What is a Recovery High School?

A recovery high school is a secondary schools designed specifically for students in recovery from substance use disorder or dependency.  According to the Association of Recovery Schools (ARS), each school shares the following goals:

  • To educate all available and eligible students who are in recovery from substance use disorder or co-occurring disorder such as anxiety, depression, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
  • To meet state requirements for awarding a secondary school diploma
  • To support students in working a strong program of recovery

The staff of recovery high schools most often includes administrative staff, teachers, substance abuse counselors, and mental health professionals that each play a critical role in supporting their students.  Additionally, recovery schools provide support for families learning how to live with, and provide support for, their teens entering into the recovery lifestyle.  There are currently 33 recovery schools in operation around the country.  Chicago does not have a recovery high school.

This story, from a suburban high school shows why it so desperately needs one:

“We have a student, T, who has been hospitalized for psychiatric reasons several times. I knew that he had substance use disorder, but even with aftercare, those went unaddressed.   

Between hospitalizations, T refused to attend school. We discovered he had been physically assaulted by other students due to an outstanding drug-related debt. He refused to provide names or file charges. T and his friends were later involved in breaking and entering to obtain money to pay for said standing debt and were arrested and charged. In the meantime, T continued to refuse to attend school, and was subsequently given an ankle bracelet and home detention.  

In the fall of 2015, after three years of ignoring his substance use disorder, his parents had T admitted to an inpatient substance use disorder program for youth. When he was released this spring, T still refused to attend school:  He was terrified of retributions for the past incidents, of going back to the environment where using was easy and expected, to the friends who were still using.  His parents reported that the student attended 12-step meetings daily, was sober, and properly reported to his probation officer, yet the court continued to threaten T with youth detainment if the he didn’t go back to school. After another month and another ankle bracelet, the student began having to report to the youth detention facility. At this point, he has 53 absences in his remaining three classes and only nine out of the fifteen credits he should have at this point in his school career. His parents have begged for off-campus options for their son to no avail. To my knowledge, the student has (miraculously) maintained his sobriety.”

Need for a Sober High School 

Adolescent Substance Abuse 

Young people in Chicago have easy access to drugs and alcohol, and use them.  A 2013 NIDA report on Drug Abuse Patterns and Trends in Chicago found that new heroin users are typically young, white suburban residents.  Marijuana was the most frequently used drug by high schoolers.  DEA and the Chicago Police Department reported increases in supply sources for synthetic marijuana and locally grown marijuana seizures.  Use of inhalants by students also increased.  According to data from the Treatment Episodes Data Set for 2013, youth ages 12-17 accounted for 8% of all treatment episodes, with marijuana the most frequently used drug (28.2%), followed by inhalants (14.3) and sedatives (12.5%)

A 2011 report from the US Department of Education Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools noted that 85% of adolescents entering addiction treatment in the United States begin regular use of alcohol and other drugs before the age of 15.  According to the US Department of Health and Human Services Office of Adolescent Health, substance use data for Illinois in 2011 showed that 38% of youth surveyed said that they had had at least one drink within the last 30 days: 23% had five or more.   Per 2014 data from SAMHSA on Illinois adolescents use of drugs and alcohol, 8.1% of youth reported illicit use at some point within the last year, 15.4 reported past-month binge drinking, and 13% report past-year initiation of substance use.  Of adolescents surveyed, 62% perceived no great risk from having 5 or more drinks once or twice a week, and 74% perceived no great risk from smoking pot once a month.

Unsafe School Environments 

The reality for most students is that one of the easiest places to get drugs and alcohol is school.  In a report on its National Survey of American Attitudes on Substance Abuse: Teens, the Center for Alcohol and Substance Abuse (CASA) found that 60% or more of teens report that their high schools are drug-infected, meaning that drugs are used, kept or sold there.  More than half of the students surveyed said that there is a place on or near school grounds where students go to use drugs, drink and smoke during the school day, and almost half know of a student who sells drugs at their school.  Moreover, 75% of respondents said that seeing pictures on social networking sites of kids partying with alcohol and marijuana encourages other teens to want to party like that, creating what the report calls “digital peer pressure.”

