Why We Need Recovery Schools
Mapping the Need for Washington’s Only Public Recovery High School
This is the first of a series of short reports that share how recovery high schools are an evidence-based approach to supporting high school graduation and abstinence from alcohol and drugs. Recovery schools’ primary goal is to educate students working a recovery program in a sober environment. Staff members typically include substance use counselors, teachers and mental health professionals.
In this brief, we share the case for recovery schools generally and Seattle Public School’s Interagency Recovery School specifically. The Recovery School is the only public school of its kind in Washington. Together these short reports share data and stories showing the value of sober learning spaces tailored for young people in recovery from substance use disorders.
Why We Need Recovery Schools
Both prior to and during the COVID-19 pandemic, young people’s behavioral health has become a pressing concern. During the past two years, students’ experiences of instability, isolation and fear have been documented in multiple studies. The American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Children’s Hospital Association have declared a national emergency in children’s mental health, citing the serious toll of the COVID-19 pandemic on top of existing challenges.
According to the U.S. Surgeon General one in five children reported having a mental, emotional, developmental, or behavioral disorder.ii
Mental health and substance use are connected:
- Mental health issues can influence a person’s use of drugs and alcohol.
- Substance use can impact the development of mental illness.
- Risk factors for both conditions can contribute to one another.
- Research suggests that adolescents with substance use disorders also have high rates of co-occurring mental illness.iii
- Over three in five adolescents in community-based substance use disorder treatment programs also meet diagnostic criteria for another mental illness.iii
Low high school graduation rates for youth impacted by co-occuring disorders underscore the need for recovery schools.
Only one in four Washington State youth with substance use concerns graduated from high school within six years. For youth with co-occurring mental health and substance use needs, that number dropped to 17%.iv
Without a high school diploma, individuals are more likely to have poor health and economic outcomes. They are also more commonly involved in the juvenile legal system.v
Innovative post-treatment transitions like those offered at the Recovery School are critical to supporting student success.
Washington’s Only Sober Public High School
Seattle Public School’s Interagency Academy at Queen Anne Campus provides a singular and important service in King County. Hosted through the Interagency Academy network of specialized campuses across the city of Seattle, the Recovery School is the only one of its kind in Washington. The school offers programs and supports to address the Four Dimensions of Recovery: Health, Home, Purpose and Community.vi The Recovery School provides instructional programs for ninth through twelfth graders and daily sober support groups. It also partners with BRIDGES: Seattle Alternative Peer Group to offer fun and sober activities after school.
The school was founded as a partnership between the King County Behavioral Health and Recovery Division of the Department of Community and Human Services (DCHS-BHRD) and Seattle Public Schools in 2014. Concerned about low high school graduation rates in Washington, DCHSBHRD staff visited recovery high schools in Minnesota and Texas and then provided $250,000 in startup funds to launch the school.
The Recovery School attracts students from a number of referral sources, including peers, counselors, treatment programs and families. As Recovery School staff want to support equity of access to the program, they share the opportunity with incoming alternative school students. They help out-of-district students take the steps to attend the school.
To ensure that the Recovery School is the right place, prospective students visit and participate in an afternoon recovery group co-led by staff and students. These daily meetings build shared accountability among students who support each other in their progress through key milestones of sobriety.
Seth Welch, the school’s lead substance use counselor and social worker is engaged in the National Association of Recovery Schools, serving on the organization’s board and exploring how to prepare the school for accreditation.
4 Dimensions of Recovery
- Community – having relationships and social networks that offer support, friendship, love, and hope
- Health – overcoming or managing one’s disease(s) or symptoms, and making informed, healthy choices that support physical and emotional well-being
- Home – having a stable and safe place to live
- Purpose – conducting meaningful daily activities, such as working, school volunteerism, family caretaking, or creative endeavors, and the independence, income, and resources to participate in society
The majority of the Recovery School students have co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders. Students at the school commit to a program of sobriety during their attendance. While treatment for substance use and a month of sobriety are recommended to students prior to enrollment, staff make exceptions for individuals who are committed to the school’s program. This flexibility reduces barriers that students may experience when seeking treatment.
