Sasha McLean is not your average high school principal. In fact, she finds herself juggling two roles every day: one as the executive director of Archway Academy in Houston and the other as the vice chairman of the Association of Recovery Schools.
Recovery high schools are designed to meet the unique needs of students recovering from addiction. Archway Academy, recently the subject of the critically acclaimed documentary “Generation Found,” is one of the most successful recovery high schools in the United States.
McLean is invested in the success of Archway and its students — she played a major role in founding the school.
As vice president of the Association of Recovery Schools, McLean is a national leader in the recovery high school movement. She uses Archway as an example that others can follow to create their own recovery school, and she often invites people to tour the school and learn about its success.
Her roles are never-ending. She does not simply work a 9-to-5 job every day; she eats, breathes and lives for recovery.
Although it may seem overwhelming to run a recovery high school supporting nearly 80 students while simultaneously leading a national movement, McLean says she’s privileged to do what she does. She never sees the challenges she faces from her jobs as obstacles, only opportunities to support kids who so desperately need it and have nowhere else to go.
“We get to deal with things that other schools don’t deal with,” McLean told DrugRehab.com. “All the schools are having these problems. They just don’t have any accountability set up for the kids. They’re not fostering this community of positive peer influence.”
McLean says that a major part of her mission is to spread awareness about recovery schools among parents in the United States. She says that relying on the school districts to take action in addressing the youth addiction epidemic is unrealistic because school districts do not have the resources to adequately deal with these problems.
She says that getting parents behind this movement is the key to taking it nationwide. That’s why McLean helps others learn more about Archway; she wants as many people to know about this movement as possible.
In addition to building a fellowship of youth recovery, McLean is dedicated to providing her students with the best academic and recovery program in the country.
Archway is a bit different from most recovery high schools. Recovery high schools typically have small student populations, especially within the first few years of being established.
Smaller recovery schools usually do not have enough students to justify breaking student schedules down into specific classes such as chemistry and algebra. With nearly 80 students, Archway can provide the subject-specific classes used in the traditional academic environment.
McLean also knows that Archway cannot always conform to the standard high school model. Many of the students who come to Archway are behind in class credits because they missed school while they were using drugs or receiving treatment for addiction. Archway employs online classes to help students get back on track academically.
“We do a combination of traditional face-to-face classes and online classes,” said McLean. “That way, it doesn’t really matter what time of the year a student comes to us, and it doesn’t matter where they’re coming from.”
McLean says that getting students to graduate will always be secondary to Archway’s main focus on recovery, but the school staff will do everything they can to help students graduate on time.
“We tell all families that we’re not an accelerated high school program, but we do want to help your kid graduate on time,” said McLean. “If we have a student who comes to us who’s a senior but they have sophomore credits, we’ll do everything we can to get them back to their graduation date.”
One way Archway supports its goal of promoting long-term recovery is including recovery activities in the students’ daily routine.
Each morning starts with a “check-in” that brings all the students together to talk about anything from family and relationships to mental health. Check-ins are run by the student council and supervised by the recovery staff and school clinicians.
“It’s their opportunity to talk about anything that could prevent them from focusing on school,” said McLean. “The goal for us is to be able to put our finger on the temperature of every kid in that morning check-in process.”
While McLean and the Archway team are constantly striving to find the right balance between recovery and the traditional high school experience, McLean says her students aren’t much different from other high school kids.
“Things that happen everywhere are going to happen here,” said McLean. “Kids are going to act out. Someone is going to feel that they’re being bullied. The good thing about recovery schools is that the communities are small and intimate, and anything that does happen gets nipped in the bud fast.”
McLean says that having such a tight school community allows the staff to address any problems among students quickly. Once that happens, students are expected to make appropriate amends.
Anyone who watches “Generation Found” or sees McLean interact with her students will notice that one of her themes for life is love.
She tells all her students she loves them; they tell her they love her. To McLean, these students are a part of her family who she truly cares about, and she wants them to know that.
“Yes, I do love these kids, and I’ll say it,” said McLean. “Recovery schools wouldn’t work if love and passion wasn’t at the foundation of what we were doing.”
McLean says she does not like that it is traditionally frowned upon for teachers and administrators to show affection and love to students.
“We’re spending 40 hours a week with these kids, and we’re asking them to show us who they are, and we should be expected to show them who we are as well,” said McLean.
McLean says that the Archway team always makes sure to provide the right boundaries for her students, but she also wants the students to feel close to each other and loved by their school community.
“You can’t create the kind of intimacy that’s necessary to be able to grow if everything is so formal,” said McLean. “You can’t be so professional that you can’t connect with kids.”
McLean says that every year has special moments, and these moments make her jobs worthwhile. One of her favorite moments every year is the first day of school.
At Archway, the first day of school is a fun event similar to those held at the end of the year at traditional schools. The students start the year with an off-campus field trip or carnival. McLean says it helps new students create relationships among themselves and with their teachers.
McLean’s favorite moment is at the end of the year. Graduation represents a special time because many students and their families were never certain that the student would live long enough to make it to graduation.
“We get notes from families that say, ‘When my son turned 15, I remember saying a prayer that if God would just bless me with a 16th birthday, that would be enough,’” said McLean.
Through Archway, students learn that they have a future and that they can be successful. Parents who once told McLean they worried for their child’s life often talk to her after graduation about where their kids are going to college, what scholarships they have earned and what they plan to do with the rest of their lives.
McLean says Archway graduation ceremonies are “stupid, crazy big” to show the students how proud they should be of their accomplishments.
“Graduation is really special because a lot of these kids and families haven’t had a lot to celebrate,” said McLean.
While McLean loves to celebrate the good times, her proudest moment came during one of her toughest times.
In her second year at Archway, McLean met a 14-year-old student. As a sophomore, the student’s dad died unexpectedly of a heart attack while she was spending the night at a friend’s house. McLean had to deliver the news to the student at Archway.
“I remember being like, ‘This might be the thing that cracks her. I could see her totally taking off on this. She’s going to run away. She’s going to have a nervous breakdown. She’s going to hurt herself. Something’s going to happen,’” said McLean. “And then she stayed sober. She stayed sober through that whole thing.”
Two years later, the student’s brother committed suicide. McLean had to deliver difficult news to her for a second time. Still, the student stayed sober.
McLean recently saw the student last month at the wedding of two former Archway Academy students. The student was the maid of honor and has been sober for seven years.
McLean says that seeing that student sober after everything she has been through is why this movement is so important to her. She believes that being a part of these moments is why people choose to work at a recovery high school.
“I don’t think any of us do it because it’s easy,” said McLean. “We do it because it’s hard, because it’s meaningful.”
The future is bright for Archway and the recovery high school movement. McLean says she wants to keep building Archway into something even greater than it already is and hopes it will be a beacon of hope for other recovery high school programs getting started across the nation.
“That’s the way that we’re going to reach way beyond the Houston community and help in all these communities that don’t have any resources for them,” said McLean. “[We’ll] help those communities get inspired.”