Reading, Writing, and Rehab

At local recovery high schools like Northshore Recovery high school, students work to overcome their substance abuse. So what's with all the drug taking?

reading, writing, and rehab

Northshore Recovery High School students Billy and Lexi. / Photo by Jonathan Kozowyk

It’s Tuesday afternoon just before fourth period, and groups of teenagers are smoking cigarettes outside their high school. Standing among them is Billy, who has the smooth cheeks and soft-edged features of a typical 16-year-old. But there’s also a hardness to him. His hazel eyes are impassive. His dark hair is buzzed close to his head, and he has a wispy goatee and his last name tattooed in black script on his forearm.

When Billy was 14, his father, Bill Sr., went to jail on drug-related charges, and the family lost their house and split up. Billy stayed with his mother in a homeless shelter and a series of hotels, each of them trying to hide their drug use from the other. Eventually they stopped pretending and started hustling together to come up with the money for their $200-per-day heroin habit.

At most schools, an adolescent heroin junkie would be a pariah, and probably even be expelled or arrested. But Billy goes to Northshore Recovery High in Beverly, one of three state-funded schools attended exclusively by teenage drug and alcohol addicts. And according to his teachers and principal, he’s been thriving — it’s the first time he’s consistently shown up for school since seventh grade. Having completed a 90-day residential treatment program for his heroin use, he’s now living with his father, who was recently released from jail, and his uncle. (His mother also sought treatment, but eventually relapsed and is now locked up.) He met his girlfriend, Lexi, at the school, and the two of them help each other stay sober. Billy and his father both agree that if he weren’t at Northshore, he wouldn’t be in school at all.

It may sound like trouble — a bunch of teen addicts spending their days together in an alternative school — but Harvard psychologist John Kelly, the associate director of the Center for Addiction Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, says a recovery high school can “provide a safe social context,” which helps teenagers resist temptations.

Perhaps that’s so, but resisting temptation can apparently mean different things to different people. Billy may be attending a school specially designed to help him overcome his drug addiction, but he and Lexi openly admit that they regularly smoke pot. In fact, Billy keeps failing the drug tests that are required at the school. After each positive test, he sits down with his principal and the school’s recovery counselor, and they call in his father or uncle for a group discussion on how to help him stay sober. The school’s approach has been to focus on the major concern — heroin — first. Billy says the message he’s been given is “We’re not really worried about you failing for weed. Opiates are the problem right now.”

Most recovery schools across the country require students to commit to sobriety in order to enroll. But Northshore director Michelle Lipinski, who functions essentially as the principal, takes a much different approach. She believes that even if students are using, her school provides them with a safe environment to work through the recovery process. If they’re struggling with drug use, she reasons, better they do so at Northshore than on the streets. “These are the kids who will eventually be the dropouts of our society, not just our schools, if we don’t do something for them,” she says. “Sobriety isn’t how I measure success.”

reading, writing, and rehab

Photo by Jonathan Kozowyk

“Sobriety isn’t how I measure success,” says Michelle Lipinski, directory of Northshore Recovery High.

Northshore Recovery High School occupies the ground floor of an old public school in Beverly, and the hallways are filled with the familiar sound of sneakers squeaking on linoleum and lockers slamming. Students curse freely and wander in and out of class without much reprimand. During gym, they are allowed to “take a walk” (i.e., go outside to smoke). At one point during math class, the teacher looks up from drawing sine waves on the board to discover there are only four students at their desks. “Where did everyone go?” he asks.

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.

Getting kids sober, in other words, is a major priority. But keeping them that way can be a tricky task. A lifetime of unbroken sobriety is a lot to hope for no matter when you begin the recovery process — scientists believe that falling off the wagon is actually part of recovering — but it’s a particularly long trajectory when you’re starting as a teen. And Kelly points out that while adults tend to relapse in isolation, “adolescents nearly always relapse in social environments. If you can create a social environment where recovery and non-use is the norm, they can do much better.”

But does recovery have to mean non-use? To most experts it does, but a vocal and passionate minority — groups like the Harm Reduction Coalition and the Drug Policy Alliance — argues that, in the long run, insisting on total abstinence is unrealistic at best, harmful at worst. Lipinski come