Youth in recovery from addiction in Duval County have a new resource for completing high school and finding recovery support. The River Oak Center in Jacksonville, Florida, opened its doors in the fall of 2016.
The recovery high school provides all the educational components of a traditional high school in addition to recovery support from trained staff. Recovery high schools give students a safe place to learn after receiving addiction treatment. More than 1.2 million teens received treatment for a substance use disorder in 2015, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
About 80,000 of those teens lived in Florida. After teens leave treatment, their parents have to decide whether to send them to schools where they’ll likely be exposed to a number of risks for relapse or to try home school.
Dan Renaud, a certified addiction counselor with 25 years of experience working with youth, said a friend challenged him to figure out how to start a recovery high school two years ago.
“I began looking into it and discovered there were about 35 of these high schools around the country,” Renaud told DrugRehab.com. “I began looking into it and researching it. The more I learned, the more I knew it was something we really needed to do in northeast Florida.”
He put together a board of directors, began raising money, registered as a nonprofit and reached out to the school district. He offered to provide the recovery support if the school district provided the education.
“They bought into that full-on and have been extremely supportive,” Renaud said. “They provide the academic support: a teacher, school guidance counselor and classroom instruction. We provide the recovery support: recovery coaches, a mental health counselor and myself as program director.”
Six students were enrolled at the school at the end of the year. Renaud hopes to expand the school’s enrollment by five students each month in 2017.
“We feel like we’re going to get a chance to really impact a lot of families and help a lot of kids.”
Parents don’t have to pay for their children to attend, and students are eligible for free city bus passes supplied by the county. River Oaks Center gives families the ability to make sure their children are supervised and away from trouble.
“As long as an adolescent is under the care of someone else, they tend to do very well living an abstinence-based lifestyle and being in recovery,” Renaud said. “Once they get out from under that direction and care, they tend to relapse fairly quickly.”
Adults in recovery avoid relapse by staying away from environments where they could be exposed to alcohol or other drugs. They often have to end relationships with old friends. Sometimes they switch jobs or relocate. Adolescents who have to go back to schools where they could encounter negative influences don’t have that option.
“The biggest reason why adolescents relapse is the inability to be mobile,” Renaud said. “They’re compelled to go to school, live at home and to participate in activities that they may or may not want to participate in.”
Recovery high schools give students a safe place to learn. They don’t have to choose between focusing on academic priorities or recovery goals. They can focus on both.
Recovery high schools shield teens who are vulnerable to relapse from temptations that commonly exist in many high schools.
A 2012 study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse found that 44 percent of high schoolers knew someone who sold drugs at school. More than half of students knew of a place they could drink or use drugs during schools hours, and more than a third said it was easy to drink or use at school without getting caught.
At River Oak, students are surrounded by staff who are trained to support their recovery. All of the students are focused on remaining sober, and the school’s programming encourages sobriety.
“They get drug tested once a week,” Renaud said. “We do peer building exercises during the week, and then we also have, about every three weeks, an off-site activity where we further promote alternative peer groups. We get them engaged with a new recovering group of adolescents.”
Although the school is located on the campus of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Jacksonville, there is no religious requirement to attend River Oak. Renaud said the church once had a school but that the space was empty. When he approached Father Mark Atkinson, the priest graciously offered it to them.
The school’s recovery programming is built around the 12-step model, but students are encouraged to adhere to whatever recovery model works for them.
“We’re 12-steps primary, but we are not Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous,” Renaud said. “We do a lot of things that look like 12-step, but it isn’t AA. It’s more flexible.”
A Unique Learning Environment
The school district developed individualized academic plans for River Oak students so they can pursue their college or career goals. Students take computer-based courses, but a teacher is in the classroom to motivate, support and tutor them.
“All of the students are on a different track,” Renaud said. “A lot of them have been out of school for a while. Some of them have been getting home schooled. So the ability to offer whatever the student needs on an individual basis is very important and something that they wouldn’t get in a normal school setting.”
The students wouldn’t get the same type of staff in a normal school setting either. Renaud said he went through “a lot” of resumes and interviews for the positions at River Oak. He said that most educators have a desire to help others but he had to hire staff who understood the unique challenges of students in recovery.
“When you work with adolescents in early recovery, it’s a challenging bunch,” Renaud said. “You’re not just getting them, you’re getting their families. Mom and dad are out of gas at this point. They’ve tried everything they can think of. Their kids have been in treatment or in jail or kicked out of school. They’re just worn out.”
The school has only been open for a few months, but the early results are promising. The families who were exhausted when they first learned about the school told Renaud that they were “blown away” by the progress their children have made.
“It’s everything we hoped it would be and then some,” Renaud said. “We feel like we’re going to get a chance to really impact a lot of families and help a lot of kids. The bigger thing is making sure that it’s something that’s replicable.”
If River Oak continues to be successful, Renaud hopes to open other recovery high schools or to help others create recovery high schools in Florida.
“That way this can be something that can happen anywhere,” Renaud said. “That’s really been our goal, that this would be something that’s exportable.”
He hopes to pay forward the help that he and his staff have received. Renaud traveled to recovery high schools in Houston and Boston to learn from recovery schools that have been successful.
“Every school that we’ve dealt with, they were very open to sharing what they’ve done,” Renaud said. “We’ll be the same way. We’ll share whatever we learn.”
As the school continues to grow, more young people in recovery will receive a chance to pursue their academic and career goals.