It is well-documented that youth substance abuse effects education-related outcomes, including grades, test scores, attendance, and school completion.  According to the Office of School Safety report, middle and high school students with even moderate involvement with substance use have dramatically lower academic achievement that groups of students with little or no involvement in these behaviors.  In addition, a significantly higher percentage of high school students who had previously reported drug use dropped out of school compared with non-drug users.  Stress to get good grades adds to the pressure.  According to CASA, high-stress teens with grades of mostly Bs or lower are seven times more likely to have used marijuana, and three times more likely to use alcohol than low stress teens with grades of As and Bs.

High Relapse Rates 

Often, students seek help.  However, for students like these, relapse is all too common.  According to the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, first-year post-treatment relapse rates for adolescents range from 60-70%.  Rates are particularly high for youth who have completed residential treatment.  Another study found that the average rate of sustained abstinence after treatment, across 53 adolescent substance use treatment outcome studies, was 38% at 6 months and 32% at 12 months.  The percentage of youth in recovery at the12month follow up in the Cannabis Youth Treatment Study ranged from 17 to 34%.

Identified factors leading to such poor outcomes, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, include substance use within the family or by peers, high family conflict, low commitment to school, favorable attitudes towards substance use, early initiation into drug use and co-occurring mental disorders.

Other research indicates that social factors, including social pressure to use, as well as exposure to substance using peers, are the strongest predictors of adolescent relapse.  Successful recovery is less likely for youth who enter or return to an environment or peer culture in which substance use is the norm.

Taking these factors into account, for young people trying to recover, the barriers to success are formidable.  Many have done poorly at school and have been suspended or expelled, making their engagement in school low; for most, school is where most of their drug use happened, where social pressure to use was at its highest, and where easy availability of illegal substances and acceptance of substance abuse as normal makes abstinence nearly impossible.

For a student attending high school or college after treatment, knowing how to relate and respond to peers given his or her newfound sobriety is one particularly difficult challenge (Finch & Wegman, 2012). Richter, Brown, and Mott (1991) found that youth who abstained from substance use posttreatment reported a higher number of nonusing social supports (including peers) than did youth who returned to heavy drug use. Anderson, Ramo, Schulte, Cummins, and Brown (2007) also found that youth with more nonusing social supports were more likely to maintain sobriety posttreatment than those with more using social supports. Therefore, finding ways to develop new, sober peer groups would be an important recovery support for adolescents completing substance use treatment programs. Recovery high schools and collegiate recovery programs are designed explicitly to provide that support.

Recovery High Schools Improve Outcomes 

Because the risk of relapse is highest for youth in the period of time directly following treatment, the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools notes that the transition to the school setting is an important time when appropriate relapse prevention services could increase the likelihood of long-term recovery.  It points to the development of the recovery school movement as a vital step in providing such services.

The 2010 National Drug Control Strategy supports this approach and calls for “the expansion of community-based recovery support programs, including recovery schools, peer-led programs, mutual help groups, and recovery support centers” (Office of National Drug Control Policy [ONDCP], 2010, p. 45) to assist students in their efforts toward continued sobriety.

Recovery-based high schools create environments that foster what NIDA has identified as positive outcomes for youth seeking sobriety:  They provide prosocial peers and activities, positive adults and recovery mentors outside of the family, school connectedness and commitment, nurturing relationships with positive communication, and monitoring and supervision.

There is a small but growing body of evidence of the effectiveness of these programs.  For example, one study compared student behavior before (in the community) to their behavior during their recovery school enrollment.  Between the first period and second period, reports of at least weekly use of alcohol, cannabis or other illicit drugs were reduced from 90% to 7%.

In 2013, 3090 Illinois youth under the age of 18 received some form of substance abuse treatment, the majority (88%) through outpatient drug treatment programs.  For these recovering teens, there were very few options beyond returning to the schools in their communities where their drug use began.  Parent seeking to find safer alternatives for these students soon found out that private school options were not only expensive, they provided no more safety, since drug use is as rampant in private schools as public, according to the CASA study.

