Reading, Writing, and Rehab

By Beth Schwartzapfel | Boston Magazine |

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.


  • Hendrik

    I am disgusted with Beth Schwartzapfel’s article, “Reading, Writing and Rehab.” I have worked as a consultant at the Northshore Recovery High School on and off for three years and I have been endlessly impressed with the school’s energetic, thoughtful and encouraging approach to the process of recovery for teenagers. The goals of a recovery high school are (in order of importance):
    1) Keep kids from dying
    2) Keep kids out of jail
    3) Educate (academics and life skills)
    4) Provide examples of peers for whom recovery is working
    The rock-bottom approach to recovery that is appropriate for adults simply doesn’t work for adolescents. Minors are not in control of their living environments or their finances. Children cannot escape a hostile home, addict parents or gang infested neighborhoods without strong consistent support before, during and after relapse. Every teenager and every relapse needs to be evaluated individually. Suspending a student for a dirty test can lead to beating by a parent, a relapse on a more dangerous drug, or running away. The other students need to be protected as well. I applaud the Northshore Recovery High School for trying a different, more difficult and more thoughtful…

  • Kristen

    My name is Kristen Johnston. I’m an actress who co-founded SLAM (Sobriety, Learning And Motivation), a board dedicated to creating NYC’s first Recovery High School. I have worked exhaustively for the past 5 years, trying to make this happen. Michelle Lipinski has been a true hero to us, doing everything in her power to help, in any way she can. I spent a week at Northshore Recovery HS, and I can say from first-hand experience, everything Ms. Schwartzapfel relays in her article is categorically false. Ms. Lipinski is a strong, kind, brilliant leader, the teachers all cared so deeply for reaching each kid, and there is NO QUESTION it’s saving lives. I’ve never been to a school where so many graduates come back daily to see what they can do to help out. I’m disgusted by this article. If she had spent more than a cursory afternoon there, she wouldn’t have written such an inept, damaging article. It’s the kids who will really suffer from this. You should be ashamed of yourself.

  • Kendall

    When you berate someone whom takes extensive periods of time from her life to help drug addicted teenagers. This is not some fantasy world where you can wave a magic wand and every addiction you have can be cured. They are teenagers, it is obvious that they will relapse. The point is that they are on a path to their future because of these schools. When they were in public schools they were lost in the shadows, looked over. With recovery highschools they are put under a magnifying glass, and are forced to take note of their actions. I have a brother that goes to recovery high and now he is getting straight ‘A’s and steering clear of drugs and alcohol. They don’t condone substance abuse, they just make you realize there are always people like you out there that are going through similar occurrences, and give you that crutch you need to make it past your difficulties.

  • Jackie Valley

    This is truly one of the most irresponsible articles I have ever read. Clearly the author has no experience working with teens let alone teens suffering from addiction. Clearly the author has no concept of harm reduction and it’s effectiveness or it’s impact nationwide. Clearly the author has done little to no research on harm reduction programs and the preliminary evaluations, which show these programs to be “a viable and promising approach to working with highly marginalized drug users.” Clearly the author has never attended a funeral of a child who has died after leaving a traditional rehab program. I have. I have also seen kids fail at harm reduction programs – there is no one size fits all when it comes to addiction. If there was – someone would have started the program and we would eliminate the disease. I also know Michelle Lipinski personally and am appalled at the author’s disrespectful tone and commentary on a woman who has given up time, money and a good portion of her life to work with a very challenging population. I will NEVER subscribe to, purchase or reference Boston Magazine if this…

    • LBV

      In light of the article written by Ms. Schwartzapfel, I found encouragement by learning about Ms. Lipinski’s approach and attitude toward helping teens through recovery. Key comments made by Ms. Lipinski have given me hope and understanding of my own teen who is struggling with substance abuse. I am not critiquing the article, but, to those who found it damaging… i just want to say that i found it enlightening and saw Ms. Lipinski in a positive light.