Keeping Clean

High schools for addicts face new challenges as students receive less treatment

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Hope Academy serves students who are recovering from drug and alcohol abuse.

When Avalon Dugan got out of treatment for drug and alcohol abuse, she had a choice: head back to the mainstream high school where she spent her freshman year or enroll in a tiny high school on the campus of the rehabilitation facility.

Dugan choose the school for kids in recovery — a decision she says has helped her stay sober for over a year.

Hope Academy, a charter school that has been operating out of Fairbanks Addiction Treatment Center in Lawrence Township for ten years, offers services for teens grappling with addiction along with typical classes like math, English and art.

Dugan initially struggled with relapse after she got out of rehab but Hope Academy’s  close-knit community and regular drug testing made it difficult for her to hide her drug use from her parents and teachers, she said.

“Teachers at larger schools don’t really see one kid out of like 300 walking through a hallway,” Dugan said. “There’s a lot of people in recovery that work here, so they … pick up on things because they were there are one point.”

Hope Academy is among about 30 recovery high schools around the country that offer a unique approach to helping students stay sober and graduate from high school but, as the programs mature, they’re finding that many students are enrolling earlier in their recovery processes. That has put pressure on the schools to offer more support to students.

In Indiana, Hope officials say the problem is insurance companies are offering less coverage for rehab for kids addicted to opioids as opposed to alcohol, since detoxing from opioids isn’t considered life-threatening.

When Hope opened in 2006, it largely served students who had abused alcohol or marijuana — and typically had been in treatment more than 30 days before enrolling in Hope. But as more kids use opioids like heroin and oxycodone, even students with access to healthcare are less likely to get the kind of long-term treatment they used to, said Rachelle Gardner, the school’s chief operating officer.

“We may have students that come to us with a week or so of inpatient treatment,” Gardner said. “They’re just starting to get clean.”

The first Hope students had been through treatment at Fairbanks, and they were well into the recovery process, Gardner said. That helped build a foundation for the kind of supportive culture the school is based on, and for the first few years, most students came to them after long-term treatment.

But the landscape has changed: students now are coming to the school after brief stints in recovery programs — or no treatment at all, Gardner said. These teens need more support and they can struggle to integrate into the school culture.

“That’s a different student then we had five years ago,” she said.

Located on the second floor of a Fairbanks building, Hope has just eight classrooms and seven teachers. Enrollment fluctuates, with students joining and leaving the school throughout the year, but it usually hovers around 35 teens.

Andy Finch, a Vanderbilt University researcher who is leading the first large-scale study into recovery school outcomes, says many of the recovery schools around the country are also serving new, more challenging students because they are intentionally targeting more diverse students.

“When you look at recovery high schools historically,” Finch said, “they are not very diverse racially and ethnically and really not all that diverse economically.”

Hope is a free, publicly-funded charter school, but many recovery schools are private schools that charge tuition. The teens served by recovery schools in the past tended to be relatively privileged, with access to substance abuse treatment, Finch said. But that is changing as some schools have actively tried to open their services up to needier kids including those with limited or no health insurance.

“Recovery high schools are having to face the fact that not everybody has access to treatment,” he said.

At Hope, incorporating teens who are new to recovery can be a strain on committed students who’ve been at the school for months or years, Gardner said.

“They’re still living in the old mindset of an addiction kind of culture,” she said. “You lie, you cheat — those kinds of values.”

About five years ago, Hope leaders decided they needed a place to help new students, or students who had relapsed, acclimate to the school. That’s why they created the STARR room, a therapeutic setting where students spend their morning catching up on academic work and their afternoons doing art and discussing recovery with school staff.

Usually teens spend about three weeks in the STARR room before integrating into traditional classes, but with an increasing population of high-needs students, the school is considering expanding the services or extending the time students spend there before joining the rest of their peers, she said.

The first recovery high school opened in 1979, Finch said. But there hasn’t been much rigorous research into how well the programs work compared to traditional schools. In fact, Hope is at the forefront of site-based research, he said.

A study of Hope’s program from 2014 found that when students stop using drugs, their academic outcomes improve, said Mary Jo Rattermann, an educational consultant. Hope students who don’t relapse actually show more growth than similar peers at mainstream high schools.

Rattermann initially evaluated Hope for the Mayor’s Office of Education Innovation, which charters the school. When that contract ended, she continued to study the school, first through a contract paid for by Hope and now as part of a national project funded by the Association of Recovery High Schools, she said.

