New grant bolsters state’s first addiction recovery high school

ROSELLE, NJ — A new grant is now available for the Raymond J. Lesniak Recovery High School in Roselle, the state’s first addiction-recovery high school, making it easier for students to attend and alleviating some costs to school districts.

The state Department of Education began seeking applications for funding existing recovery high schools on Oct. 6. Administrators at the Roselle school, currently the only one open in the state, plan to apply for the grant.

School districts have agreed to pay the cost of educating students at the recovery high school, but on a voluntary basis.
“The districts do pay the tuition, that’s kind of how it’s set up currently,” Morgan Thompson, director of academic and recovery services at the school, said. “The difference is that right now there’s no funding mechanism for it.”

The new grant would cover tuition and transportation for up to 30 students and fund one full-time counselor.
Tuition at the recovery high school costs $15,000 for county residents and $20,000 for those from outside Union County, Morgan said. School districts in the state averaged about $20,385 per student last year, state statistics show. Currently, school districts also pay transportation costs for out-of-district students to attend the high school.

The recovery high school is a partnership between the public Union County Vocational-Technical School District and Prevention Links, a nonprofit organization in Roselle that works to prevent drug and alcohol addiction. The recovery school was formerly located on the campus of Kean University in Union, where new dorms are currently under construction.

The school accepts students who already have been through treatment programs for addiction and express a desire to stay clean. No on-site treatment is available to the students, but the curriculum is structured to provide in-person and online educational programs, as well as mentors, yoga and individual recovery plans.

The school began accepting students in 2015, and about 15 students enrolled since then, according to data from June. Five seniors graduated in June, and there are currently three students enrolled, according to the school’s program coordinator, Sabrina Sabater. Morgan said the school helps students break a “cyclical” pattern of treatment followed by a return to the same school and group of friends who may offer them drugs again.

“Kids who go back to their home schools, most of them are offered drugs as soon as they come back,” Morgan said, later adding that the recovery school is a place “where they can make friends who genuinely understand what they’re going through.”
Funding for the school currently comes from state aid based on where students live, as well as from private donations and fundraisers. A fundraising walk for the school is scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 21, at Nomahegan Park in Cranford.

The school was named after state Sen. Raymond Lesniak, who is sponsoring a bill that would require districts to pay for students to attend the recovery high school if diagnosed with substance abuse disorder. Lesniak represents the 20th Legislative District, which includes Union, Elizabeth, Hillside and Roselle. He was also responsible for spearheading the original plan for the school. Some districts have refused to send students to the high school because of “monetary reasons,” the senator said.

“We just assumed there would be cooperation from the superintendent and board of education, but unfortunately we found out that money is more important than the future of the child,” Lesniak said in a recent phone interview, adding that state aid for students would go toward paying tuition at the recovery high school.

Populated urban school districts currently receive a large portion of state aid, meaning less money for wealthier municipalities.The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ensures students with disabilities are provided with the same opportunities as those without; however, the act does not include addiction as a disability, according to Morgan. Morgan, herself a recovering addict, said people may not realize how much an impact addiction has on a student’s ability to graduate from high school. Further, some school districts may offer programs through their own clinicians on staff, but not with the same model as a recovery high school.

“Districts have entire staffs to support students, but I don’t think they fully understand (our) model,” Sabater said. “There is a lot of statistical data that shows that students who go to recovery high schools have much better outcomes.”

Prevention Links, which provides addiction-prevention resources to all members of the community, was recently awarded a $600,000 federal Building Communities of Recovery Grant, which will not be used for the school, Morgan said.