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Ohio Opens Heartland High: First School for Students with Addiction 

Not many states have seen the consequences of the opioid crisis like Ohio. The Buckeye State has more overdose deaths per capita than any other state but West Virginia, and law enforcement and public health officials are doing all they can to reverse the trend. 

Current strategies include better access to FDA-approved medication, more money to local health centers, and now a school for addicted middle and high school students. 

Alyssa is 1 of 5 students at Ohio’s Heartland High, a school in Columbus, Ohio started to specifically help students recovering from drug and alcohol addictions. Most recovery schools like Heartland start with a small core though the school plans to eventually enroll 30 full-time students. It took the school approximately three years of preparation before opening including a setback of its first school year from Fall 2018 to Fall to 2019. Heartland has already started its summer program. 

Alyssa has been abusing drugs and alcohol since she was 13. “Drugs was what I thought was curing my depression and really helping me through those times, which you know, turns out only made it worse,” she says.

After a suicide attempt, Alyssa was sent to Utah for drug and alcohol treatment with other teens trying to recover. Though the experience was led by board-certified addiction professionals and covered impulse control and relapse prevention, Alyssa found it hard to stay away from drugs and alcohol when she returned to school in Ohio. “All these people are attacking me, and saying, ‘Oh you’re lame because you don’t want to go to an after-party for homecoming’ or whatever,” Alyssa says. “And I was like, I don’t want to use drugs. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink anymore. ‘What’s wrong with you, why don’t you want to party, why don’t you want to be a normal high schooler?'”

Shortly after her return to school, Alyssa overdosed on pills. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, most students returning to school from drug and alcohol treatment are offered drugs on the first day. 

Head of Heartland High Paige Stewart recognizes the peer pressure and struggles to get sober at a young age. Stewart says there aren’t as many resources for kids and teens as there are for recovering adults, quickly leading back to relapse. “When you go and you go back to your school of origin, you’re around the same people you used with before, the same people who might be dealing to you,” she said. 

A recovery school’s staff includes substance abuse professionals, mental health counselors, and administrative staff and teachers who have secondary training in educating recovering students. The idea behind recovery schools is like the idea behind rehab and 12-step meetings – people respond better and stay on track when they’re surrounded by others in similar circumstances in a safe environment.

Applicants to Heartland have a range of mental health problems and addiction issues, but the school can only accept so many students at a time. To be eligible for attendance students must complete a preliminary treatment program and be ready to go back to high school to complete a diploma program.

Recovery school staff puts an emphasis on peer support and access to recovery staff and coaches, something students simply can’t get at their normal school. School staff and advisers make up individualized academic plans for every student with online classes. The unique schedules and plans allow students to properly balance treatment and their education. 

Heartland is a private school. Normal full school year tuition costs $20,000 and the summer program costs only $500. Luckily, due to an outpouring of financial support Heartland will host Alyssa and others for summer for free. The school is working to secure more scholarships for full-time students with financial hardships. “I was sharing with a mom the other day, she filed bankruptcy and had to take out a second mortgage on her home just because she’s depleted her savings account because of sending a kid off to treatment,” Stewart says. “So it’s like, we’re going to find a way to get you here.”

Recovery schools are an early experiment with fewer than 50 across the country. The closest recovery school to Heartland and Columbus is the Hope Academy in Indianapolis, leaving a complete absence of student recovery options in Ohio before Heartland’s founding. 

Because recovery schools haven’t been around long, the stats on their effectiveness are limited but early research indicates graduation rates are higher for students at recovery schools compared to students who go from rehab back to their school of origin. 

Heartland teacher Leslie McNabb sees the benefit of the unique format right before her eyes in students like Alyssa and others. “The smaller environment is really important for her, rather than being grouped in with a bunch of kids and maybe getting lost in the shuffle might be overwhelming,” MacNabb says. “And she also voiced that she likes going at her own pace rather than saying, ‘Hey you need to do this right now.’ That’s going to help her be most successful.”

“You put me in a sober environment, and I hear all these sobriety terms and recovery words and that’s what I’m going to want, ya know?” Alyssa says. “That’s what I’m excited to want.”

Heartland opens its full-time student program fall of this year. 


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