Minnesota's sober high schools are faltering

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 28, 2013 - 8:56 AM

The nation’s first recovery schools blossomed here; now two more are closing.

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The state that pioneered sober high schools, and once was home to a dozen, will be down to four next month.

“Outside of Minnesota, the future of recovery schools is really bright,” said Michael Durchslag, director of P.E.A.S.E. Academy in Minneapolis, the nation’s oldest school for recovering teenage alcoholics and addicts. “But in Minnesota, they’re dropping like flies.”

Financial woes and erratic enrollment — factors that doomed other tuition-free Minnesota recovery schools that once served as national models — have claimed the last two schools in the Sobriety High School chain. While relatively new recovery schools in Boston, Houston and Indianapolis thrive and other schools have opened recently in Philadelphia, Providence, R.I., and Brockton, Mass., Arona Academy in Coon Rapids and Sobriety High in Burnsville will close for good in June.

Sobriety High lost a key donor — an individual who personally gave an average of $200,000 or more annually to the operation for more than a decade. But that only partly explains what caused the demise of a school chain that had national recognition, a catchy name and an acclaimed foundation for support. An education bill that would have changed the formula by which recovery schools are reimbursed fizzled at the State Capitol this spring, further complicating their plight.

“Arona Academy was the greatest thing to ever happen to me,” said Nick, 16, a recovering heroin addict from Columbia Heights who plans to attend P.E.A.S.E. next year.

Maddie, 17, a recovering addict from Mounds View, was even more succinct: “Arona Academy helped save my life.”

Still a need

The need for recovery schools remains strong in Minnesota, experts say. The chances of a young addict relapsing increase dramatically when that person returns to the traditional school where problems surfaced.

And there are plenty of candidates for Minnesota’s recovery schools. Hazelden’s Youth and Family program historically runs close to 100 percent capacity and is adding another 32 beds to its Plymouth facility, said Jim Steinhagen, executive director of Hazelden’s Youth Continuum.

“The need is there,” Steinhagen said. “The question is why Minnesota’s recovery schools have never been able to achieve a business model that’s sustainable.”

The schools’ financial problems date to the 1980s and 1990s, when they were being formed and emerged as pioneers for the nation’s chemical-dependency treatment industry.

The schools usually have been housed within traditional high schools under the “alternative” umbrella or were established as charter schools. They receive state per-pupil aid — a Catch-22 since most recovery schools or programs have limited numbers of students, by design. The schools also rely heavily on fundraising to provide counselors and specialists in the chemical-dependency field.

“Most of the schools around the country got started because of the great work in Minnesota,” said Andrew J. Finch, Vanderbilt University professor and founder and senior adviser for the Association of Recovery Schools. “But many of those schools in Minnesota were started by people in the chemical dependency field and well-intentioned parents, not by businesspeople. The sad reality is that outside of Minnesota, the schools are doing really well.”

Strong reputation

The Minnesota Model — the moniker given more than 50 years ago to treating addicts through abstinence, but also with dignity — is a term that recovery schools nationally use admiringly when discussing Minnesota’s sober high schools. Roger Oser, principal at Ostiguy High School in Boston, says, “Minnesota is considered the birthplace of recovery high schools. Minnesota is the model.”

Ostiguy, which opened seven years ago, was started after a Massachusetts girl came to the Hazelden Youth and Family Center in Plymouth for treatment. She returned home asking why Massachusetts didn’t have recovery schools like those in Minnesota.

Ostiguy didn’t blossom overnight. It took eight years of planning before the school opened, Oser said. There were few guarantees. A school in Janesville, Wis., opened in 2008 and closed two years later. Today, there are fewer than three dozen recovery schools nationally. Massachusetts and Minnesota each lead the nation with four. None of the Massachusetts schools opened before 2006.

“We’ve been fortunate in getting funding through the public-health system,” Oser said. “For other schools, we know that’s a challenge.”

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