Target Population

The target population for Serenity Academy Chicago consists of adolescents and emerging adults between the ages of 15-21 years of age who have not graduated from high school and who meet the DSMV criteria for substance use disorders.

What is Serenity Academy Chicago? 

Serenity Academy Chicago has its genesis in the ongoing discussions of an impassioned collective of substance abuse counselors, psychologists, social workers and school administrators with a vision to provide youth with a high-quality education in a safe, supportive environment that promotes sustained recovery for life.

These individuals, who now constitute SAC’s Board of Directors, established SAC as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in 2015 and have since been working to bring their vision to life by creating a strategic plan, development plan, and committees to guide the development and implementation of the academic and recovery components of the school.

SAC will be a private secondary school following the Illinois State guidelines for accreditation, length of school year/days, curriculum, teacher certification, recordkeeping/reports, health and safety transportation, textbooks, testing, special education and other areas as defined by the Illinois Board of Education.   It will be centrally located in Chicago’s Loop, which is easily accessible from all of the city’s neighborhoods via public transportation.

SAC will have a 175-day school year and a 44-day summer school; school hours are 8:30 to 4:00 pm.  It is anticipated that SAC’s first class will convene in Fall, 2017 with a small group of freshman.

Model for the SAC 

Serenity Academy Chicago is a member of the Association of Recovery Schools, a national nonprofit organization comprised of recovery high schools and others who support the integral growth of the recovery high school movement.  It assists in the creation, development, maintenance, and growth of recovery through schools through training and consultation that provides one-on-one mentorship, access to the ARS network of recovery schools and curricular, behavior management, enrollment, community engagement, therapeutic and professional development services.

In developing Serenity Academy Chicago, we are following the five criteria for a recovery school developed by ARS:

  1. Recovery schools operate as state-recognized high schools or colleges with services designed specifically for chemically dependent students committed to being sober and working a program of recovery
  2. Recovery schools provide academic services and recovery assistance.  “If the balance tilts toward academic or treatment outcomes, the school moves away from being a recovery school.”
  3. Recovery high schools require that all recovering students work a program of recovery while enrolled
  4. Recovery schools offer academic courses for which students receive credit toward a high school or college diploma

Recovery schools have a plan in place to handle the therapeutic and crisis needs of students, which includes the use of part-time or full-time licensed professionals, outsource counseling services, external referrals, etc.

School Staffing 

Because we anticipate that students will have a wide range of needs beyond the academic, it is essential that SAC have the staff necessary to address them.  Thus, school staff will include the following:

Licensed Teachers:  These will include experts in all subject matter areas required by the State, such as language arts, mathematics, social studies and science.  Teachers must be able to provide instruction in classroom settings, in one-on-one tutoring, and via online tutorials and courses.

Clinical Staff:  These will include licensed clinical social workers and/ or licensed clinical professional counselors who are dually certified as addictions professionals (CADC). These licensed professionals will be required to have at least three years’ experience of working with adolescents with substance use disorder in order to qualify for the position. These licensed professionals also have the capacity to work with adolescents and emerging adults individually and with their family.

Peer Recovery Staff:  We will also employ recovery coaches who possess the CRSS credential in the State of Illinois (Certified Recovery Support Specialist to provide recovery support for students while they are in school and also have the capacity to provide recovery coaching services in the community where students live.

Special Education Staff: We will hire staff with special education certification to meet the needs of students with IEP’s.

Lived Experience in Recovery:  To the greatest extent possible, we will seek to hire staff who are themselves in recovery.  This will ensure that they have the experience needed to fully understand what their students are undergoing, and it will provide students with adult role models and mentors who can demonstrate that it is possible to live happily in recovery.

Because of the intersection of academic performance and effects of substance abuse, school staff will need to work closely together to provide the full network of support needed by students.  Therefore, teachers and counselors will be expected to work closely together, collaborating on the development of students’ educational and recovery plans, and integrating efforts to support success in both.