Abstaining from drugs and alcohol is just the beginning. Engagement in prosocial activities and a supportive peer community are important to successful post-treatment recovery. Many Recovery School students participate in and engage in ongoing treatment outside of school. BRIDGES offers afterschool drop-in and field trip activities, student and parent support groups, and arts programs. As young leaders, Recovery School students develop a sense of self-efficacy and confidence as they create positive change beyond the walls of the school:
“The Recovery High School placed tools in front of me that I would not have found on my own, allowing barriers to be broken and help to be accepted.”
— Recovery School student
Like other similar schools, the Recovery School supplements the Seattle Public Schools budget with multiple grants and funding sources to support students’ needs.
Please see our other short report to learn more about the students who attend Recovery School and their outcomes. You will learn that Recovery School students are more likely than other similar young people to complete high school and build a recovery lifestyle of health, community and purpose.
i Association of Recovery Schools Website (no date).
ii Murthy, V. (2022). The Mental Health of Minority and Marginalized Young People: An Opportunity for Action. Public Health Reports, 137(4), 613-616. Retrieved from American Academy of Pediatrics (2021). AAP, AACAP, CHA declare national emergency in children’s mental health. Retrieved from https://publications.aap.org/aapnews/news/17718
iii National Institute on Drug Abuse (2021, April). Common Comorbidities with Substance Use Disorders Research Report: Part 1: The Connection Between Substance Use Disorders and Mental Illness.
iv Kohlenberg, E., Lucenko, B., Mancuso, D., et al. (2013). Behavioral Health Needs and School Success: Youth with Mental Health and Substance Abuse Problems are at Risk for Poor High School Performance. Washington State Department of Social and Health Services.
v Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (no date) Healthy People 2020, Social Determinants of Health: High School Graduation. Retrieved from https://www.healthypeople.gov/2020/topics-objectives/topic/social-determinants-health/interventions-resources/highschool-graduation
Suggested Citation: Loeb, H., San Nicolas, O., Wyatt, J. G. & Raya-Carlton, P. (2022). Seattle Recovery School: A Supportive Sober Program for Students. Renton, WA: Puget Sound Education Service District Strategy, Evaluation and Learning Department and Seattle, WA: King County Department of Community and Human Services, Behavioral Health Division.
Recovery School Students Characteristics and Outcomes: 2016-21
This is the second of related short reports that describe how recovery schools are an evidence-based approach to supporting young people in graduating from high school and building a substance-free lifestyle. Recovery schools’ primary goal is to educate students working a recovery program in a sober environment. Staff members typically include substance use counselors, teachers and mental health professionals.i
Together these short reports show the value of providing substance-free learning spaces that are tailored for young people.
In studies of youth who are in treatment for substance use, students attending recovery schools had substantially higher rates of graduation and sobriety than those attending other high schools.
Who Attended the Seattle Recovery School
In this report, we share data about the 93 students who attended the Recovery School for at least 90 days between Fall 2016 and Spring 2021.ii
Demographics and Characteristics
A majority of Recovery School students were male (53%) and Black, Indigenous or People of Color (54%). Few students (5%) were English Language Learners. When comparing the student population to 2021-22 school district numbers, the breakdowns between white and BIPOC students
Students can enroll in the Recovery School at any point during their high school career. Between 27 and 39 students attended the Recovery School during each school year. Figure 2 shows the breakdown by grade level.
Note: Many students attended the Recovery School for more than one year, so the same student may be included in 2016 and 2017, for example. The category, “Other Grades” includes the combined number of all grades with fewer than ten students attending the Recovery School.
