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With enrollment down at some Minnesota recovery schools, staffs work to reverse the trend

The national shortage of youth treatment programs attests to the fact that there is a clear market for programs designed to serve addicted kids.

Faculty and students of P.E.A.S.E. Academy.
Courtesy of P.E.A.S.E. Academy

At 10:30 on Monday morning, it’s check-in time at P.E.A.S.E. (Peers Enjoying A Sober Education) Academy in Minneapolis.

A group of some 29 students, teachers, staff and administrators gathered in a large, sunny room. Some students slumped in their chairs, some snuggled and talked, others sat still, alone and quiet. Staff mixed in with the students, ready to participate: This weekly check-in is an opportunity to take the group’s temperature, to start the week off on the right foot.

Monday’s check-in instructions?

“Say your recovery date, your highs and lows, and your hidden talent,” said Michael Durchslag, P.E.A.S.E. Academy director, a cheerfully intense bespectacled man with close-cropped hair, a friendly smile and a pink tie. Each member of the group took their turn checking in, most rattling off sobriety dates, some as fresh and delicate as 3 months old. They shared highs, like, “I got a new job” (this earned a round of applause), and lows, like, “I’m recovering from a bad cold.” A few revealed secret talents, including, mysteriously, “I can hear colors.”

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Versions of this scene have been repeating themselves at P.E.A.S.E. Academy for nearly 30 years. As the oldest recovery school in the United States, the scrappy school — and its leader, Durchslag — hold a distinct position: They have an inside understanding of the history of the recovery school movement and a rightful concern about its future.

An abstinence-based recovery program, P.E.A.S.E. grew out of what its founders saw as a need for a high-quality, chemical-free educational opportunity for high-school students with substance use disorder.

These days, despite record rates of drug addiction in the United States, the school’s enrollment is lower than it has been in recent years, with just 42 students between 9th and 12th grade.

“There have been times when we’ve had as many as 60 kids enrolled here,” explained Durchslag, who also serves as a board member of the Association of Recovery Schools. After the check-in, he settled in a table in his small, shared office. Students and staff scuttled the halls, heading to class. Durschlag continued: “It’s not just P.E.A.S.E. that’s seeing a drop. Nationally, there’s been a general downward trend in enrollment in recovery schools.”

Narrowing options

Minnesota’s recovery schools have certainly seen their ups and downs. There were once 13 recovery high schools in the state; today there are six, up from a low of four two years ago. P.E.A.S.E. is the largest program in Minnesota. Nationally, there are 40 recovery high schools, Durchslag said: “Most states don’t have any recovery schools. The Association of Recovery Schools has made continued efforts to try to get more open.”

What accounts for this decline in schools emphasizing sobriety and chemical abstinence? Durchslag isn’t certain, but there’s no doubt he’s given the issue some serious thought.

“Research says that numbers-wise, fewer adolescents are using chemicals,” he said. “But that still doesn’t account for why we are seeing a national downward trend.”

Even if fewer teens are using drugs than in the past, Durchslag reasoned, there are still plenty of adolescents who struggle with addiction. The national shortage of youth treatment programs attests to the fact that there is a clear market for programs designed to serve addicted kids.

“The discrepancy between the number of people in the United States who have been diagnosed with substance use disorder and the number of people who are able to access the services they need is huge, so it really shouldn’t account for any kind of downward trend in our schools.”

Traci Bowermaster, lead teacher at Insight Recovery School in White Bear Lake, said that there was a point when Minnesota may have had too many recovery schools. Some of those programs did not have the sound footing needed to survive, so their decline was likely part of a natural weeding process.

“In 2008, many of the sate’s recovery schools started closing down one by one,” Bowermaster said. The closures were “usually based on not-sound financial planning.” This wasn’t a result of ill intent on the part of the schools, but rather of lack of planning, she said: “All of us who work in recovery schools, we are teachers, education-treatment people, not businesspeople. A lot of the programs didn’t have well-thought-out business plans or steady backers, so when the economy got tough, they didn’t survive.”

Bowermaster’s school has an enrollment of 15. “This is the first time all school year we’ve been full,” she said.

In the years since the closures of many of the state’s recovery schools, existing programs got a boost from the state of Minnesota. In 2014, the Recovery Program Grant provided yearly grants of $125,000 per school to support student transportation expenses and a portion of salary costs for licensed support staff.

“Five years ago, the state Legislature realized what an asset recovery schools were in our state,” Durchslag said. “Thanks to some continued lobbying efforts, we were finally able to get some specific funding, which really helped strengthen schools’ individual programs.”

Clear path to recovery?

While state support provided a needed injection of funds for Minnesota’s recovery schools, some schools still struggle to keep enrollment at levels they experienced in the past.

One limitation may be simply making sure that kids and families in need are aware that these programs exist. In the past, many potential students heard about recovery schools as they were leaving in-patient addiction treatment programs. That’s changed.

For a kid struggling with substance use disorder, a traditional high school environment can be fraught with triggers; recovery schools can act as a bridge or a “transition school,” where supportive programs shore up students’ sobriety in an understanding, chemical-free environment.

P.E.A.S.E. Academy director Michael Durchslag

MinnPost photo by Andy Steiner
P.E.A.S.E. Academy Director Michael Durchslag: “It’s not just P.E.A.S.E. that’s seeing a drop. Nationally, there’s been a general downward trend in enrollment in recovery schools.”

Kristin Veldhuisen, chemical health specialist at Apex, a 2-year-old recovery school based in the Rochester Public Schools’ Alternative Learning Center, said that many of the young people she’s worked with tell her that a chemical-free school is the ideal environment to support continued sobriety.