Scope of services 


Students applying for admission to SAC must meet the established diagnostic criteria substance use disorders as defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-V) and must have received treatment from a licensed provider OR attended sobriety support group meetings.

Students who meet these criteria will then undergo a comprehensive assessment that will identify the following:

  • Immediate needs first (linkage to treatment, mental health care, etc), which, if not met, would prevent student from engaging in program
  • Academic history, including grades, disciplinary issues, attendance and remediation needs
  • Substance abuse history, including usage, treatment, familial and social supports
  • Mental health status, to identify co-occurring disorders
  • Familial history, including substance abuse, strength of connection and support
  • Other barriers to maintain sobriety

In addition, to establish baseline measurements of function, students will be administered instruments such as the Teen Addiction Severity Index, Practical Adolescent Dual Diagnostic Interview or Child/Adolescent Functioning Assessment Scale.  This will assist in measuring progress over time.

Individualized Plans 

Using the assessment findings as a guide, each student, working with a counselor, will develop and individualized plan that incorporates short- and long-term goals and objectives for academic and recovery success.  These plans will be revisited every six months and updated as needed.  If a student appears to be having difficulty reaching goals, he or she will meet with a counselor and/or teacher, as appropriate, to develop new strategies for reaching the goal or to set a different, more achievable goal.

Coordination of Care  

Many of SAC’s students will still be in some form or outpatient treatment or will have recently completed residential treatment, for which an aftercare plan is still in place.  In developing individualized plans for our students, SAC staff will work closely with students’ treatment counselors, mental health therapists or other members of their support teams to coordinate goals and activities, in order to support students’ continued recovery.

Academic Activities 

We anticipate that the students coming into SAC will be behind their peers academically:  Many of the students have been suspended at previous schools or expelled for behaviors connected to their substance use; others will have underperformed academically due in part to their substance abuse;  still others, while embedded in a using culture, will have disconnected from school engagement.  Whatever the reason, these students will need assistance in achieving the levels of academic competence expected for youth their age.

The academic curriculum we are designing for SAC takes this into account.  It will include instruction in all subject matter areas required for graduation from high school, including Language Arts, Math, Social Studies and Science.  For students requiring remediation in any of these areas, one period of every day is devoted to tutoring and one-on-one assistance.  Following is a sample schedule of a typical school day:

Period Activity Begin End
1 English 9:00 AM 9:50 AM
2 Math 9:50 AM 10:40 AM
3 PE/Health 10:50 AM 11:40 AM
4 Lunch 11:40 AM 12:10 PM
5 Group 12:10 PM 1:00 PM
6 Social Studies 1:00 PM 1:50 PM
7 Science 1:50 PM 2:40 PM
8 Tutorial/1×1 2:50 PM 3:30 PM
9 End of Day Check-in 3:30 PM 4:00 PM


The first goal is to ensure that students are able to take and pass all required State assessments, to complete the number of hours in each subject matter area needed to meet State requirements for graduation, and to earn a high-school diploma.  We also want students to do well enough to get into the colleges of their choice. For those students more interested in pursuing work instead of college, we will provide pathways to vocational education, training and certification.

Recovery Support 

Nothing will promote academic growth better than continued growth in recovery.  Helping students create healthy lives with clear visions for their futures, based in the principles of recovery, is SAC’s main goal.

Addressing Substance Use Disorders:  All students will have diagnosed substance use disorders, and most will have experienced some treatment for it, either through a licensed treatment facility, or from self-help groups like Alateen or Narcotics Anonymous.  A key component of substance abuse treatment is to help addicts understand how relapse happens, by helping them understand what triggers their desire to use, and providing them strategies for dealing with those triggers.  The focus is on cognitive retraining, learning to use strategies to change behaviors on a daily basis.  SAC’s counselors, who will be licensed CADCs, will be on hand on a daily basis, throughout the school day to support students in making behavioral changes.  There is time in each day’s schedule for students to meet one on one with counselors to get help dealing with the daily challenges that can serve as triggers.  Intensive support of this kind is common in residential treatment, but unheard of in a school environment.

