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At an innovative high school, students get support battling their addictions while they learn

October 3, 2017 at 6:15 PM EDT
Drug use among teenagers in the U.S. is down, but the mortality rate is rising. As part of our series “America Addicted,” the NewsHour’s Pamela Kirkland visited one so-called recovery school in Indianapolis that is giving new hope to students battling addiction.
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Link to our complete series, America Addicted.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And now to our America Addicted series.

Drug use has been down among teenagers, but mortality is rising. And that is leading many to seek out new options for their children.

The “NewsHour”‘s Pamela Kirkland went to look at how one so-called recovery school in Indianapolis is giving new hope to students battling addiction.

It’s part of our weekly Making the Grade look at education.

FRANCIE WILCOX, Student, Hope Academy: I went from using downers, mixing alcohol and Xanax.

NICK SHIRKEY, Student, Hope Academy: Oxys. Percs.

FRANCIE WILCOX: Then I would use uppers like cocaine.

NICK SHIRKEY: Some meth and some heroin.

FRANCIE WILCOX: I would just use anything I could possibly use.

NICK SHIRKEY: Life just went on that downhill spiral, and I let it take me there.

PAMELA KIRKLAND: Francie Wilcox and Nick Shirkey are two of about 30 students who attend Hope Academy in Indianapolis. All of them have struggled with substance abuse.

WOMAN: Thank you for taking part in today’s circle and your willingness to support the community.

PAMELA KIRKLAND: Twice a week, their day starts here, in a circle modeled after the teachings of Alcoholics Anonymous. Students lay out their goals.

STUDENT: What can life be like when I’m clean?

PAMELA KIRKLAND: Their regrets

STUDENT: Felt bad for all the things that I have done to people.

PAMELA KIRKLAND: And their sobriety dates.

STUDENT: My clean date is July 17.

PAMELA KIRKLAND: Hope Academy is one of nearly 40 recovery schools in the U.S.

When it comes to kicking a drug habit, experts say simply being young is a major hurdle. Only half of U.S. treatment centers even accept teenagers. That’s why recovery schools like these are becoming increasingly popular.

RACHELLE GARDNER, Chief Operating Officer, Hope Academy: I get a call probably once a week from somebody saying, hey, I saw your school, we really want to start a school, how did you start that, can you help us?

PAMELA KIRKLAND: In 2006, Rachelle Gardner started Hope Academy to help students who have fallen behind because of addiction.

RACHELLE GARDNER: Our young are pretty normal kids. They got the same issues. They just so happen to have this disease along with it. And we look at it as a disease, instead of just a behavioral problem.

PAMELA KIRKLAND: Hope is a public charter school, meaning it’s tuition-free, and must take any student who qualifies.

The school is attached to an inpatient treatment facility, and traditional subjects like math, English, and history are offered in small classroom settings, alongside a constant emphasis on recovery.

WOMAN: Think about how drugs really did start affecting your life.

PAMELA KIRKLAND: Students are randomly drug-tested, and attend 12-step meetings. They also meet one a week with Brad Trolson.

BRAD TROLSON, Recovery Coach, Hope Academy: It’s an easy thing to forget that we have control.

PAMELA KIRKLAND: He’s the school’s recovery coach and also in recovery himself. We first met Trolson in June while he was meeting with 17 year-old Francie, who had just relapsed days before at a weekend party.

FRANCIE WILCOX: You just start to get into recovery, and you like literally just sit there and think, like, who am I? What do I even like? If I am not getting high or I’m not with people that I hang out and get high with, like, you just don’t know what to with yourself.

BRAD TROLSON: Our society, our culture is really — it teaches our kids that drug use and alcohol use is really a deeply ingrained part of being a kid. And a lot of our students have fallen prey to that idea, and to such an extent that they really don’t know what the teenage is if it doesn’t include drugs and alcohol.

PAMELA KIRKLAND: Francie says she’s struggled with self-harm and an eating disorder for years. She began drinking in sixth grade because she wanted to feel grown up.

FRANCIE WILCOX: It didn’t progress super fast. It just kind of — I would drink on the weekend, but, eventually, it did start to go into smoking, and pills, and other kind of things.

PAMELA KIRKLAND: Before coming to Hope, Francie entered three separate residential treatment programs.

FRANCIE WILCOX: Addiction literally starts to control your entire life.

MARY ANNE WILCOX, Francie Mother: It was at the point where we would say, I think we’re going to have to get used to the idea that we might be burying our daughter.

PAMELA KIRKLAND: Francie’s mom, Mary Anne Wilcox, says she and her husband felt scared and helpless. From their home in Savannah, Georgia, they made a difficult decision.

MARY ANN WILCOX: My husband suggested maybe we look into this school in Indianapolis, and we could live here for a couple of years, until she gets through high school, and then go back to Georgia, because there was nothing anywhere in the southeastern corner really for us to do to get her services.