Students at the Seattle Recovery School had substantially higher rates of disability and homelessness or transitional living than their peers across the school district. Over one in four had an Individualized Education Plan. Close to one in five students received McKinney-Vento services for students experiencing homelessness or transitional living situations (see Figure 3).
While fewer than half (43%) of students completed residential substance use treatment prior to enrollment, an additional 18% completed treatment when they attended the Recovery School.
What are the Outcomes of Recovery School Students?
While studies show the positive effects of recovery schools, there are currently only 44 recovery high schools across the U.S.v One study of ten substance use treatment programs in three states compared student outcomes of those attending recovery schools with other high schools.
Post treatment, national data about recovery school students’ high school graduation rates were 61% as compared to 39% for other youth. Over one-third (35%) of the recovery school students reported they were abstinent from drugs and alcohol for one year while the sobriety rate for those not attending recovery schools was one in eight (12%).vi
Washington and Seattle Data
In 2013, the Washington Department of Social and Human Services reported that only 25% of young people who received publicly funded substance use disorder treatment graduated from high school. For students with co-occurring mental health disorders, the number dropped to 17%. (see Figure 4)
This report led the King County Behavioral Health and Recovery Division, Department of Community and Human Services and Seattle Public Schools to collaborate on establishing a recovery school as part of the Interagency School system.
From 2016-2021, 70% of students at the Seattle Recovery School have earned, or are working toward, a high school diploma at the school. An additional 17% have transferred to continue schooling elsewhere. (See Figure 5)
Data about student substance use demonstrates the power of the Recovery School. For a student to be in recovery means that they are building a sober lifestyle in and out of school which involves cultivating connections with others, engaging in prosocial activities, and being a presence in the recovery community.
These supports translate into close to three in five students (58%) having more than one year of recovery following initial enrollment in the school.
Read together, the national research and this summary of student outcomes at Seattle’s Recovery School show the effectiveness of the model. Student perspectives on their time at the school help us understand the power of a drug and alcohol-free place to learn:
“The Recovery High School gave me a place to fit in and find comfort in a sober lifestyle that not many people my age were doing. It gave me an environment where my ideas were valued, and my problems met with solutions rather than dismissal.”
References and Notes
i Association of Recovery Schools Website (no date). Retrieved from https://recoveryschools.org/what-is-a-recovery-high-school/
ii Student data was provided by both the Seattle Public Schools Research Office and the Recovery School staff. We report results for students when there are more than ten students in a category. A total of 119 students attended the school during this time.
iii Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (2022). Washington State Report Card. Retrieved from OSPI WA State Report Card
In Seattle, Asian students make up 13%, Black/African American Students make up 15%, Latinx student make up 13%, multiracial students make up 12%, White students make up 46% and other groups make up 1%. 13% of students are English Language Learners
iv Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (2022). Washington State Report Card.
v Association of Recovery Schools Website (no date). Retrieved from https://recoveryschools.org/what-is-a-recovery-high-school/
vi Weimer, D.L., Moberg, P., Falon French, E. E., et al. (2019) Net Benefits of Recovery High Schools: Higher Cost but Increased Sobriety and Increased Probability of High School Graduation. Journal of Mental Health Policy Economics. 22(3): 109–120
vii Kohlenberg, E., Lucenko, B., Mancuso, D., et al. (2013). Behavioral Health Needs and School Success: Youth with Mental Health and Substance Abuse Problems are at Risk for Poor High School Performance. Washington State Department of Social and Health Services. Retrieved from https://www.dshs.wa.gov/sites/default/files/rda/reports/research-11-194.pdf
Suggested Citation: Loeb, H., San Nicolas, O., Wyatt, J. G. & Raya-Carlton, P. (2022). Seattle Recovery School: A Supportive Sober Program for Students. Renton, Recovery School Students Characteristics and Outcomes. WA: Puget Sound Education Service District Strategy, Evaluation and Learning Department and Seattle, WA: King County Department of Community and Human Services, Behavioral Health and Recovery Division.