PEASE Academy in Minneapolis offers strict sobriety rules and a deep understanding of the battle.
The teenagers, some as young as 14, sat in the basement lounge of a Dinkytown church, 30 of them reciting the dates they last succumbed to drugs or alcohol.
Several had been clean for a year or more. Most marked their sobriety milestones in months or weeks.
On a recent morning, English teacher Sheila McMahon stood amid her students and announced her own date: Oct. 21, 2006.
Unlike the students whom she teaches at PEASE Academy high school in Minneapolis, gambling was McMahon's vice.
In the world of substance abuse recovery, anonymity is sacred, but at Minnesota's longest-operating sober school, and one of the nation's oldest, opening up about addiction is a gateway to connect with students who have hit rock bottom.
"We speak a common language," said executive director Michael Durchslag.
At PEASE, an acronym for Peers Enjoying a Sober Education, several staff members have battled addictions themselves, McMahon and Durchslag among them.
"Only those who suffered through addiction can really understand it," said Wallace Swanson, a retired Minneapolis school district English teacher, twice-weekly volunteer at PEASE and recovering addict.
Since 1989, educators have used the basement and Sunday school classrooms at University Lutheran Church of Hope on 13th Avenue SE. as a haven, and one of 15 recovery schools in Minnesota, with names such as Sobriety High or Solace Academy.
After stints in treatment, the students arrive by choice or court order, still bearing physical and psychological scars of addiction: track marks from shooting heroin or the hardened exterior and the low self-esteem that often accompany hard-core drug abuse.
"It's a weird combination. They think they're all that," Durchslag said, holding his right hand above his head. "But they feel like this," he said, dropping his hand waist high.
During summer classes, not all students come to earn credit.
Their required Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings aren't filled with peers who understand the gnawing pain of losing a first love or the prank of going to a Wendy's restaurant and asking for a Big Mac. In groups that meet during the school day, the teens talk relationships and video games, but also about the lures that threaten to snare them daily: the pill bottle on a countertop, Grandpa's unsecured liquor stash, friends who still use.
Most students are male, many of them from affluent families. Enrollees come from as far north and south as Maple Grove and Lakeville, and Stillwater and Mound to the east and west. Enrollment peaks at 75 to 80 during the school year and averages 30 during the summer.
"It's a different kind of education," Swanson said. "If they're here, it's where they're supposed to be."
'If you choose to use ... '
Once they arrived at PEASE, several students whom McMahon previously taught in middle school in St. Paul told her of times they'd request passes, then sneak off to pop stolen prescription pills in bathroom stalls.
"I never had a clue," she said.
Heidi Judge, the school's full-time chemical dependency counselor, has attended funerals of students killed by overdoses. She left behind the 30- and 90-day stints of treatment centers for the chance to work with students long-term.
PEASE takes an almost zero tolerance stance on drug and alcohol use, unless students come forward and confess their relapse. Last year, 80 percent of the students who walked through the door stayed clean.
"We can empathize, but we try not to enable," Durchslag said.
"You don't put your arm around the kid and say 'Oh, poor little addict.' If you choose to use, you choose to leave the school."
Outside the school, anonymity is so cherished at PEASE that diplomas don't list its name, allowing students to avoid the stigma sometimes associated with addiction.
There are no homecoming games or Sadie Hawkins dances, but it's a school large enough to ensure that all state-required subjects are taught.
On the state's reading and writing tests, PEASE students outperform the state averages, and the school achieved Adequate Yearly Progress last year, a federal measure of school success. Of this year's 17 graduates, 15 have been accepted to college or job training programs.
"If it weren't for that school, my life would be in worse shape than it is now," said Dylan Rincon, who graduated in January after spending 2 1/2 years at PEASE. Rincon is working and saving money for college.
"It helped me be comfortable with who I am."
As the lone English instructor, McMahon is the English department at PEASE. Her students are keen on stories of survival and characters who overcome adversity.
"It feels like everything's out on the table," McMahon said.
Last week, she assigned an essay about insect metamorphosis, hoping her students would see parallels with their own emergence from addiction. One student read his piece aloud, finishing with the sentences, "I went to mate. I went to bed after the mting."
Seconds later, a quick-witted classmate burst out, "That's my Friday night."
Corey Mitchell • 612-673-4491