment; and do this without throwing education to the wayside.

As we all know, addiction has penetrated our youth in a way previously unheard of. Kids are getting addiction to alcohol and drugs earlier and earlier. I myself have a dear friend who has a fourteen year old daughter who is addicted to heroin. So obviously the question is, “What are we doing wrong?” Addiction is a real disease and it is not going anywhere. The sheer number of high school age children abusing drugs are astounding. 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.

What can we do differently? Prevention and treatment are both absolutely fundamentally important. But the biggest thing is recovery support services.

Relapse rates are astronomical, especially in teens. And I don’t find that surprising. Here we take an adolescent who is struggling already with growing up and their hormones – disliking their bodies, wanting to fit in, being unsure of who they are or where they’re going… and add alcohol or drug addiction on top of that! Talk about confused. Kid wants treatment, so then we institutionalize them and separate them for 30 days. Then, we throw them right back into the environment where they were originally using in with the people they were using with. Who wouldn’t relapse?

So, in response to these high rates of relapse among adolescents who returned from treatment to traditional high school settings and quickly resumed old patterns of behavior, recovery high schools are emerging all over the nation.

New Jersey has been trying to get a recovery high school for a long time. There were a lot of naysayers, a lot of “Not In My Backyard” and a lot of roadblocks. The organizations two biggest champions were Pamala Capaci Executive Director of Prevention Links and the schools namesake New Jersey Senator Raymond Lesniak. Lesniak, who recognized the “compelling need” for the specialized education provided by a recovery high school. “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.”

The combined efforts of Capaci and 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. In September of 2014, New Jersey The Raymond J. Lesniak Experience Strength and Hope Recovery High School (E.S.H.) came to fruition as the first public recovery high school in the state of New Jersey. E.S.H.’s mission is to create an environment where education and recovery go hand in hand. The Raymond J. Lesniak Experience, Strength and Hope (ESH) Recovery High School, located on the Union County campus of Kean University currently serves two area students who have been through treatment programs. Organizers and administrators hope to accommodate many more in the coming years.

A colleague and good friend of mine Morgan Thompson, secretary of Young People in Recovery – New Jersey, and the mentor coordinator at the high school is a young person in long-term recovery herself, at age 24 and sober five years. Morgan says, "If we truly want to empower young people to maintain their recovery, it is essential to provide a full and comprehensive continuum of care. Recovery high schools are one of many recovery support services that will promote sustained recovery."

Again with the idea of supporting recovery. If we are to look at addiction as the disease it is, then we must have supportive services. I believe that having a true continuum of care includes: recovery high schools, collegiate recovery centers such as the incredible one at Rutgers, long-term counseling, academic support and peer support services. Bottom line recovery is hard. Support is vital for success and no one needs more support than the young person in or seeking recovery.

This will in turn not only have an effect on those suffering with addiction, young or old; but have a much broader effect on the community.

A recovery high schools mission, unlike a traditional high school, is to support both a student’s recovery as well as their academic attainment. Students enrolling in a recovery high school have already established their motivation to achieve and maintain their sobriety.

Attending a recovery high school is not punitive. There is power in this alone because the students want to be there and want to get better.

Although the exact combination of activities for a student depends on that individual’s needs. 

Examples of activities that are contained on a student’s recovery plan:

•     Participation in self help groups such as AA and NA
•     After school one on one counseling
•     After school group counseling
•     Mental health counseling
•     One on one counseling with school recovery counselor
•     Medication assisted treatment
•     Family therapy

These recovery high schools popping up all over the nation all fall under the umbrella of the Association of Recovery Schools. ARS prepares and inspires starters and operators of Recovery High Schools to perform at their very best. Giving each state the tools to most effectively serve their individual populations. They believe that while addiction thrives in isolation, recovery is a process of hope and healing that thrives in the positive peer communities of recovery schools. Kristen Kelly Harper executive director says, “We believe that every student in recovery is of value and worthy of an opportunity to be educated so they can heal, grow and ultimately discover how to live their very best life.”

If we believe addiction is a disease, then we must treat it as such. And in treating it as such, we must have a comprehensive continuum of care. Recovery high schools are one very important piece in the puzzle which is addiction.

Mariel Harrison,
 NCADD-NJ Advocacy Organizer
 If you want to get involved with advocacy in New Jersey please e-mail

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