Reading, Writing, and Rehab

By Beth Schwartzapfel | Boston Magazine |

Smoking pot is so common at Northshore that Lipinski says “students really do perceive of marijuana as legal.” And like its students, the school treats the drug as different from others, essentially handling it the way the state does — as a misdemeanor. But its ubiquity seems to confuse students about just what being clean means. One young woman who smokes marijuana every day tells the group that she likes to think she’s in control of her daily pot use, but knows that she’s not.

As the meeting continues, a guy tells everyone that his plan to have one or two beers the night he got out of rehab ended with him drinking so much that he burned a hole in his pants with a cigarette. “There’s no way I can have [only] a couple,” he says.

“You’re not alone,” says another classmate. “Everybody wants to be a normal teenager. You know what I mean?”

Lipinski nods from the corner, beaming with pride. “That’s fellowship,” she says. “And that’s where the strength comes.”

At William J. Ostiguy High School in Boston, however, the strength comes from fellowship of a different kind. During the second week of school, principal Roger Oser waits outside as students arrive for the day. The school is housed on the third and fourth floors of the Action for Boston Community Development building in Downtown Crossing, and on the sidewalk outside it’s not unusual to see business people in suits walking past actors in Colonial-era dress taking breaks from reenactments on the Common.

Oser stands with his hands in his pockets and greets each student by name.

“Hey,” one kid says to his friend as he arrives, stopping to smoke a cigarette. “You got a lighter?”

“We don’t say, ‘Good morning’ at Ostiguy,” Oser says. “We say, ‘Got a lighter?’”

The student smiles as his friend tosses him a lighter. “Good morning,” he says.

Oser, 42, is short, with a boyish face, an easy smile, and a wide girth. He’s wearing a shirt and tie, and his cropped gray hair is about the only part of him that recalls the years he spent in the Navy. Before Ostiguy, he worked as a teacher with the Department of Youth Services and then as an administrator in other settings for at-risk youth. He’s playful — the students affectionately call him “Rog” — but also stern. His staffers stress civility, respect, and order: no cursing in school, no revealing clothing, no hats, no phones, no headphones. Those with negative attitudes are evaluated daily to determine whether they’re exhibiting the school’s “five P’s”: prepared, positive, productive, polite, and personally responsible. If their attitudes don’t improve, they can be suspended. “I hate the concept that a kid’s going to come to Ostiguy and we’re going to ‘save’ that kid,” says Oser. “It’s not a treatment program. It’s not a daycare program. We’re a school. They’re here to learn.”

  • 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.