Addressing Co-Occurring Disorders:  We know that many students will have co-occurring psychological disorders, such as depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder and that, left untreated, these conditions can lead to relapse.  SAC’s clinical staff includes licensed counselors who will be on hand to help students when symptoms arise, and they will also be able to make referrals for more intensive levels of mental health treatment, including medication, and inpatient or outpatient therapy.

Addressing Trauma:  Research shows that individuals who have experienced trauma – violence within the family, street violence, sexual assault and other forms – are more likely to become substance abusers, and we anticipate that a large number of students will be trauma survivors to one degree or another.  SAC’s clinical staff will all be trained in trauma-based approaches to treatment that can empower students to reclaim control over their own choices.

Peer Recovery Services:  As anyone who has remained sober through the help of support groups can attest, and as a large body of research has demonstrated, peer recovery support services are an invaluable tool to maintaining long-term sobriety.  Defined as services that are designed and delivered by people who have experienced both substance abuse disorder and recovery, they help peope become and stay engaged in the recovery process and reduce the likelihood of relapse.  Because they are designed and delivered by peers who have been successful in the recovery process, they embody a powerful message of hope, as well as a wealth of experiential knowledge.

SAC will hire Recovery Coaches, individuals with lived experience in recovery with specialized training in providing emotional support, providing life-skills training, providing concrete assistance to help others accomplish tasks, and facilitating contacts between addicts and people in the community.  They will help students develop individualized/self-directed recovery plans, provide one-on-one recovery coaching in person, by phone or by email, create and lead educational and social support groups on recovery-related topics, and lead socialization activities that provide students with opportunities to broaden their social support systems in sober social events.

Case Management:  All counselors, regardless of training, will be able to provide students with linkages to resources needed to maintain sobriety, such as referrals for health care, transportation, housing and other basic needs.  Recovery coaches, in particular, will be knowledgeable about a wide range of community-based organizations and activities that promote sober living and long-term recovery so that when they are not in school, students will still have access to prosocial, recovery-oriented services.

Family Counseling:  Addiction is a family disease that has fractured the bonds of trust and support between parents, siblings, and other relations and the substance abuser.  Continued recovery depends in no small measure in restoring these bonds to provide a strong safety net of family love and support.  In many cases, students who are substance abusers are also the children of substance abusers, and they carry with them all of the anger and resentment that comes with growing up in such an environment.

SAC counselors will work with families of students to address the lingering legacies of familial substance abuse, educate them about the recovery process and their roles in it, and restore the bonds of love and trust lost to addiction.

Social/Cultural Activities:  SAC will provide students with frequent opportunities to explore Chicago’s rich cultural and civic resources via field trips and educational outings around the city.  The school will also sponsor sober social events to provide opportunities to students to build strong social networks of support.

Keeping Students Engaged in recovery 

While SAC is committed to providing students with all the supports they may need to stay in recovery and move forward with their lives, we can’t make them stay sober.  They have to remain engaged in the shaping and direction of their recovery process, and become committed to making the kinds of daily practices that support long-term sobriety.  If they are to have successful recoveries, students have to remain engaged in the progress of their recovery process, and become committed to making the kinds of daily practices that support long-term sobriety.  Therefore, we will encourage active participation in the recovery process in several ways:

Engagement in Individualized/Self-Directed Recovery Planning:  When students enter SAC, they will work with teachers and counselors to create a blueprint for recovery.    Staff will be trained to view the students they work with as the experts on their lives and goals and that they are there to help students create their own paths to recovery.  Students will be required to remain involved in the recovery planning process by working with their counselors to reach plan goals, revise goals as needed, and update the plan as progress is made.

Peer-Recovery Involvement:  Once a student has remained sober for a year, he or she will be offered the opportunity to train to become a volunteer peer coach or peer leader.  These students will become closely involved in the development of peer-led programming at the school, and will become coaches to students with less time in recovery.  As successive generations of students remain sober and engage in peer recovery activities, they become a powerful network of resources for other students, one that will grow in strength and reach as students graduate, and go to college or into the work world.

