Mike Brake | July 22, 2016
Sober high school makes the case for school choice
Nationally, teens leaving inpatient addiction treatment have only a 10 to 15 percent long-term recovery rate. Those who go on to attend a sober high school have a recovery rate of 70 to 80 percent. Add on an alternative peer group like Mission Academy provides and that rate reaches 90 percent.
For the parents of thousands of Oklahoma high school seniors, graduation 2016 was a time for pride and satisfaction. But for the six graduates of a special private school in Oklahoma City, that ceremony was literally a symbol of life triumphing over death from drug or alcohol addiction.
Sadly, that number could have been 60, or even 600, if Oklahoma parents and children had the options provided by vouchers or tax-funded Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) which would allow them to apply part of the tax dollars allocated for their children’s education to alternative choices.
The six happy (and sober) graduates were the product of a unique private school, Mission Academy High School, operated by the nonprofit Teen Recovery Solutions (TRS). Mission Academy is Oklahoma’s only “sober high school” dedicated exclusively to helping young people with serious addiction issues overcome that addiction and get an education at the same time.
“Nationally, teens leaving inpatient addiction treatment only have a 10 to 15 percent long-term recovery rate,” says Mike Maddox, TRS’s drug and alcohol counselor. “Those who go on to attend a sober high school have a recovery rate of 70 to 80 percent. Add on an alternative peer group like we provide here and that rate reaches 90 percent.”
TRS was founded in 2005 by parents who were discouraged at the lack of resources available for teens who struggled with serious addiction issues, even those who had successfully completed inpatient treatment. Those parents also realized that public, or even other private, high schools did not have the resources to assist their children in the continuing struggle to remain clean and sober.
“I am a big supporter of the public schools,” the mother of one Mission Academy student says. “But they are not for everybody.” That, she says, is the main reason she supports ESAs.
Maddox says four of Mission’s current student body of 16 are benefiting from the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship, a voucher program which grants families with special-needs children access to some of the tax dollars allocated for those kids. Unfortunately, only students deemed special needs can qualify for the program.
“With ESAs we could do so much more,” he says.
The TRS/Mission philosophy is one of total immersion in recovery for the students enrolled there. The organization has two certified teachers and one teaching aide, and also uses the services of volunteer tutors. While much of each day from August through May is taken up with traditional high school lessons, students also participate in peer groups that include counseling sessions and 12-step meetings.
Weekends are not neglected either, since those are times when many of the students fell into patterns of drinking or drugging before Mission.
“We plan social events every Friday and Saturday night,” Maddox says. TRS also offers family and parent groups, including a weekly meeting for mothers of the successful Al Anon 12-step program for families of the addicted.
“I’m a 100 percent better parent due to the things I have learned here,” another mother says, reflecting the success of the school’s stated slogan: “Reclaiming Teens. Reuniting Families.”
As with most addiction treatment programs, the TRS/Mission schedule is intense. “With summer session, our students are here at least 11 months of the year,” Maddox says.
He says all students undergo drug screening at least once each week. Those who fail receive individualized attention that could lead to expulsion, but most often results in more intensive efforts to maintain sobriety.
“The kids also hold each other accountable,” he said. “Our drug screen pass rate is above 90 percent.”
The problem TRS and Mission were created to address is one familiar to all parents. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in 2014 11.7 percent of eighth graders reported marijuana use. By high school that rate reached 35.1 percent. An additional nine percent of eighth graders and 37.4 percent of high school seniors reported alcohol consumption.
Nearly one in five of those teen drinkers admitted to at least occasional binge drinking, an ominous sign of a budding addiction.
Maggie Brown, development director for TRS, notes that Mission is one of just 30 sober high schools nationally and is fully accredited by the State Department of Education. Many of its graduates go on to college. The 2016 class of six graduates was the largest in the school’s brief history.
Maddox says monthly tuition, which also includes enrollment in the peer counseling programs, is $2,000, though almost all students receive scholarships from private donors, grants, and other funding sources. He says scholarships can make up to 80 percent of a student’s tuition costs. The four students receiving funds via the Henry Scholarship have an advantage, as all 16 would with a broad voucher or ESA system.
Students are sent to TRS from treatment centers, from school counselors, and through direct contacts by parents. Maddox says most have already failed, dropped out, or been expelled from public schools because of their addictive behaviors. Mission reports a 91 percent graduation rate and a 93 percent attendance rate, a dramatic turnaround for most of those teens.
Oklahoma’s Current Private School Choice Programs
1. Mission Academy participates in the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities, a private-school voucher program enacted in 2010.
2. Mission Academy participates in the Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship program, a tax-credit scholarship program enacted in 2011. Donors can contribute to the Opportunity Scholarship Fund and receive a 75 percent tax credit.
Mike Brake is a journalist and writer who recently authored a centennial history of Putnam City Schools. A former reporter at The Oklahoman (his coverage of the moon landing earned a front-page byline on July 21, 1969), he served as chief writer for Gov. Frank Keating and for Lt. Gov. and Congresswoman Mary Fallin. He has also served as an adjunct instructor at OSU-OKC, and currently serves as public information officer for Oklahoma County Commissioner Brian Maughan.