Recovering teenage addict Steve couldn’t imagine going back to his old high school after gaining the courage to go through rehab.
"If I would have went back to my old school, it would have only been a matter of days or weeks before I relapsed and went right back to where I was. Probably even worse," said the 17-year-old, whose last name we’re withholding at his request.
Fortunately, Steve, who bounced back and forth between using alcohol, marijuana, prescription painkillers and heroin since he was 12, found his way into a new, unique high school built just for teens battling the same demons – a recovery high school.
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"I actually come to school and do my work where at my old school I would be passed out and drooling in class," he said. "I would only stay for like two periods and leave."
Called The Bridge Way School, the specialized high school in the Roxborough section of Philadelphia focuses on getting teenagers back on track with their education and lives after exiting rehab. It is the only school of its kind in the region – one of only some three dozen nationwide.
"We have kids come in with 30 days [sobriety], they’re not sure how school is going to go, they haven’t done well in school for a while and then they see the environment that we have here," says Rebecca Bonner, who runs the school. "And in two or three weeks, you see kids who haven’t worked in class for years who say ‘Oh, I’m getting a B’ and they’re actually working."
Ranging from 9th to 12th grades, every student is recovering from some type of addiction and goes through regular coursework like English, Math and Science. But unlike typical schools, the teens talk about their recovery regularly.
Students begin their day with a 20 minute face-to-face with a counselor and staff to discuss how they’re feeling and whether they’ve been triggered to use again.
"If it’s serious enough, our counselor may just pull that kid for 20 minutes. It is so different from what a regular school does where a kid might sit on something all day,” Bonner said. “They learn nothing because they’re processing whatever that is. We try to catch it early so they can process that and get right back on track."
Before leaving for the day, the students have another sit down to discuss their plans for the afternoon and evening. They also spend about 50 minutes, four times a week, in group sessions talking about their addiction and recovery with peers.
"The adults can say whatever we say and we can be supportive and encouraging, but the kids are the ones that give each other the support. That is positive peer pressure," Bonner said.
Calie, a 15-year-old student, agrees. Like Steve, she was also 12 when she began using alcohol and marijuana. The teen eventually graduated to using Percocet, many times getting high in her old high school. Following rehab, she found Bridge Way and is marking one year at the school this month.
"It felt nice to have like people who were around the same age going through the same thing as me," she said. "It’s kind of weird letting people support me, I guess, but I’m getting better at it. It makes me feel like it’s getting better."
It’s a continuum of support, Bonner said, that educators and counselors know sets up students for success – better than going it alone.
"We know that kids when they go back to their prior high school after treatment, 8 out of 10 of them will relapse within the first six months. If there’s any kid of co-occurring thing going on – depression, bipolar, ADHD even – the average time for relapse is 19 days.”
"It is providing as much of wrap-around support as possible," she adds.
Steve said he’d expect to be dead or in prison by the age of 20 if he hadn’t been given this new path. He’s overdosed once, spent time in a juvenile detention center and it wasn’t until after he assaulted a police officer – staring at up to five years in prison – that he realized he needed help.
“I remember I was sitting in the hospital bed, covered in blood and yelling at the cops and then I looked over at my mom and said ‘I can’t do this anymore,’ he said. “I did drugs the way…I was trying to kill myself.”
Bridge Way grew out of Bonner’s family’s own personal struggles. Her teenage daughter was coming out of rehabilitation for a prescription pill addiction and advised not to go back to her old high school.
"Like most kids, her high school had been her pharmacy of choice and that’s where she was buying her stuff…and we got the recommendation not to send her back there, but there were no really good alternatives," Bonner said.
Looking around, Bonner eventually found recovery high schools in other parts of the country, but none in our area -- the next closest school at the time was in New England. So she and other educators set out to remedy the issue. Three years later, Bridge Way is serving teens from Philadelphia and the suburbs in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Currently, Bridge Way has eight students, but can fit up to 25 at a time. Teens who enroll must spend at least five months at the school. Bonner said most attend for a year or longer before being mainstreamed back into a regular high school, if they’re young enough.
The recovery school is not free to attend, however. The tuition is $2,800 a month, which covers the seven staff members and school costs. Bonner said many students get discounts through tax credits and some are given scholarships through a program with Stroehmann Bakery. She says no one has ever been turned away for being unable to pay.
Encouraged by the results seen at Bridge Way, public health officials from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and City of Philadelphia have met with Bonner and her staff to discuss ways to expand the school and build others like it.
Philadelphia and suburban towns, like many others across the nation, have seen an explosion in addictions to opioid painkillers and heroin recently.
Dr. Arthur Evans, Commissioner of Philadelphia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services, says his department has been trying to embed recovery services in communities to achieve better outcomes and believes recovery schools fit into that plan.
“One of the big advantages of having a recovery high school is that it allows us to treat those kids in their own communities where they have their families, where they have their social support and frankly they’re ultimately going to live,” he said. “I would hope that we could have more schools across the city. I do believe we have the need within the city that we can certainly support schools in the major geographic regions of the city – you know the Northeast, the Southwest, West Philly, North Philly.”
As for Calie and Steve, both are now getting good grades and plan to go to college with the hopes of becoming counselors for teens dealing with the same addictions they did.
"I never thought I would go to college and now I’m doing the dual enrollment program at CCP (Community College of Philadelphia) which is starting in January,” said Steve. "I’m going to high school and college where a few months ago, if you said I would be going to college, I would have laughed in your face."