“Before coming to Apex, I worked in outpatient treatment with youth,” Veldhuisen said. “Over and over again, when I asked, ‘What are your triggers?’ they’d say their strongest trigger was returning to school. Drugs and alcohol are available there. They’d smell them. They’d see them. Some kids need to have an environment where they aren’t constantly exposed to use, where they don’t feel pressure to fall back to old behaviors.”

Community asset

One way to keep a recovery school healthy is to have strong community support. In Mankato, Central Freedom School offers a year-round option for students in recovery from chemical dependency. The program, part of the Mankato Public School system and housed in the district’s Area Learning Center, is designed to be a transition recovery school, where students attend for a time before returning to their home school.

Central Freedom launched 13 years ago, said Principal Kathy Johnson.

“About 20 years ago, we had a couple of groups in our community that were promoting the benefits of a recovery school,” she recalled. “They approached the superintendent and the school board. It was expensive then to run a recovery school, so our superintendant said that we did not have the money needed to support a recovery school in our community.”

Group members asked the superintendent how much was needed. They were told they’d need $250,000 for a recovery school to run for three years.

“This group went out into the community and raised $333,000,” Johnson said. “They started the Freedom School thinking it could run for about three years. But that hasn’t been the case. We’ve just kept going.”

The school’s supporters were fiscally responsible with their assets, Johnson said, and when the state grant money became available, Freedom School’s future was set. “We’ve been able to keep our fund balance really strong,” Johnson said.

The school’s student body is small. “We started with two classrooms,” Johnson said, “but we never quite got to the enrollment level of 30 kids that would support that size.” Eventually the school downsized to one classroom and one teacher. “We maintain at that size, and it works for our program,” Johnson said. “Full enrollment for us is 16. This year we were getting worried that we might have to go back to two classrooms because enrollment increased.”

One reason for Freedom School’s healthy enrollment numbers is an automatic path that has been established between area youth treatment centers and the school.

“Five years ago I went to our superintendent and our school board and asked that when we know kids are going through treatment, we make it an automatic process that they transfer to the our school for at least a semester until before they transfer back to their regular school,” Johnson said. The proposal was approved: “Now we work with family and staff to determine when students are ready to go back.”

Bridge builder

If no direct path to your recovery school exists, leaders need to be fast on their feet, building connections and options that draw more students to their programs.

One way to do that is to be flexible, Durchslag said. It used to be that the only option for adolescent addiction treatment was in-patient or day-treatment programs. Today, teens can also take advantage of “evening out” options, treatment programs scheduled in the evening, after the school day.

“That approach is new in the adolescent world,” Durchslag explained. Not so long ago, a parent called P.E.A.S.E. to ask if his child could attend the school during the day while taking part in an evening out program. This was an opportunity for Durchslag and his staff to be flexible.

“We usually see kids in our school who have completed their treatment, but this dad wanted to see if P.E.A.S.E. could work for his son,” he recalled. “He said, ‘I don’t want him back at the same high school because that’s where he’s using.’ He had the knowledge and forethought to think, ‘I need a different setting for my child.’ We thought about it and said yes. This kid was a different student. He needed different things. He needed new supports. But it actually was good for everyone because we knew exactly what he was doing after school: He was going to treatment three days a week.”

Durchslag believes that recovery schools’ decline is turning a corner. Stigma around substance use disorders, while still strong, is beginning to wane along with increased understanding of mental illness.

“We’re trying to whittle away at stigma, to explain that addiction is a medical issue, but some parents still think their child’s substance use is a failure on their part,” he said. “They’ll say, ‘I can’t believe my kid is an addict.’ I presented at a family group at a treatment center a few years ago. I was talking to this father, he said, ‘This school you are talking about sounds great. But I just want things to go back to normal.’ I said, ‘I actually think a recovery school is your best chance for that normalcy.’”

Another source of students for recovery schools is traditional schools, many of which also struggle to keep up their enrollments, and resist transferring even the most troubled student to a school like P.E.A.S.E. or Insight.

Durchslag is working to build relationships with area high schools, emphasizing that P.E.A.S.E. can provide key support for students struggling with advanced substance use disorder and co-occurring mental illnesses.

“The students we are serving today are very different than the students we were serving 15, 20 years ago,” Durchslag said. “The acuity of their disease is far more progressed by the time they get to us. It used to be pot and alcohol, maybe hallucinogens. Our kids are using meth. They use IV drug users, poly drug users who are tapping into almost anything you could imagine.”

Because of these complex histories, Durchslag has noticed that more traditional schools are beginning to see recovery schools as a valid option for their most troubled students.

“They are realizing that they need options like our program,” he said. “I like to reiterate that we can serve as a transition school: I tell school administrators, ‘I’ll be more than happy to take your student for three months, to help them get a little more sobriety under their belt and develop a good community-based support network before they transition back to your school.’”

Support is the name of the game in recovery, and for years, Durchslag and his colleagues have seen that many of their students struggled to maintain their recovery when school let out for the summer.

The school’s community foundation supports staff for weekly summer check-ins and an annual trip to the Boundary Waters, but next year the school will expand support options through the creation of an Alternative Peer Group (APG), a peer-recovery coaching program that will run outside of school hours.

“If we can provide a level of service for kids after school and on weekends, if they are meeting new friends in recovery, and learning about recovery support networks, if their family is getting additional support, more students can maintain their recovery long term,” Durchslag said. In 2019, P.E.A.S.E. will open two pilot APG programs in Wayzata and on St. Paul’s East Side.

This feels like progress to Durchslag, who said he sees the recent enrollment downturn as a blip in the history of the recovery schools movement.

“I think the numbers will be heading back up,” he said. “I’m confident. There certainly is a need out there for our services. We just need to make sure more people know about everything we have to offer.”