Attendance at Extra-Curricular Recovery Activities:  Students will be required to attend at least one sobriety support group meeting each week outside of school hours.

Measuring Success 

SAC is committed to helping our students change the course of their lives.  To that end, our programming has included core elements of effective aftercare treatment for teens, which have been shown to reduce the likelihood of relapse and enhance maintenance of treatment gains:

  • Screening and comprehensive assessment of the full range of issues
  • Comprehensive services
  • Family involvement
  • Developmentally appropriate services and therapies
  • Strategies to engage and keep adolescents engaged
  • Qualified staff with knowledge and experience working with adolescents with substance abuse problems.

To track the success of our programming, we will collect data on the following:

  • Substance use Outcomes:  Continued abstinence and reduction in risk behaviors
  • Academic Outcomes: attendance rates, disciplinary actions, grades
  • Improved functioning as measured by changes in scores on psychological instruments over time

As the number of students grows, we will look at school retention and graduation rates, length of time in recovery and other factors.  Additionally, we will maintain all data required by the Illinois Board of Education to ensure compliance.  We will also pursue certification as a Recovery School by the Association of Recovery Schools, and will work with them to develop the evaluation structure and capacity needed to meet the requirements of their annual evaluation.

Need and use for Start-Up Funds


Initial conversations by community stakeholders indicated that youth seeking recovery had few resources to support their efforts, and it was determined that a recovery high-school would be the most effective means of providing the support they need.  A planning committee was formed.  Its initial tasks were to establish the necessary credentials to launch the school. Serenity Academy Chicago became incorporated in Illinois and received its 501(c)(3) in October 2015.  

The Planning Committee became the Board of Directors, and embarked upon a fact-finding tour of other recovery schools, as well as key stakeholders throughout the State of Illinois, including representatives from the Cook County Commissioners office, administrators of alternative and private schools, and agencies providing substance use disorder services to youth.   From these discussions, the mission, substance and focus of Serenity Academy Chicago has taken shape. The Association of Recovery Schools senior leadership and staff have been working with the SAC Board on next steps.

Use of Start-up Funds ($50,000)

The requested funds will be used to:

  • Continue fundraising efforts
  • Secure a location for the school
  • Helping to cover salaries for:
    • A Principal to lead the development of the school’s academic and recovery curricula, hire staff, and prepare the school for its opening
    • Hire school staff and train them in the mission, principles and academic and recovery strategies used by the school.
  • Develop the technological infrastructure needed to support on-line learning and program evaluation and data collection efforts
  • Secure a contract with the Association of Recovery Schools for a formal Community Readiness Assessment (details below)


The Community Readiness Assessment: General

The purpose of the Association of Recovery Schools’ Community Readiness Assessment is to gather all appropriate information in order to present to the community a set of recommendations that will continue pushing the recovery school effort forward. The environmental scan process uses multiple sources of evidence to understand the community’s readiness to start and sustain a recovery high school. Evidence collection begins before the visit with research and continues on­site through additional document review and interviews with a number of stakeholders. Findings provided by the site visit team can be used as a foundation to begin executing the creation of a recovery high school. The outcome of this review will be recommendations that include a judgment and supporting evidence on various aspects of the community’s readiness including, but not limited to: recovery school models that would be a good fit for the community, additional recovery support services to be developed in the community, potential public/private partners, and a board development plan.

The Community Readiness Assessment: Process

The Association of Recovery Schools’ staff engages in a number of evidence collecting activities. The focus of these activities was to gauge perceptions of key stakeholders in the community and to identify the path of least resistance and maximum impact based on the community’s assets and barriers. The ARS conducts focus group discussions with a variety of stakeholders, as well as individual interviews. Focus group and interview participants consists of:

  • Treatment Professionals
  • Elected Officials
  • Medical Professionals
  • Young People in Recovery
  • Guidance Counselors
  • Teachers
  • Law Enforcement
  • School Leaders
  • Parents and Guardians
  • SAC Board Members
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