UNION COUNTY — Last week there was new hope for county teens going through opiate or heroin addiction recovery with the unveiling of the first high school in the state to provide a fighting chance for staying off drugs.
More than a year in the works, the Raymond. J. Lesniak Experience, Strength and Hope Recovery High School is the first public school in the state dedicated specifically to serving young people in recovery by integrating a fully accredited academic program along with recovery support services, all in this one school environment.
Located on the western edge of the Kean University campus in Union, the school will initially serve about 40 students, but as many as 100 will eventually find a safe place to land during recovery.
According to Kean University President Dawood Farahi, he did not hesitate to help with this mission.
“Throughout its 155-year history Kean University has been dedicated to providing all residents of Union County and beyond access to world class higher education,” said Farahi. “Prevention Links approached us about hosting this school on campus in partnership with our long-term partner, the Union County Vocational-Technical School District. We were driven to support their good work, knowing that, now more than ever, what these young people need is access to quality education.”
Farahi also pointed out he was aware that by providing this space to a recovery high school, Kean was in the minority.
“There is a tremendous effort at universities not to do things different, but here we try to do the right thing,” he said, adding “the place to do it is right here at Kean.”
Funding for the recovery high school will come from students’ hometown school districts along with fundraising by Prevention Links. According to information supplied by this organization, approximately $375,000 in start-up money will be raised by tapping individuals, community groups, government sources and funding organizations.
The idea for the recovery high school pilot program became almost an obsession for Democrat State Sen. Ray Lesniak, who worked tirelessly for more than a year with Prevention Links, Kean University and the Union County Vocational Technical School District to get this project off the ground.
How he became involved, though, is a story in itself.
Lesniak explained to the more than 150 people gathered for the opening day ceremony that this mission began in a most unusual way, one that actually fueled his determination to help youth in addiction recovery obtain the education they needed without putting them in harms way.
The senator explained that a few years ago he woke up in the middle of the night to find two youths standing over his bed, one holding a gun to his head. Although it was a terrifying experience, that moment actually left an indelible mark because of what one youth said as he left with the senator’s money and valuables.
“We’re not going to shoot you. We’re good people. We’re just in a bad place right now,” the young man said.
Those words ended up haunting Lesniak until he met Pamela Capaci.
Capaci is Chief Executive Officer of Prevention Links, a Roselle-based, not-for-profit organization that takes a leadership role in preventing the abuse of drugs, alcohol, tobacco and related issues in youth.
Capaci would end up holding the missing link Lesniak had been searching for in order to help recovering addicts. However, while Capaci knew a recovery high school was the answer, convincing those who could approve such a venture at the state level was an entirely different issue.
“We had one obstacle after another,” Lesniak explained, pointing out, for instance, that even the New Jersey Secretary of Education “didn’t give us the time of day.”
In fact, the State Department of Education initially turned down the application for the school because the financial plan appeared weak and the focus on classroom study was inefficient.
While that was a blow, neither Lesniak nor Capaci gave up, tenaciously pursuing every avenue until they were able to link the recovery high school with a New Jersey Vocational Technical District affiliated program.
After working with the county to facilitate linking the two, the recovery high school will operate as part of the county vocational and technical school system, with school districts in the county sending students to the high school.
“Because of this we will offer high-quality education and enrichment to the students in recovery who are referred by local school districts,” the Prevention Links executive director explained.
In addition to offering an educational program aligned with the state curriculum, the recovery high school will also offer peer-to-peer support groups, 12-step programs, individual and family counseling and education to strengthen parental involvement and provide crisis assistance.
Not every high school student in recovery, though, will be admitted to this recovery high school. Students accepted will have to successfully complete a primary phase of treatment and then be committed to a program of recovery.
The primary goals of the school will be to increase the number of Union County high school students seeking a sober lifestyle; reduce the relapse rate for students returning to the community after substance abuse treatment; and support parental and community involvement and improve literacy and related educational development to the families of participating youth.
Capaci explained at the beginning of the opening ceremony that one in seven Americans ages 12 and up is addicted to alcohol, street drugs or prescription opiates. Overdose deaths from painkillers nationwide, she added, have more than quadrupled in recent years, rising from approximately 4,000 deaths in 1999 to nearly 17,000 in 2010.
