Recovery high schools aid students battling addiction, but is there need in Berkshires?


WORCESTER — On a wooden table at the front of Rockdale Recovery High School, principal Susan Strong's office is a long plastic container. It is filled with cigarettes.

Twice a day, students come into Strong's office, pick out a cigarette and go outside for a smoke. Most of the 29 students who attended the high school this year are smokers.

"Well, we're addicts," one student said. "We don't use anymore, and if you took away cigarettes, we wouldn't have much else."

It's a frank self-assessment. But frank self-assessments are a common thread with the students at a recovery high school. Students, according to Strong, cannot enroll in a recovery high school until they commit to recovery. And one can't commit to recovery unless they understand their problems.

A recovery high school is not actually a treatment facility, Strong said. Rather, it is a high school staffed by teachers and officials who are also recovery professionals.

"The good thing about this school," said a student at Rockdale, "is that most of the teachers are recovering addicts. So they know what we're going through."

Amid the growing crisis of opioid addiction across the country, the state has been helping to ramp up treatment facilities for adults. But Strong said there is little to offer younger addicts. A recovery high school bridges a vital gap for teens that have recovered from addiction and left a treatment facility and are now seeking to rebuild their lives, she said.

There are, according to the Massachusetts Department of Health, a total of five recovery high schools in Massachusetts. The closest one to is in Springfield, and some wonder if the model might work in the Berkshires.

Strong, a former director of student services at Berkshire Hills Regional School District and a former principal at Lenox Memorial High School, said while there is money in the present state budget for another recovery high school, there are other parts of the state, including Cape Cod, vying for the funding.

"Gov. [Charlie] Baker put the money in the state budget for another school," she said. "But it hasn't been established where it might be located."

She said she would like to see a school in the Berkshires to serve the entire county.

"I think there's a vital need in the Berkshires," she said. "I don't see this crisis easing anytime soon."

But while opioid addiction is clearly a problem here, Berkshire community leaders wonder whether sufficient need exists at the high school age group for a fully staffed high school.

State Rep. Tricia Farley Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, came away impressed after a recent site visit to the Worcester school with an Eagle reporter.

Still, she remained unconvinced that it was the right approach for the Berkshires.

"I think one of the key factors in any decision we make on this is the need for it," she said.

"That was actually the issue here," said Stephanie Adams, a mathematics teacher at Rockdale. "Many people in this area wondered if we needed such a school. But once it was in place, we discovered there was a great need."

State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, also questioned the need for such a facility in the Berkshires.

"I just think we can use those dollars in a more productive way," he said. "The Worcester school is small, only 30 students. And that's the second largest city in the state. I've spoken with a number of people, and I don't think the numbers are there for Berkshire County."

"I have a hard time getting my head around the depth of the opioid crisis regarding the people we serve," said Jason "Jake" McCandless, superintendent of Pittsfield Public Schools. "I would love to have some kind of metric measuring it.

"At the least, I think it's great that we're having this conversation," he said. "I think it's an important one."

The school offers a rigorous curriculum, Strong said. A majority of the students go on to college. In addition to classes, she said, there are regular 12-step meetings and a parental component is mandatory.

Most of the students Rockdale do not fit what might be said to be the "typical" addict, Strong said. They are suburban kids, athletes, cheerleaders and honor students, all caught up in the raging opioid addiction crisis.

The school itself is small, with a handful of classrooms, some office space, a cafeteria/library and a gym.

There are a total of seven staffers, including four teachers of English, math, science and social studies. Classes are rarely larger than five or six students.

The budget for the Worcester school, said Strong, is $500,000. The state also kicked in another $250,000 for transportation this year, as only a few of the students are from the city of Worcester. Most are from the suburbs.

"It's hard to say if there is anything bad about a school that saves your life," one student said. "Without a school like this, I don't think I'd be around. At all."

Contact Derek Gentile at 413-496-6251.


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