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Recovery High Schools in the United States

Recovery High Schools are increasingly popular around the USA as an effective means of rehabilitating and ensuring the long-term sobriety of teens who have gone through recovery.

Drug and alcohol use remains a severe problem among school age children, with the National Institute on Drug Abuse showing that 5.4% of 8th graders, 9.8% of 10th graders, and 14.3% of 12th graders use illicit substances, and nearly 1.3 million teens have a substance use disorder. Unfortunately, recovery treatment is often unsuccessful when teens return to their schools and are surrounded by the same peers and the same opportunities to use. Data shows that nearly 70% of students who attend recovery and return to their school will relapse in 6 months or less.

Recovery High Schools combat the ready availability of drugs and alcohol in schools by separating recovering teens from their peers, putting them into smaller classrooms, offering custom tuition and workloads, as well as daily meetings with addiction recovery counselors, group therapy, and a welcoming environment where students are encouraged to be open about relapse rather than hiding it.

A History of Recovery High Schools

The first recovery high schools opened in the late 70s and mid 80s in the United States. One of the most well known, the Ecole Nouvelle, later Sobriety High, was founded in 1986 in Edina Minnesota. The program was designed to help small classrooms in the area to study and to work through their recovery. By 2010, Sober High School had expanded to 5 branches after successfully graduating over 80 students in full recovery.

how-can-we-prevent-high-school-students-from-substance-abuseWhile the growth of recovery high schools was slow from the 1980s until 2008 (In 2001, there were just 5 registered recovery high schools in the USA), recent studies between 2008 and 2016 have shown them to be more effective than returning recovering teens to a traditional school. This has resulted in large scale investments in recovery high schools, and as of the third quarter of 2016, there were 45 pending or operating recovery high schools in the USA, with more planned.

Recovery Programs in High Schools – Some recovery high schools are schools within schools, or programs hosted by existing high schools to separate and offer unique tuition and care to recovering students. These programs are often funded as part of the school and require special enrollment, but may be available as part of the school’s special needs program.

The Association of Recovery Schools

The Association of Recovery Schools is 501(c) is a registered non-profit that works to bring resources together and to register recovery high schools for quality assurance. As of fourth quarter 2016, there were more than 50 schools registered with the ARS, many offering recovery assistance to students as young as 10.

With many more planned, parents around the USA will soon have options to send their children to recovery high schools instead of putting them back into regular schools.

How Do Recovery High Schools Work?

Most recovery high schools use a similar format with different specific approaches. In most cases, the class size will range from 15-75 students in a school that often exists inside of a large school or a building that caters to multiple educational bodies. Students are kept apart from other classes and schools through different schedules or physical barriers to prevent interaction and potential exposure to triggers.


students taking examSchools often use a custom curriculum, designed to account for the student’s individual needs, such as their time spent not studying or their time out of school in a recovery facility. This enables the student to get a tailored approach to their education, allowing them to study where they need to rather than having to keep up with the entire class. In many cases, each class features mixed age groups, who get individual attention and lesson plans from the teacher or teachers. In most cases, students will have little to no homework


Almost all recovery high schools integrate daily meetings with addiction recovery counselors into their curriculum. This typically includes group meetings in the morning before classes begin, and may include special sessions after classes. Counselors are licensed and fully qualified to help students through recovery. In most cases, schools will also offer counseling and therapy for comorbid mental disorders such as trauma, physical or sexual abuse, depression, or anxiety, as data shows that nearly 70% of students with substance use disorders suffer from these problems.

Group Therapy

In most cases, students are enrolled in a group therapy class. However, this may be part of the school tuition and it may be an outside body such as Alateen, specializing in offering recovery assistance to students. In most cases, the school will provide accountability, including daily requests to know how many times each student attended group, how they are doing in group, etc. Most schools integrate some version of the 12 Step or Minnesota Model, which may or may not include local groups.


Most recovery high schools focus on offering non-judgemental and non-authoritarian support. By removing the risk of punitive measures, recovery high schools make it easier for students to open up, be honest about their recovery, and to get help when they relapse. Many follow this up with randomized drug and alcohol tests to ensure that students are not lying. This creates an atmosphere where students can trust their teachers and counselors to help them rather than to punish them if they slip up.


Most recovery schools require minimal criteria for admission. Almost all require a desire to be clean or sober, while some require that the student be clean a minimum of 20-30 days, have attended a rehabilitation program, or have a medical diagnosis of a susbtance use disorder. However, few schools require the medical diagnosis. Most also admit students through stages of contemplation through active recovery maintenance, with a preference for students in recovery maintenance.

Are Recovery High Schools Effective

Recovery high schools can cost twice what traditional schools do, require students to attend school with a small body of students, and require attendance until graduation. However, they are highly effective in preventing relapse. Where most students who leave traditional recovery and who go back to their original high school face a 70% chance of relapse in the first 6 months, that rate drops to just 26% for hard drugs in a recovery school.

In one study, students reported that they stayed clean or sober only 32% of the time when out of school and compared to 82% of time when in a recovery high school. A panel of 174 students also showed that 62% remained completely abstinent of alcohol, 71% of cannabis, and 74% for all other drugs versus an average of just 20% in a traditional school over a 6-month period. At 90 days, that rate is typically 56% total abstinence with no relapse, and at 6 months is typically 56% total abstinence with no relapse.

Where most students who leave traditional recovery and who go back to their original high school face a 70% chance of relapse in the first 6 months, that rate drops to just 26% for hard drugs in a recovery school.




Recovery Unscripted interviews on recovery schools for students to have support groups
Recovery Unscripted is joined by Dr. Andrew Finch, one of the country’s foremost authorities on integrating education and recovery support in an academic setting. Currently a professor of counseling at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, he’s also leading the first large-scale research studies on the effectiveness of recovery schools and is co-founder of the Association of Recovery Schools. He sat down with Recovery Unscripted to discuss why these institutions are uniquely positioned to help alter students’ trajectories for the future and how his experience serving with them has broadened his view of what recovery can mean.


Recovery high schools have been shown to work and many states are now investing public funds in creating them. However, most do require that teens attend a rehabilitation facility before enrolling in a recovery program or school. If you, your child, or someone you know is suffering from a substance use disorder, it is important that they get help so they can get their life back.

Provided by Lighthouse Treatment Center, a Southern California Drug and Alcohol Treatment Program.