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Phoenix Academy, Maryland’s only recovery high school, begins its first school year

Brenna Edmonds, a math and science teacher at Phoenix Recovery Academy, talks with a student in the school's meditation room.
Brenna Edmonds, a math and science teacher at Phoenix Recovery Academy, talks with a student in the school's meditation room. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Being the parent of someone with substance use disorder can feel like being a soldier in a multi-front war. The weapons in April’s arsenal included therapists, psychiatrists and other expert help. “I don’t think there’s an avenue we didn’t explore,” she said. Maybe church would have come next.

It started when the boy began to self harm at age 12. April, an addiction counselor, saw it as a precursor to substances. Sure enough, within three years he had overdosed three times on pills — a mix of Benadryl and hallucinogens. Still, she couldn’t find an inpatient rehab center in Maryland that would accept him. The Baltimore Sun is not naming April’s son or using their last names to protect his anonymity.

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Then she saw a notice on Facebook that Phoenix Recovery Academy, a school for teens recovering from substance use disorder, would be opening soon in Frederick. She called up Sean Nicholson, her friend and the school’s director of development.

“I need to get my son in there.”

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In August, her child became one of the first students to walk inside the renovated brick building, Maryland’s only recovery high school. There are three students enrolled now; its founder envisions it staying small, around 30 or 40 kids. Advocates say such programs provide vital support to newly sober young people, and much needed “positive peer pressure” to help them stay on track in a society that’s laden with triggers. What’s more, they say, early intervention can prevent years of active addiction.

The initial idea to start a recovery high school in Frederick came from John Edmonds, who runs a printing company in Frederick and has been sober 31 years. He was just 17 when a judge gave him two options: go to jail for selling marijuana and LSD at his high school in Montgomery County, or attend a recovery high school in Gaithersburg. Even for a self-described out-of-control, drug-addicted teenager, it wasn’t a difficult choice.

What he found there surprised him. Classes were small. Edmonds went on sober hiking and ski trips. Teachers, many of them sober, were well-versed in recovery lingo. For the first time, he saw it was possible to get through life sober without wanting to jump out of his own skin. He could even have fun.

It’s that experience Edmonds and his colleagues hope to offer teens at Phoenix Recovery Academy, named in homage to the now-defunct school he attended years ago in Gaithersburg. The Association of Recovery Schools, a nonprofit organization that counts more than 40 institutions among its ranks, provided guidance and support to Edmonds and his team before they opened up the school this year.

Already, Phoenix Recovery Academy has won the support of local organizations like the Ausherman Family Foundation, which owns the building where it’s located as well as the neighboring YMCA. For parents who can’t afford the $13,000 yearly tuition, Frederick-based Delaplaine Foundation has donated money towards a scholarship fund.

While other schools in Maryland are starting their school year virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic, it was important to the Phoenix founders to offer in-person instruction. “Teens that are struggling from alcohol and drug abuse disorders are at greater risk of being at home by themselves,” Edmonds said. The tiny class size makes it easier to social distance indoors.

Experts warn overdose deaths may rise amid the pandemic. “I think we’re really in the middle of a mental health crisis,” says Jonathan Saltzburg, executive director of college and career services at Caron Treatment Centers in Pennsylvania.

Around 863,000 adolescents needed substance abuse treatment in 2018, according to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics. But teens under 18 are “very much under-served” when it comes to treatment options, says Marcello La Rocca, cofounder of Sandstone Care. His organization offers outpatient treatment in Rockville to teens 13-18 and is in the process of opening a residential facility in Crownsville. Recovery schools like the one in Frederick will help kids readjust to life outside its confines, he says, helping bridging the gap in the “continuum of care."

Students don’t necessarily need to attend recovery high school until graduation, says Saltzburg. Just a few months in a supportive, drug-free environment can allow them time to develop the coping mechanisms they need to lay the foundation for long term sobriety, he says.

The idea of recovery high school is catching on in mainstream culture. A new series on MTV, “16 and Recovering” explores the lives of sober teens at a school in Beverly, Massachusetts, where hugs are more commonplace than detention and drug tests are doled out like pop quizzes. (In a statement after the show premiered, The Association of Recovery Schools discouraged participants from participating in reality shows, saying students might not understand the long-term implications and ‘burdens of celebrity’ that come with it.)

Rolling admissions policies at Phoenix mean that students can start or withdraw throughout the year depending on their needs. Kids may be put in classes with students outside of their age group or grade. A credit recovery program can help students who failed or stopped attending classes get back on track.“All students that get here are behind, somehow, in credits,” said Edmonds.

Addiction is sometimes called the family illness, and Phoenix staff encourage parents or guardians to participate in a student’s recovery. His own daughter, Brenna, teaches math and science at the school. For Edmonds, whose father and grandfather died of alcoholism, it’s proof that it’s possible to break the cycle of addiction in families.

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April cried when she came to tour the school this summer. Affirmations written on paper flames said “Take it one day at a time." Someone had fastened them to the wall by a white paper phoenix, the mythical bird that rises from the ashes. Nearby, a meditation room offers a place for quiet reflection. Students can sit on bean bags during their morning check-in, where they talk with staff about whatever problems are going on in their lives before heading off to class.

A framed motivational saying on a bookshelf in the library at Phoenix Recovery Academy, a new recovery high school located in Frederick.
A framed motivational saying on a bookshelf in the library at Phoenix Recovery Academy, a new recovery high school located in Frederick. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Phoenix founders say their program isn’t for everyone. The school espouses abstinence-based recovery and programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, and does not accept students on medication assisted treatments like methadone. Perhaps most importantly, enrollees need to want to get sober, even if they’re not happy about it.

“I tell this to parents and students all the time. I say, ‘I do not anticipate that you’re going to walk in this front door doing cartwheels and be super excited to be here,'” said Sara Varga, the head of the school and a licensed clinical social worker. "And if you are, then there’s something really wrong.’” Even a grudging willingness can be a foundation for long-term recovery, she says.

Random drug testing happens multiple times a week. Relapse isn’t necessarily grounds for expulsion — depending on how students handle it, says Varga. Faculty encourage students to be honest about drug use when it happens. “It’s going to look really different if they come to us to say, ‘Hey, look, this is going to show positive on my test. This is what’s going on; this is what happened. I’m feeling really awful about this; I need some help,’” she said. “We want them to take accountability for their own recovery.”

Math, these days, just happens to be the favorite class of April’s son.

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For her son, the change has been dramatic, she says. He used to hate going to school. Now, she says, he doesn’t want to miss a day. The hours once spent playing video games, morose in his bedroom have been replaced by laughter with his family. The light is back in his eyes. She has her kid back.

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