Bouncing on a purple exercise ball, Alyssa talks to her new teacher about what classes she needs to graduate.
Alyssa is one of five students at Heartland High, a school on Columbus’ East Side. It’s designed specifically for students who have struggled with substance abuse.
Alyssa started using drugs and drinking when she was 13. Side Effects is not using her last name to protect her privacy.
“Drugs was what I thought was curing my depression and really helping me through those times, which you know, turns out only made it worse,” she says.
After a suicide attempt, Alyssa went to Utah for a treatment program. She learned coping mechanisms alongside other teens who were trying to be sober.
But when she came back to Ohio and started school, peer pressure made it hard to remember what she learned.
“All these people are attacking me, and saying, ‘Oh you’re lame because you don’t want to go to an after party for homecoming’ or whatever,” Alyssa says. “And I was like, I don’t want to use drugs. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink anymore. ‘What’s wrong with you, why don’t you want to party, why don’t you want to be a normal high schooler?'”
Alyssa relapsed, and overdosed on pills.
Alyssa’s experience is a common one. The National Institute on Drug Abuse found that nearly all students returning to their old schools after treatment reported being offered drugs on the first day.
“When you go and you go back to your school of origin, you’re around the same people you used with before, the same people who might be dealing to you,” says Paige Stewart, head of Heartland High. “You’re around the same stressors. And now you have extra stressors, because now you’re that kid who comes back to school that’s been to rehab, so there’s stigma there.”
Stewart says students who apply struggle with a variety of mental health and substance use problems. Many applicants reported using opioids. Ohio has the second highest opioid overdose rate in the country.
She says peer support and access to a recovery coach are vital parts of Heartland’s success.
“There’s a lot of supports out there for adults who are in recovery, but there’s not as much for kids,” Stewart says. “And so the wonderful thing about recovery high schools and what the research is showing is now these parents and these children have support.”
Heartland is one of fewer than 50 recovery schools across the country. Like many others, it’s starting small, with about five to 15 students.
Research on these small schools is limited, but Vanderbilt professor Andrew Finch says outcomes have been encouraging.
“The scientific findings have shown so far that you do see a positive effect of having a recovery high school even for a short period of time,” Finch says.
Finch is co-founder of the Association of Recovery Schools. In a 2017 peer-reviewed study, he and his research partner found that recovery schools have a variety of beneficial effects.
“We looked at substance use, we looked at mental health, we looked at educational outcomes and what we found was that the recovery high school students did better than the non-recovery high school students,” he says.
While students come to school every day, classes at Heartland are online. Students receive individualized academic plans that help them make up for time spent in treatment.
Teacher Leslie MacNabb says students like Alyssa really benefit from that method.
“The smaller environment is really important for her, rather than being grouped in with a bunch of kids and maybe getting lost in the shuffle might be overwhelming,” MacNabb says. “And she also voiced that she likes going at her own pace rather than saying, ‘Hey, you need to do this right now.’ That’s going to help her be most successful.”
Since Heartland is a private school, success comes at a price. Tuition for an academic year is $20,000, and the summer program is $500. But Stewart says Heartland received enough financial support to offer this summer’s programming free.
“I was sharing with a mom the other day, she filed bankruptcy and had to take out a second mortgage on her home just because she’s depleted her savings account because of sending a kid off to treatment,” Stewart says. “So it’s like, ‘We’re going to find a way to get you here.'”
Heartland is working to secure scholarships for students enrolled in the full school year. That’s what Alyssa is hoping for.
“You put me in a sober environment and I hear all these sobriety terms and recovery words and that’s what I’m going to want, ya know?” Alyssa says. “That’s what I’m excited to want.”