“What Hope Academy is doing is nationally acknowledged as a very successful model,” Rattermann said. “This is a school and it’s about academics, and it’s about being a high school kid as much as you can give that to them.”

The per student cost at Hope is about $23,000. The school receives more than half that amount from the state, including the per student funding every charter school receives and a special grant for support services. The rest of the school’s funding comes Fairbanks, grants and philanthropy, Gardner said.

Part of the reason the bill is so high is because the school is committed to having teachers for every subject rather than online learning, said Gardner. The school can serve as many as 60 students without increasing the number of teachers, she said. Since only about 35 students are currently attending, Hope could push down per-student costs by increasing the number of teens enrolled.

Gardner is certain that more students in the region could benefit from recovery high school, but there’s a stigma to attending a school for teens with substance abuse problems and some families simply don’t know about Hope, she said.

“I tell new schools,” Gardner said, “if I would’ve done anything different, I would’ve put a lot more money in marketing.”

Hope won’t work for every teen. Some students drop out or leave for more intensive treatment. When teens continue to use drugs and alcohol, they are sometimes suspended or expelled.

In fact, Dugan herself was briefly expelled from Hope. In her second year at the school, she had fallen deeper into addiction, going from using alcohol and marijuana to injecting heroin. It got so bad in the spring, that she was expelled from the school. But she continued to come back for tutoring and regular drug tests.

It was her drug tests that changed everything for Dugan.

For months, she had managed to clean up enough for her heroin use to slip under the radar, Dugan said. But on a spring day in 2014, she made a mistake and her drug test came back positive for opioids.

When Dugan’s mother walked in to her room to tell her the test result, Dugan could see the pain and resignation in her face.

“I just didn’t lie to her,” she said. “I just said, ‘yeah, I’m still using.’ ”

And that was the end, Dugan said. She stopped using drugs that day and she’s been clean ever since.

When she came back to Hope that fall, she was totally changed, said principal Linda Gagyi.

“We had kind of a contract,” she said. “She did amazing. … She was truly committed to recovery.”

Unintended consequences

When Denver stopped lunch-shaming, debt from unpaid meals skyrocketed

PHOTO: David Buffington | Getty Images

After the Denver schools chief made a high-profile announcement last August guaranteeing a full meal to students whether or not they had the money to pay, many advocates cheered the end of so-called “lunch-shaming” in the 92,000-student district.

Then came an unpleasant surprise: Debt from unpaid lunches soared, rising to $356,000 from $13,000 the year before.

Denver’s exploding meal debt — amounting to roughly 900 unpaid lunches every school day of the year — illustrates the balancing act districts nationwide face amid growing public support for policies prohibiting lunch-shaming. Such shaming often involves giving students who can’t pay small, alternative meals, putting stickers or stamps on them to remind their parents to pay, or even throwing out their meals.

In the last couple years, a growing number of districts nationwide have established policies to curb lunch-shaming. Some states, including New York, Iowa, and New Mexico, have passed statewide legislation with the same goals. The idea behind such measures is to free students from the burden of debt they have no power to pay and ensure they don’t go hungry at school. But with school districts obligated to pay for the meals, food service leaders are often left scrambling to cover mounting costs.

The school lunch debt is one reason Denver district officials quietly introduced snacks such as Doritos and Rice Krispies Treats in elementary school cafeteria lines late this past winter. The new additions, seen as unhealthy by some parents, helped generate around $41,000 in new revenue for the nutrition services department.

Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations for the School Nutrition Association, said she hasn’t yet heard of another district with a debt increase the size of Denver’s following the introduction of a lunch-shaming prevention policy. But she said it’s an issue the group, which represents school food service employees, plans to watch closely.

“In many districts, allowing all kids to automatically get a free meal …. can turn into a real financial challenge for the program,” she said, noting that it can take away the incentive for parents to fill out the free and reduced-price meal application.

Nearly one-third of the district’s lunch debt last year came from families who were eligible for free or reduced-price meals, but signed up part-way into the school year, after their children had already received free school lunches. The federal government covers lunch costs for students eligible for free lunches and part of the cost for students who qualify for reduced-price lunches. For elementary school students in Colorado (and starting next year for middle-schoolers), the state covers the remaining cost of reduced-price lunches.

Another 68 percent of Denver families with unpaid meal debt don’t qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Still, district officials said it’s impossible to determine how many of those families would qualify for subsidized lunches if they applied, how many struggle financially but just miss the cut-off for eligibility, and how many can afford to pay for school lunches but choose not to.

