When teenagers with substance abuse problems get out of rehab and return to school, studies show that it’s likely that their peers will offer them drugs within the very first hour. That makes staying clean — or staying in school — difficult. Teens with drug and alcohol problems have a sky-high drop-out rate.
Public health officials say what young people need after rehab is a fresh start at a school focused on their needs and peers with the same goal to stay sober.
Seattle Public Schools is creating a Recovery School for students who are trying to stay clean after drug and alcohol treatment. It's in a small, unused district building in a residential neighborhood on Queen Anne, far from any other high schools.
Seattle’s new Recovery School already has two students enrolled, including a sophomore we’ll call Daniel.
He has a red hoodie and a shy smile.
Daniel and the other Recovery School students are currently doing their classwork in one room at another Interagency site. Daniel said he’s happy with the program and the teachers.
"They help you with school more compared to my last school. They’re more supportive. There’s more one-on-one tutoring and stuff. They call your parents to make sure you’re at school," Daniel said.
He said he’s focused on his goals right now. "I just want to graduate early, 17, which I’m on my way to."
And he’s chosen a career: "A dentist. Because you make bank."
Daniel says what would make Recovery School better is more students, so he has more people to talk to. The school is slated to open in its new home in February with about 10 students. It’s expected to grow to as many as 80 students over time.
The school is a partnership between Interagency Academy, the district's network of 10 small alternative high schools for students who have had a hard time succeeding in traditional high schools, King County Mental Health, Chemical Abuse and Dependency Services and Navos Mental Health Solutions.
Seattle Public Schools sold Queen Anne High School decades ago. It’s now high-end condos. But the district still owns the school’s gymnasium building across the street and is renovating the property to house the Recovery School.
On a recent afternoon, Interagency Academy Vice Principal Melinda Leonard showed Daniel and the school's first two teachers around the construction site.
The gym part of the building remains, but the district has turned the lobby space and former locker rooms and offices into two floors of classrooms, a computer lab and meeting rooms. Boarded-up windows have been filled with glass again, and December sunlight floods the hallways.
Leonard imagines the pace of a typical Recovery School day.
"So it’s mid-morning at our school – about nine – we’ve finished breakfast and our recovery support hour for the day and we come down to the classroom to start the academic part of the day."
But the idea of turning this old gymnasium into a high school for kids who’ve been through drug and alcohol treatment is causing friction in the neighborhood.
Parents whose children attend John Hay Elementary School across the street and nearby Queen Anne Elementary say this is no place for the Recovery School.
"When I heard it was for kids committed to their sobriety, I was shocked," said Christina Economou, whose 6-year-old goes to John Hay. She says the district should have consulted the community before planning the Recovery School location.
Economou and a group of fellow parents have collected about 600 signatures on a petition demanding that the district cancel its plans to put the school in the former Queen Anne High gym.
"I’m supportive of these students, of these programs, but it just should not be 25 feet away from any elementary schools," Economou said, calling the location "a recipe for possible disaster." She pointed to online descriptions of the students Interagency Academy serves – kids with criminal records or gang affiliations, and kids expelled from other schools.
She said she’s worried that the Recovery School students will be drug dealers, or worse, that it could lead to a school shooting at her son’s elementary school. "Every day when I walk my child to school I think of the parents in other parts of the country who’ve had to deal with tragedy. I’m not saying they are going to turn out to have such severe mental illness, but it is a thought of ours. It’s scary."
Economou said the district has turned a deaf ear to their complaints so far. She said she and other parents are considering pulling their children from Seattle Public Schools if the district doesn’t change course. Economou said parents in her group are considering the Bellevue School District, or private school. Or they may take other action, like a lawsuit, or protesting outside the new Recovery School.
"I hope the district comes to their senses. That they hear parents and neighbors and community leaders and just stop construction on this project, find another location. Build a portable, put it on another Interagency site, not across from an elementary school," Economou said.
But according to Leonard, the grounds of another high school is the opposite of where a Recovery School needs to be.
"Really in many ways our effort to find a place for the recovery school not near other teenagers – like not spare rooms in conventional high school – is to protect them from others," Leonard said.
Leonard said she’s been taken aback by the opposition to the school. "I was a little baffled, and a little intrigued, because I see this group of students as a group who don’t present a threat to anyone," Leonard said. "I know that when people don’t have all their questions answered, all of us can go to a place of fear and worry."
Leonard said while some opponents are worried that Interagency serves students who’ve committed violent crimes, she said that’s just in some of its specialized programs. Other programs serve groups like teen moms or students just at risk of dropping out.
In a recent district response to 60 questions from concerned community members, the district wrote that because students at the Recovery School are focused on staying sober, it’s likely to be even safer than a traditional high school.
The district noted that other Interagency programs share buildings with preschools.
As for sophomore Daniel, he hadn’t heard of the controversy. He said he can’t imagine there being any problems, though, and that it could be fun for Recovery School kids to volunteer across the street, like reading to the elementary students.
“I like little kids. I have, like, cousins and stuff. And I've read to them before," Daniel said.
The principals of John Hay and Queen Anne Elementary Schools have both written letters in support of the new school.
And other Queen Anne parents and neighbors say they fully support the location for the Recovery School.
They’ve started a counter-petition in favor of the school.
The district is holding a community meeting about the Recovery School at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday at John Hay Elementary School.