PAMELA KIRKLAND: That’s all too common, says Andy Finch of Vanderbilt University. He’s one of the nation’s leading experts on recovery schools.

ANDY FINCH, Vanderbilt University: Many places just don’t have many adolescent options available, and a lot of times, the options that exist might be too costly for a family to afford.

PAMELA KIRKLAND: Finch recently authored a report on the effectiveness of recovery schools vs. traditional high schools for teenagers who have struggled with drug addiction.

He found that nearly 60 percent of students in recovery high schools reported not having relapsed in the sixth months that followed treatment. That compares to just 30 percent of students in regular high schools.

ANDY FINCH: Teenagers who are struggling with addiction are having to face a lot of peer pressure. They struggle sometimes if they’re trying to stop using to find friends who aren’t using, to find adults that know how to handle that and what to do with it.

And, often, the place where they’re either finding drugs or finding friends who are using drugs is in their school.

PAMELA KIRKLAND: Finch also says that many adults in treatment admit to first using drugs while in high school, meaning this age is crucial to combating lifelong addiction.

NICK SHIRKEY: High school is hard in general, but it’s even harder when you have like this extra weight or extra pressure on your shoulders.

PAMELA KIRKLAND: Nick Shirkey spent much of his early childhood in the foster care system, where he says he was abused and neglected. His drug use started at age 12.

NICK SHIRKEY: At birth, I weighed 1 pound, 6 ounces. I was born addicted to methamphetamines. Parents were real bad addicts. They didn’t care. They just wanted their next high.

PAMELA KIRKLAND: Nick tried a treatment facility, but relapsed earlier this year. This is his second attempt at Hope Academy.

BRAD TROLSON: Most of our students, they’re not just substance users. They come with a lot of trauma. They come with a lot of mental and emotional issues that, once they get clean and sober, now those things really start to surface.

PAMELA KIRKLAND: In many ways, 18-year-old Ian Lewis represents Hope Academy at its best. He started using drugs in middle school, moving from marijuana and alcohol to prescription opiates and cocaine.

After two years, Ian graduated in June as co-valedictorian. He is now a freshman studying biology at Indiana-Purdue University in Indianapolis.

IAN LEWIS, Graduate, Hope Academy: If you would’ve asked me two years ago, I probably would’ve told you I didn’t think I was going to college.

But I turned it around after I got into this recovery process.

PAMELA KIRKLAND: But Ian says Hope Academy can only do so much.

IAN LEWIS: It’s not going to save you if you don’t want to be saved. Some of these kids out here, they don’t want to stop using. And that’s when Hope isn’t really effective, because they aren’t using it.

FRANCIE WILCOX: Sometimes, you just forget. You think, well, maybe I can drink, or maybe I can smoke, or maybe, if I go to this party, I can use like a little bit of coke, if it’s, like, recreationally.

PAMELA KIRKLAND: When we visited Francie again in August, she had relapsed for the second time in three months.

FRANCIE WILCOX: It just reminds you that I don’t drink and use like other people do. Like, I have no limits. I have no boundaries. I just — whatever I can do, I do, and that’s just not a right way of thinking.

PAMELA KIRKLAND: But a relapse doesn’t mean the end at Hope.

RACHELLE GARDNER: We can’t be a no-tolerance school. We have to be accepting, because relapse is part of the disease, regardless of how old you are.

PAMELA KIRKLAND: Francie has been assigned more focused recovery classes, where students complete their course work one-on-one with their teachers.

Her mom, Mary Anne Wilcox, says she remains hopeful, but she admits these last few months haven’t been easy.

MARY ANNE WILCOX: I mean, it feels devastating. You know, it’s just — you want so much for the whole thing to be over. But it’s just — it reminds you that it’s not. It’s forever. And it’s something that we will be dealing with forever and she will be dealing with forever.

PAMELA KIRKLAND: As for Francie, she says, despite her setbacks, she can’t imagine life without this school.

Do you worry what might happen if Hope doesn’t work for you?

FRANCIE WILCOX: Yes. I worry a lot. If I had to be in a regular high school, I don’t think I would even be alive.

PAMELA KIRKLAND: There’s been little research into the long-term outcomes for those who attend recovery schools, but, for the students here, they still have hope.

From Indianapolis, I’m Pamela Kirkland for the PBS NewsHour.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s powerful.

Tune in tomorrow night: Could pain be treated without addictive drugs? Our America Addicted series continues with the latest scientific discoveries on pain and how best to treat it.

And online, our newest PBS NewsHour/Marist new poll finds a majority of Americans feel the president has not done enough to combat the opioid crisis.

You can find our analysis and the full results at PBS.org/NewsHour.

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