Nationwide it is estimated that 5 to 10 percent of children, or an estimated 150,000 to 200,000, have drug abuse problems, according to Andrew Finch, a Vanderbilt University professor who previously ran a Tennessee recovery high school for ten years and was on hand at the opening ceremony to speak about his experiences prior to launching the Association for Recovery High Schools in 2002.
Admitting he had no “blueprint” in Tennessee to follow, Finch pointed out that he had no doubt the sheer fact these youth in recovery had a place to go was a major factor in staying sober.
The startling number of youth nationwide having drug abuse problems are even more of concern, Capaci said, when the focus is brought down to the county level.
“New Jersey is at the center of an epidemic sweeping our country,” she explained, adding just recently headlines exploded with disturbing news that heroin and opiate use has become the number one health crisis in New Jersey, with overdoses surpassing car accidents as the leading cause of accidental deaths statewide.
According to a state report issued in March 2014 by Gov. Chris Christie’s Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Task Force, there was a 200 percent increase in treatment admissions over the past five years with a 53 percent increase in overdose deaths.
Twenty-five percent of those admitted for substance abuse were younger than 25, with 80 percent of teenagers with this problem never graduating from high school.
“Substance abuse by adolescents takes its toll on their development and education, affecting learning, grades, test scores, attendance and school completion. The connection between substance use and lower school performance has been established by repeated studies,” Capaci said, explaining that addiction impedes success, destroys confidence and perpetuates a vicious cycle.
However, she said, even when young people commit to treatment, their education is too often derailed.
“Many of those who try on their own to push through addiction while staying in school become overwhelmed and spin out on a downward spiral,” she explained, pointing out that without proper education, young people who have successfully completed treatment begin adulthood at a disadvantage.
Capaci said more than 200 youths from Union County are sent to in-patient drug programs every year and afterward, and on the first day of their return to high school, they are often approached by someone offering them drugs.
“With the dropout rate and risk of relapse so increasingly high, the vision of the recovery high school is to provide a supportive educational environment for students where there recovery efforts are understood, valued and fostered,” the Prevention Links chief executive officer said.
Finch explained that although there have been efforts in other states to start recovery high schools, most failed because they did not have the political support needed. He also mentioned the state of Minnesota once had 19 recovery high schools, but now they are down to four.
Recovery high schools overall have not had the best track record since the first one opened in 1979 in Maryland. Since that time approximately 80 opened across the nation but only 35 are still in operation today, Finch said.
As an example of how a recovery school can succeed, Finch brought along Sasha Mclain, the head of Archway House in Houston, Texas, which opened its doors in 2004.
“Ten years ago we finally got fed up with 14-, 15-, and 16-year-olds dropping out of school while in recovery,” she said, adding that even though they were in recovery, there was no long term support available.
“Every day it chips away at their recovery process,” said Mclain, noting everyone blamed everyone else for teens relapsing over and over.
“Then we woke up. That when we realized our kids needed the support of a recovery high school,” she said, noting that today 87 percent of Archway House students stay sober and 96 percent go on to college.
“Recovery gives them back the beautiful path that was laid before them and that beautiful, innocent light that was given to them,” Mclain said.
Lesniak quipped about the school being named after him, explaining that it was Capaci who urged him to accept this honor.
“I resisted for about five minutes because I realized this is part of a lifesaving effort and I wanted to be a part of that,” said the state senator, adding “we’re going to grow together and save lives.”
Union County Freeholder Chairman Chris Hudak made a big impact when he spoke, because it involved Lesniak’s approach to things he is passionate about.
“A little over a year ago when I was asked to a meeting to work with Prevention Links, we didn’t know if it would be a charter school at the time but I will say one thing, its always easier to say ‘yes’ to Sen. Lesniak than ‘no,’’ Hudak quipped, which brought about laughter from the audience gathered to celebrate the administrative opening and ribbon cutting ceremony.
The recovery high school will provide a curriculum of study that aligns itself with the New Jersey Curriculum Frameworks. All students must meet the graduation requirements of their sending school district as well as pass all state regulatory requirements for graduation. All teaching staff and administrators also must be certified by the state.