Did you know R.I. has a Recovery High School?

By Lisa Tomasso, The Providence Center

Reading, writing – and recovery.

That is the curriculum at the Anchor Learning Academy, the state’s first recovery high school program. In 2012 Anchor Learning Academy (ALA), located on Hope Street in Providence, opened as a program of The Providence Center to meet the needs of high school students living with substance use and co-occurring mental health disorders. The unique environment at ALA combines academic rigor with clinical services to address the needs of the whole student and secure a path to academic, physical and social-emotional wellness recovery.

According to the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), Rhode Island youth rates for illicit drug, marijuana and binge alcohol use are amongst the highest in the nation. In addition, a recent study of our behavior health system by Truven Health Analytics indicated Rhode Island rates of drug and alcohol dependence by individuals 12-18 years old have increased since 2008, while the national rates decreased, creating a significant statistical difference with the rest of the nation.

Addiction is a disease of the brain. Therefore, due to the on-going changes and development of the brain during adolescence the earlier a person begins to use drugs, the more likely he or she is to develop serious problems later in life.

Meanwhile, the use/abuse of illicit drugs can have a substantial impact on school performance. Grades suffer, students lose interest in extra-curricular and social activities, and relationships falter.

Drug and alcohol experimentation generally begins as social behavior, to fit in with the crowd or from peer pressure, but can escalate quickly to addiction, leading to truancy, isolation, dropping out of school, or involvement with the juvenile justice system.

With Rhode Island being the leader in innovative substance use and mental health treatment, it stands to reason that it would have such a high school program to help these students.

Anchor Learning Academy accepts students from every school district. Referrals can be made by anyone for students in grades 9-12 diagnosed with a substance use disorder. Curriculum is individualized, so students can meet all of the requirements of their local high school. The Academy operates on a 180 day school year and offers a 6-week extended school year to help students recover academic credits, meet graduation requirements and continue counseling in a supportive familiar environment.

Clinical services are incorporated into each school day to help students continue the progress they’ve made in treatment and to further develop recovery strategies essential to a successful transition back to their community high school, higher education or into the workforce. Early treatment and development of recovery support systems also offsets the cost of treating adult addiction through hospitalization, unemployment and even prison.

Anchor Learning Academy’s SY 2017 average daily census is 15 students; maximum is 20 students. Short term data indicates that the program works. Between 2013 and 2016 every student enrolled used some type of substance at least 3x per week. For students enrolled at ALA for more than three months:

Average student attendance for one semester increased by 20% to 86%
Average student GPA for one semester increased 90%
Graduates enrolled in higher education or employed full-time soared to 80%
Student involvement with juvenile justice decreased by 63%

Addiction has been a difficult disease to talk about, let alone act upon. The stigma that goes along with substance use disorders leaves those who suffer from it feeling ashamed, and leaves families at a loss for what to do.

For too long we have thought of addiction as someone else’s problem, a lifestyle choice or a result of bad parenting. Addiction is everyone’s business and while there are social determinants and genetic factors that place certain individuals at higher risk than others, addiction is not a choice. Addiction is a disease and recovery is possible.

Programs like Anchor Learning Academy help to ensure that all students are provided the tools they need to earn a post-secondary degree, secure gainful employment and lead healthy adult lives as productive members of our society.