University High School in Austin represents a success story that the school’s founders hope others will replicate across the country. It is the story of a community that came together with the right support and resources to make a difference for teens in recovery from addiction.
In 2013, Dr. Lori Holleran Steiker, a professor and researcher at the University Of Texas School Of Social Work, recognized that Central Texas teens in recovery were lacking support services to help them maintain sobriety.
Holleran Steiker wanted to strengthen the youth recovery community in Central Texas. Through her work and personal interest in helping young people in recovery, she became familiar with the success of Archway Academy in Houston and the robust alternative peer recovery groups nearby.
Archway Academy is regarded as one of the most effective and successful recovery high schools in the nation. It was recently the subject of the critically acclaimed documentary “Generation Found.”
Executive Director Sasha McLean, who built Archway Academy from the ground up, welcomed Holleran Steiker to the school to learn more about the program and the growing recovery high school movement.
After seeing Archway, Holleran Steiker returned to Austin with the goal of gaining the community’s support to open a recovery high school in Central Texas. She started to gather support around Austin’s recovery community.
“Some parents got together, some adolescent addiction experts, community leaders in Central Texas, more especially in Austin, and identified a need [for a recovery high school],” University High School Executive Director Julie McElrath told DrugRehab.com.
Austin has benefited from a strong recovery community for young people through the collegiate recovery program at the University of Texas. Wanting to capitalize on the knowledge and resources the University of Texas could provide, Holleran Steiker and other University High School founders decided to work with the college to develop their recovery school program.
Together, they developed a model that centered on a close relationship with the University of Texas collegiate recovery program.
University High School in Austin is the first and only recovery high school in Central Texas. Since officially opening in August 2014, it has served nearly 75 students.
McElrath says that being a part of the Austin recovery community was always a blessing to University High School founders as they worked to establish it. They recognized the school’s opportunity to build the youth recovery movement in Austin.
“The recovery community is Austin is one that’s so tight and works so well together, and we’re growing the adolescent recovery oriented system of care, that ecosystem, and we’re seeing a lot of really great things happen,” said McElrath.
The support the school has received from the University of Texas has been invaluable. McElrath says that the recovery school is “basically on campus” and that UT has made them feel welcomed and a part of the Longhorn community.
Central Texas treatment centers have also been quick to embrace University High School and regularly refer young people who complete their treatment programs to the school.
More and more students are coming to University High School as the community learns about it.
“Year over year, our enrollment is increasing at about 25 percent, which is pretty good,” said McElrath.
UHS started this school year with 15 students, and McElrath expects it to reach as many as 18 by the end of the year.
Many recovery high school administrators say that one of the most challenging aspects of their job is providing their students with a “normal” high school experience. McElrath says that’s never been a concern for her.
“I think when families come to us, they know we’re not a traditional high school,” she said. “I think the families that come to us are ready to say, ‘Our kid may not be playing sports anymore, our daughter may not be on the drill team, but they get rich experiences in other ways.”
While University High School is by no means a traditional school, students still get to do things that the average high school student would be doing.
The school has a four-person student council that leads the student body.
UHS students go to Houston every spring to join Archway Academy students for SPROM (sober prom). On the trip, students enjoy all the memories of prom — such as dinner at a fancy restaurant, dancing and music — without the substance abuse that is common at most proms across the country.
Graduation is always big event for UHS, and it has everything a typically high school graduation would have, including cap and gowns, a graduation ceremony and keynote speakers.
UHS students also have unique opportunities that the average high school student does not.
“They get to go to the Vislab, the super computer lab at UT,” said McElrath. “They get to go play Quidditch with the UT Quidditch team on the lacrosse field. Or they have field day at the practice dome that the UT football team practices in.”
UHS also gives students unique recovery opportunities.
For instance, students helped start a 12-step meeting group at the UT Center for Students in Recovery and are regularly welcomed to participate in the collegiate recovery program’s activities.
Most importantly, McElrath says that the school teaches students the skills needed to navigate life and process their emotions.
“I tell the students all the time that we want you to be well-prepared when you leave us to go out and do life,” said McElrath. “To go to college if you choose and stay sober. To know what your recovery community looks like outside of the meetings with your alternative peer group and us. To begin how to explore how to be a young person in recovery outside of high school.”
UHS is a University of Texas University Charter School, which is a part of the UT Division of Diversity and Community Engagement. The University of Texas University Charter School program focuses on supporting and educating specialized populations in Texas.
“There is a lot of support with being a UT charter school and having UT as our academic partner,” said McElrath.
The UHS academic curriculum features a combination of in-person and online workloads.
“We have direct instruction teachers for math, science and English,” said McElrath. “They also support our online learning so we have a blended model of instruction.”
McElrath says UHS teachers are adaptable and provide students with the academic and recovery support they need. Teachers go through a special vetting process and are hired by the UT University Charter School in conjunction with McElrath’s approval.
McElrath says she looks for individuals who want to work with teens who have struggled with addiction and want to support them through recovery. As a result, UHS only hires exceptional teachers to work with students.
“Our teachers are great; they’re good at rolling with the flow,” said McElrath. “They’re all special-ed certified, so they’re very high quality in their training. They’re also really well-equipped to provide appropriate behavior and emotional support as well.”
UHS students also receive support from the principal, guidance counselor and school psychologist.
In addition to their educational pursuits, the students also participate in daily recovery-oriented activities.
Every morning starts with “check in,” a 45-minute process group that is led by the student council. Check ins feature daily readings followed by a discussion on the reading topic.
After the discussion, students have the opportunity to talk to their peers about their recovery or anything else that could be bothering them.
The students take this opportunity to hold their peers accountable and will ask the group if anyone needs to be honest about something or if anything significant happened to any students since the last check in.
“It’s a place where we have courageous conversations,” said McElrath. “It can be uncomfortable. If we’ve got a student that comes to us and says, ‘Here’s what I’ve heard,’ that’s the place where they would hold one of their peers accountable.”
McElrath says check in is an opportunity for students to provide “loving accountability” to each other. If the administration recognizes a student is struggling with something in his or her life during check in, they will perform a “pull out” later in the day. During the pull out, struggling individuals meet with a peer recovery coach, the director of wellness and recovery support, or McElrath to see how they can support the student through this time.
Check in is followed by academic classes in the morning. Next is a two-hour midday break with lunch and a recovery activity that is different every day.
UHS Student Recovery Activity Weekly Schedule:
Every Thursday, students use their midday break to give back to the community — something McElrath is particularly proud of.
“We work at a local food pantry, but we also are providing service to a group of elementary school students through a nonprofit organization called SafePlace,” McElrath said. “These are kids whose families have been in danger in some way. We’re their pen pals.”
The most endearing aspect of UHS is how much passion McElrath and her staff have for helping teens in recovery. McElrath, who has two adult children in recovery, says she loves every aspect of her job. It gives her opportunities to dream, plan and work on new ways to help young people in Central Texas.
She also loves her students.
“I also love being with the kids,” said McElrath. “They feed my soul, and they are my heroes. They have more grit. They’re sensitive. They are so insightful; they are some of the most insightful people I have ever come across because they have dealt with things.”
McElrath says that seeing students leave UHS to go on to lead successful, sober and healthy lives makes every bit of their efforts worth it. The time leading up to graduation is her favorite part of the school year, and she loves being able to share SPROM and other high school milestones with her students.
The future is promising for University High School. The school is continuing to grow, and the administration has made it a goal to truly make a difference in the Central Texas youth recovery community.
McElrath encourages anyone who is contemplating starting a recovery high school to go for it and hopes that University High School can serve as a model for them to implement one in their city.