Theresa Peña, regional coordinator for outreach and engagement in Denver’s nutrition services department, supports the district’s new lunch-shaming prevention policy, which ended the practice of giving students with lunch debt cheese sandwiches or graham crackers and milk.

Still, district officials didn’t expect the ballooning lunch debt, which at one point was projected to hit a half-million dollars, she said.

Peña said the district is stepping up efforts to get every family to fill out the free- and reduced-price meal application for next year — an extra challenge in the current political climate in which some immigrant families fear leaving a paper trail.

Last year, in addition to adding new revenue-generating snacks in elementary schools, the district tried to recoup the debt by making weekly robocalls to parents, working with principals to do outreach to families, and in some cases sending letters home with students.

“We made a pretty hard push,” Peña said. “It did make an impact, but not as great an impact as we had hoped.”

A national problem

Most districts nationwide accrue some debt for unpaid meals.

A 2016 survey by the School Nutrition Association found that three-quarters of school districts rack up unpaid meal debt, up slightly from 71 percent two years before.

In Denver, the amount of lunch debt ranges widely by school, with some accruing less than $50 and others accruing thousands. Omar D. Blair Charter School had the highest lunch debt among Denver schools last year at $11,500. Meanwhile, Florida Pitt Waller, Joe Shoemaker Elementary, Thomas Jefferson High School, and Cheltenham Elementary all reported lunch debts between $2,500 and $5,000.

At Shoemaker, where two-thirds of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, Kitchen Manager Chris Juarez said he believes much of the school’s $4,000 in lunch debt came from families who would have qualified for subsidized lunches but didn’t apply. Sometimes, he said, families don’t realize they have to re-submit their application each year; this fall, he plans to meet with returning families — in addition to new families — to emphasize that fact.

Other parents don’t realize they have to add to the form if a related child joins their household, he said. And language barriers may still be a problem, even though the form is available in many languages. In addition, some may worry that filling out the form means their immigration status can be tracked. A 2017 Denver school board resolution specified that the district does not collect or maintain any information on students’ immigration status.

Juarez suspects only a small percentage of Shoemaker families can afford to pay for their children’s lunches, but choose not to.

Shoemaker Principal Christine Fleming, said her top priority is making sure kids get to eat lunch, no matter what. She sees non-payment as a “parent issue,” and said, “I don’t want 5-, 6-, 7- year olds to carry that burden.”

Fleming said she’s always reserved some money in a special “principal’s account” to cover the cost of unpaid lunches, including in 2017–18, when she set aside a few hundred dollars.

Previously, that practice was common across the district, Peña said, but once the lunch-shaming policy took effect, “a lot of them said, ‘Zero out my principal account. I’m not going to do that anymore.’”

In 2016–17, when the district’s lunch debt was just $13,000, an online fundraising campaign and a contribution from a private donor covered the outstanding balance. But not this year.

A district grant of $100,000 paid off lunch debt from students who were eventually eligible for free or reduced-price lunch last school year but whose parents may not have signed up right away. Peña said the district has not finalized how the remaining $256,000 will be paid, and has until June 30 to make a decision.

Is it junk food?

Before this year, elementary schools in Denver sold some snacks — officially called a la carte items — in their cafeterias. These included turkey sticks, granola bars, popcorn, string cheese, and yogurt.

Peña said the district decided to add more a la carte items in February, a few months after district food service supervisors visited nearby districts, including Jeffco and Cherry Creek, and learned that “a la carte sales were a big deal” there.

The additions include more than a half-dozen kinds of chips, Rice Krispies Treats, gummy fruit snacks, and pistachios. All of the items — some of which are slightly reformulated versions of the same products sold on grocery store shelves — adhere to federal rules governing school snacks. Parents were not informed of the new snack offerings when they were introduced.

Susan Scovell, who has two children at Bradley International School in southeast Denver and works part-time as a personal chef, said of the new snacks, “It’s pretty much total junk food.”

She got wind of them when her second-grade daughter began mentioning that friends routinely bought Doritos and Cheetos at lunch time.

“It took me months to figure out this was going on,” she said. “Most parents really had no idea.”

Scovell said the new snacks stand in stark contrast to the district’s efforts to emphasize scratch cooking and other kinds of healthy eating initiatives, such as the week-long fruit- and vegetable-tasting event at Bradley this spring.

