Reading, Writing, and Rehab
The woman overseeing this chaos, Michelle Lipinski, has wavy brown hair and a gregarious center-of-attention personality. The familiar, intimate way she relates to her students makes her seem, at 45 years old, more like a mother than a principal. At any hour of the day, and even on weekends, she can be found texting with students and their parents.
Before arriving at Northshore, Lipinski worked as a science teacher at an alternative school in Salem, eventually becoming the school’s director. For years she watched her students leave for rehab, come back looking healthy, and then relapse within weeks. When one of them died of a drug overdose, she says she began “thinking about what we can do differently as a school system to really address the problem.” It’s then that she started to question how well abstinence actually works in a classroom setting.
The country’s first recovery high school opened in Minnesota in 1989, and the model has since spread to about 20 schools in 10 other states. In 2006, Massachusetts opened recovery schools in Beverly, Boston, and Springfield, and one is scheduled to open in Brockton next month. The schools in Massachusetts are small, with no more than a few dozen students at any given time, but collectively they have enrolled some 450 kids in their first five years. Half of them have either graduated or are still in school.
Recovery highs are structured much like traditional schools, with students attending classes taught by certified public school teachers. The kids are referred by parole officers, other schools, fed-up parents, the Department of Children and Families, and rehab and detox centers. Tuition, which averages around $10,000, is paid for by their home school district, while the Department of Public Health provides each recovery high with up to $500,000 a year for substance abuse counseling, drug testing, and training. Students are required to create and follow an individualized recovery plan, which can include anything from attending 12-step meetings to working with a therapist or joining a sober bowling team.
Though most addiction research has focused on adults, studies demonstrate that two aspects of the adolescent brain make teenagers particularly susceptible to problem drug use. The first is that the nucleus accumbens — the brain’s pleasure center — has not yet fully matured in teens, meaning they often look for easy ways of finding excitement and rewards. The second, says psychologist Robert Miranda, an associate professor at Brown University’s Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies, is that the frontal cortex — the part of the brain responsible for caution — is not yet completely developed.
Of course, drug use is a major concern even among teens who don’t qualify as addicts. The National Institute on Drug Abuse has found that nearly half of all 12th graders nationwide have used a drug at some point, and almost a quarter have done so in the past month. More than 5 percent of 12th graders smoke pot every day — the highest rate in three decades — and almost 8 percent of kids ages 12 to 17 used prescription pills like Vicodin to get high last year. Here in Massachusetts, the Department of Public Health reports that about 1,700 kids ages 12 to 17 receive state-funded treatment for substance abuse annually. And they typically relapse within a year.
And it turns out that the younger a person is when he begins using drugs or alcohol, the worse his long-term prognosis. “There is a huge push to try to identify kids with drug problems early on, and try to treat them before they get out of adolescence,” Miranda says. That’s part of the motivation for a national effort to integrate substance abuse support services into schools. “The White House and the Office of National Drug Control Policy are right behind this issue,” says Kelly, the associate director of MGH’s addiction center.