From left, students Robby Holmes, Jesse Ly and Ashley Scott headed to class at Arona Academy in Coon Rapids, one of Minnesota’s six sober high schools.

David Joles, Star Tribune

Sobriety High searches for road to recovery

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY
  • Star Tribune
  • November 12, 2011 - 9:47 PM

Like the chemically dependent students it embraces, Sobriety High is fighting for survival.

With national recognition, a catchy name and an acclaimed foundation for support, Minnesota's best-known sober high school chain was the model to emulate. But now, with enrollment inexplicably low, funding scarce and the closing of its Edina and Maplewood campuses, the remaining Sobriety high schools in Coon Rapids and Burnsville are struggling to get by.

"This is where I need to be, a school that will give me the support and fellowship to stay sober," said Jesse, 17, a student at Sobriety High's Arona Academy in Coon Rapids. "Without a school like this, where would I go?"

Recovering teenage alcoholics and addicts throughout Minnesota are asking similar questions. In the past couple of years, half of the state's dozen or so tuition-free recovery high schools have closed because of budget constraints. Others, like Sobriety High's Arona Academy, have seen student numbers dwindle, forcing cuts in staff that cast the schools' future in doubt.

Sobriety High closed its Edina and Maplewood campuses two years ago. Sober schools in Cambridge, Chaska, Owatonna, Moorhead and Cass Lake also have closed, while Mankato's Central Freedom Recovery School, which once had 26 students, was down to 13 last week. Arona Academy has had as few as 29 students this year -- about half the number the school had in better times.

"Enrollment and funding go hand in hand," explained Andrew J. Finch, Vanderbilt University professor and founder and current senior adviser of the Association of Recovery Schools. "The key to a recovery school is to have enough kids in recovery. The students generate funding. And the funding is needed for the programs that attract students. In this economy, it's a tough cycle."

The total budget for the two remaining Sobriety high schools is $1.2 million. The schools are funded through the state, in part, by enrollment -- and that number is down by 20 students this year, meaning a projected loss of $238,000, said Paul McGlynn, Sobriety High's executive director.

Need still exists

Sobriety High's declining enrollment does not reflect a declining need for recovery schools, which experts say is as great as it has ever been. But transportation problems have forced some Minnesota schools to close. Many schools have suffered because parents and students don't know they exist.

There are only 33 recovery high schools nationally and Minnesota remains the country's leader with six. Massachusetts now has three, with a fourth about to open. Those schools were started after a Massachusetts teenager came to Minnesota for treatment and returned home with tales of all the recovery schools she'd heard about, Finch said.

Sobriety High still is considered a national model, Finch said. But in Minnesota?

"When Sobriety High closed its Edina campus, some people apparently assumed all the Sobriety high schools were closed," said McGlynn.

"At the time, it made sense to close the Edina school because the lease allowed for that," McGlynn said of the campus once featured on two NBC news shows. "The problem was that so many people associated Sobriety High with Edina."

Other sober high schools -- like P.E.A.S.E. Academy in Minneapolis, City West Academy in Eden Prairie and Insight in White Bear Lake -- continue to flourish. Hazelden's Rehab Center for Youth and Families in Plymouth has been so full this year that the center is expanding.

"So the need for sober schools exists," said Cathie Hartnett, executive director of the National Youth Recovery Foundation, formerly known as the Sobriety High Foundation.

Foundation shifts course

Sobriety High changed the name and mission of its St. Paul-based foundation two years ago; the purpose is no longer to finance Sobriety High, Hartnett said.

Instead, the emphasis is on "the issue of continuing care" and establishing boards in major cities with no sober high schools, such as New York and Los Angeles. The foundation, which had provided Sobriety High with "hundreds of thousands of dollars" during previous financial difficulties, now gives it about $20,000 a year, Hartnett said.

"A free-standing charter school with multiple campuses called Sobriety High has not worked as a financial model," she said. "Sobriety High has got to find a model that works."

Always recruiting

P.E.A.S.E. Academy in Minneapolis has been operating for 22 years and is considered the nation's oldest recovery school. It has had between 70 and 85 students for several years, by design, said school director Michael Durchslag. Located less than 2 miles from downtown Minneapolis, in the University of Minnesota's Dinkytown neighborhood, P.E.A.S.E. students have access to several bus lines. Or their parents drop them off before heading downtown.

But Durchslag takes nothing for granted. He constantly visits treatment centers while encouraging his own students to recruit prospective students. That can be tricky.

"Some kids think that since they've been through treatment, they're fixed," said Anne Lucasse, program director at City West Academy. "Or the parents want them to go to a 'normal' school.'"

Traci Bowermaster, a member of Insight's staff, said that after treatment, "kids want their lives back to what they were before -- which is impossible. We know what we do works, but it's harder to convince these kids. Mention the word sobriety and you scare some kids away."

Maddy, a 16-year-old from Mounds View, began drinking, smoking marijuana and gobbling prescription drugs when she was 12. She said she used to be afraid to leave Arona Academy when the school day ended.

"This school makes miracles happen," she said. "I'd hate to think of where I'd be without this place."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419

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