Peña, who said the district plans to communicate better about the snack options this coming year, said parents can prevent their children from buying certain snacks. To do so, they need to contact the school’s kitchen manager and request that a note be added to the student’s school meal account citing the restriction. She conceded that the process may not be obvious or easy for all parents, and said the department will look to address that.

Peña also said that principals or kitchen managers have the option to limit the sale of a la carte snacks at their schools. For example, they can choose not to sell certain items, or restrict the sale of a la carte items to the last 15 minutes of the lunch period or to certain days of the week.

Denver is hardly unique in offering a la carte snacks at elementary schools.

Other large Colorado districts, including Douglas County, Jeffco, and Cherry Creek, also offer such items to grade school students. All three districts allow parents to limit or block their children’s snack purchases.

Carol Muller, state director of Colorado Action for Healthy Kids, which promotes nutrition and exercise initiatives in schools, said one of the top concerns she hears from parents across Colorado is about a la carte snacks. At the same time, she understands the financial pressures school cafeterias are under.

“It’s a really tough issue for everyone involved, including us,” she said. “We certainly support food service staff. We don’t want to add a bigger burden to them, but on the other hand, as a parent, I don’t find all the snacks acceptable either.”

another path

‘They’re my second family.’ Largest Pathways to Graduation class earn their diplomas

Jasmine Byrd receives an award for excellence after giving a speech to her fellow graduates.

Before last fall, Jasmine Byrd never envisioned herself striding across the stage to receive a diploma at a graduation ceremony.

But then Byrd moved to the Bronx from Utah and entered New York City’s Pathways to Graduation program, which helps 17- to 21-year-olds who didn’t graduate from a traditional high school earn a High School Equivalency Diploma by giving them free resources and support.

Just walking into this space and being like, this is what you’ve accomplished and this is what you’ve worked hard for is a great feeling,” said Byrd, who also credits the program with helping her snag a web development internship. “I’ve built my New York experience with this program. They’re my second family, sometimes my first when I needed anything.”

Byrd is one of about 1,700 students to graduate during the 2017-2018 school year from Pathways, the program’s largest graduating class to date, according to officials.  

This year, students from 102 countries and 41 states graduated from Pathways, which is part of District 79, the education department district overseeing programs for older students who have had interrupted schooling.

The program also saw the most students ever participate in its graduation ceremony, a joyful celebration held this year at the Bronx United Palace Theater. According to Robert Evans, a math teacher at one of the program’s five boroughwide sites and emcee of the graduation, about 600 students typically show up to walk the stage. But students can be a part of the ceremony even if they received their passing test results that morning, and this year more than 800 graduates attended.

There were still students coming in last night to take photos and to pick up their sashes and gowns,” said Evans.

The graduation ceremony is unique in part because the program is. Students who have not completed high school attend classes to prepare to take the high school equivalency exam. But the program also prepares students to apply for college, attend vocational school, or enter the workforce by providing help applying for colleges, creating resumes and other coaching.

To make sure that the program is accessible to all students, there’s a main site in every borough and 92 satellite sites, located in community centers and youth homeless shelters like Covenant House. Students who want to work in the medical field, like Genesis Rocio Rodriguez, can take their courses in hospitals. Rodriguez, who graduated in December, is now enrolled in the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and passing the exam meant being one step closer to her dream of becoming a nurse.

When I got my results I was with my classmate, and to be honest I thought I failed because I was so nervous during it. But then I went online, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh I did it!’ My mom started crying and everything.”

Byrd said the program worked for her because of the supportive teachers and extra resources.

“The teachers are relatable,” said Byrd. “They don’t put on an act, they don’t try to separate the person from the teacher. They really reach out, even call you to get you out of bed in the morning.”

Carmine Guirland said the supportive environment of social workers, guidance counselors, and teachers is what attracts him to the work at Bronx NeOn, a site where students who are on probation or who are involved with the court system can prepare for the exam, college, and careers.

When students are on parole they will have really involved [parole officers] who would text me at the beginning of class to check in so that we could work together,” said Guirland. “It’s really about that village thing. The more support systems that are available the more success the students will have.”

Reflecting on his experiences with the graduating class, Guirland’s most treasured memory was when one of his students proposed to his girlfriend in a guidance counseling session. Even though they aren’t together anymore, the moment was a reflection of the relationships that many of the students build during their time at Pathways to Graduation.

“It’s this amazing high moment where this student felt like the most comfortable place for him to propose to his girlfriend and the mother of his child was in our advisory circle,” said Guirland.