New school in Colorado Springs to help kids in recovery excel

May 21, 2016 Updated: May 23, 2016 at 4:19 pm
photo - "The Anonymous People," is a movie about kids in recovery and the difficulties they have in mainstream schools, where there are many temptations. Photo from the Springs Recovery Connections Facebook page.
"The Anonymous People," is a movie about kids in recovery and the difficulties they have in mainstream schools, where there are many temptations. Photo from the Springs Recovery Connections Facebook page. 

A sober high school?

One could be up and operating in Colorado Springs by January.

A group that wants to start a school for teens who are recovering from addiction to illegal drugs, prescription medications or alcohol is gaining widespread support and making progress.

"High school is a really hostile environment for kids trying to get sober," said Cathy Plush, co-founder of Springs Recovery Connection. The organization provides peer support for individuals and families dealing with addiction.

What typically happens is youths get sent to treatment, then return home and go back to school.

"They often immediately relapse," Plush said. "There's a stigma associated with it, and they don't get the message that it's OK to be well. It's hard enough for adults, let alone kids."

Landmark Recovery High School will start under the auspices of Community Prep, an alternative school founded in 1995 as the first charter school in the region, under Colorado Springs School District 11.

The mission: "To provide a relevant, high-quality education in a therapeutically supportive, sober environment."

"When students get sober, there's no place for them to go, and there's up to a 75 percent chance they'll relapse," said Leslie Patterson, co-founder of Springs Recovery Connection and one of the initiators of Landmark Recovery School. "We can put all the services in place to help them be successful."

It's on track to open in January as the first sober school in the Pikes Peak region and the only one in the state at this time. One that had been in Denver closed, although there is an effort to establish another one there.

Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers likes the idea. He was one of 50 people who attended a community information lunch last month to hear about the plans.

"It has the potential to be very constructive for our local school system," he said.

Months ago, members of the organizing group showed Suthers a film, "The Anonymous People," which is about kids in recovery and the difficulties they have in mainstream schools, where there are many temptations.

"These are people who understand addiction and what it takes to create an environment for young people to recover," Suthers said. "There's an amazing number of kids who are recovering from addiction, and it's something we shouldn't ignore."

The nation's first recovery high school opened in 1987 in Minnesota. There are 36 operating in 14 states and 13 more getting started, according to Kristen Harper, executive director of the Association of Recovery Schools, a nationwide accreditation program headquartered in Denver.

"The reason recovery high schools work is because of the wraparound services or the full continuum of care that adolescents receive from qualified staff at our accredited schools," she said. "We know that collaboration is the key."

Landmark Recovery will seek accreditation from the association, said Martin Schneider, director of Community Prep School.

The school will provide mental, physical and spiritual recovery support services - such as counseling and urine analysis tests - while meeting state academic requirements for awarding a high school diploma.

"Community Prep is acting as the incubator to help the program begin and will share resources for economies of scale," Schneider said.

The intention is that Landmark Recovery would become an independent charter school in a few years.

As an alternative school for students who have had problems at traditional schools, Community Prep has a lot of experience dealing with addiction and mental health issues, Schneider added.

"Part of the reason for having Community Prep be the launching pad is it's a safe landing for kids that relapse but still need a high school to go to," Schneider said.

Organizers are searching for a location for the new school, which would start with about 16 students and grow to more than 100 in two years.

"We're looking for a place that doesn't feel like a school, but more like home," Schneider said.

Students from around the Pikes Peak region who have been in some type of recovery treatment program and commit to total abstinence will be eligible to attend, Patterson said.

Teachers will be trained in dealing with principles of recovery but will not necessarily have had a personal experience with addiction, she added.

"When you think of a teen, the two major supports in their life are family and education," Patterson said. "You also need a supportive environment. It changes the trajectory for these kids, instead of them ending up homeless or in the judicial system or in the hospital."

The program will be tailored to each student's needs, with an individual recovery plan established for academics and recovery, to include prescribed medication.

Many teens in recovery develop other issues, such as depression or attention deficit disorder, which also will be addressed.

Marijuana is the most abused substance among youths in the region, followed by opioids and hallucinogens, according to organizers.

Some members of the group have visited other recovery high schools, including in Wyoming and Texas.

"It's a concept we're taking and using to build our program based on the needs of our community," Patterson said.

A $20,000 planning grant from the Denver-based Daniels Fund has helped with the initial startup. Schneider said $75,000 more has been raised from individuals and organizations to continue the formation process.

Teachers at Community Prep are being trained in the ideas, concepts and skills of recovery, Schneider said.

Community partnerships will be an important piece, said Rebecca Berg, an addiction treatment specialist who's on the advisory committee.

For example, Phoenix Multisport, a physically active group for people recovering from substance abuse, is interested in providing physical education for students, and a sober artist wants to be a guest presenter at the school.

"The community forum created an opportunity for input - 'What do you bring to the table?' - and so many people responded," Berg said. "To model recovery is one of the foundations of the school."

Schneider said the movement didn't start because of the lack of effort or success by other high schools or programs in the area.

"This fills a unique niche, for the kids that other programs don't work for," he said. "We think it's desperately needed."

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