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At P.E.A.S.E Academy, the dream of graduating from high school is within reach for teens in recovery

Four students participated in a graduation ceremony earlier this month, celebrating both their educational achievements and their sobriety.

Sasha, Izzy and Augie
Sasha, Izzy and Augie all attributed a part of their dedication to sobriety to the “tight-knit” community they formed through P.E.A.S.E.
MinnPost photo by Madison Roth

As four teens wearing black graduation gowns with proud purple tassels walk down the aisle of a humid church sanctuary, families and friends immediately jump to their feet. They cheer as tears stream down their faces.

This was a moment they, at one point, believed would never happen, because they lived in fear that their young loved ones would end up dead of an overdose or flunking out of school. 

Each graduate stood up and talked for a couple of minutes, thanking those around them for supporting them through their recovery and high school careers. Two of them thanked their moms for saving their lives. 

This year’s graduates of P.E.A.S.E (Peers Enjoying A Sober Education) Academy in Minneapolis, like the others who came before them going back to the school’s founding in 1989, have struggled with substance use disorder throughout different points of their childhood, and their dreams of becoming high school graduates often seemed impossible. 

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MinnPost interviewed three of the graduates on the condition that only their first names be used over their concern that it might affect their career pursuits.

“I had this mindset throughout my childhood and teenage years that I wasn’t going to make it to 18,” one of the graduates, Izzy, told MinnPost. “It was what I had accepted; it was planned out.”

Izzy spent most of last year going in and out of substance use treatment facilities, and she said the thought of graduating high school seemed further and further out of reach.

“I genuinely didn’t care about my education, my wellbeing, my future,” Izzy said. “I hadn’t even thought about college or anything because I didn’t believe I would get in, and I had just accepted my fate.”

Now, Izzy said she is seven months sober and is attending Augsburg University with the dream of becoming a youth drug and alcohol counselor. She is joining Augsburg’s StepUp program, a sober living program that provides housing through the university. 

Augie, another P.E.A.S.E. graduate, said she experienced her addiction from the end of 6th grade until the middle of her senior year of high school. Throughout, Augie said she struggled with navigating a “conscious” education and her own self image as a transgender woman. She says she’s now sober and exploring a career in cosmetology. 

“I don’t even have the words to express how grateful I am to have this opportunity, because I genuinely did not think I would have it,” Augie said of graduating from P.E.A.S.E. “It is so beneficial to know people, teenagers in recovery, people our age in recovery who are doing it, being successful and are able to do this.”

Izzy, Augie and Sasha, a third student who graduated this month, all attributed a part of their dedication to sobriety to the “tight-knit” community they formed through P.E.A.S.E. 

After being released from treatment in 2021, Sasha has been at P.E.A.S.E. for the past two years. Before treatment, he didn’t want to go to school and had no intention of graduating because he said his focus was on keeping himself alive. 

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It was having a strong community at P.E.A.S.E. that contributed to his recovery and helped his mental health, he said. 

“I wouldn’t want to change anything about my past because I think a lot of what happened happened for a reason, and I think I was really able to grow from it,” Sasha said. “There’s a sense of accomplishment.”

Sasha said he has been sober for four years and will attend the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities this fall to pursue a journalism major. 

Izzy, Augie, and Sasha all said they are weary of the potential challenges that lie ahead, such as balancing their education and recovery, getting through possible triggers by advocating for themselves, and remaining dedicated to their sobriety. 

They said they’re also excited for what the future holds: independence and a chance to better understand and discover who they are.

“I’m very excited to prove to myself that I can and that I deserve this, and I’m very excited to build a name for myself, to have something to hold onto and say, ‘I did this for myself to better myself,’” Augie said. “I’ve done this for 17 months; I can do this for another day, another year.”

“It’s a gorgeous opportunity to understand we get to do this this young and live a real life past this if we choose to do so, and that’s beautiful,” Augie added. 

Michael Durchslag, the director of P.E.A.S.E. Academy, said the connection between the students at the school is special since many of these students have been through similar traumas outside of their substance abuse. 

“I have never experienced a place where high school students allow themselves to be so open, honest, and vulnerable with each other,” Durschslag said.

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He emphasized the strength of the community since the students act as a support system to each other and celebrate milestones as a collective family. 

When asked what they could tell themselves if they could go back to their first year of high school, this is what Izzy, Augie, and Sasha would have said: 

  • Izzy: “It’s OK to be struggling; it’s OK to not know who you are. You don’t have to figure it out all at once.”
  • Augie: “There are going to be a lot of challenges; none of them are impossible. I am a limitless being at my core.”
  • Sasha: “You’ll get through it; things will get better.”

Madison Roth is a journalism student at the University of Minnesota.