In high school, finding new ‘people, places and things’

PHOTOS BY GRACE SHALLOW
Featured: Rebecca Bonner, the founder of The Bridge Way School, stands in the school’s sanctuary space, where they hold school ceremonies like graduation. Above: Bonner was inspired to open The Bridge Way School after her daughter entered recovery. 

The Bridge Way School, which opened in 2011, is Pennsylvania’s first recovery high school.

When Rebecca Bonner’s daughter Elly started using opioids as a freshman in high school, Bonner said things got bad really fast.

“Within a matter of months, it was clear she had a pretty serious problem,” Bonner said.

At the end of her freshman year, Elly went to inpatient treatment for about five months, Bonner said. When she got ready to start her sophomore year, Bonner said she was told that “people, places and things” at Elly’s school were key factors that could cause her daughter to resume substance use.

“Like it or not, schools had become kids’ pharmacies of choice,” Bonner said. “It was suggested we shouldn’t send her back to her school, but the alternative was, well, there weren’t a lot.”

“Regardless of a person’s age, or race, ethnicity or substance of choice, the more support the better. We wouldn’t tell an adult with an alcohol problem to go hang out at the bar he got drunk at.”
Devin Reaves, board member for Young People in Recovery
Bonner’s daughter went back to her previous high school and “pretty predictably relapsed twice,” she said. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and National Institute on Drug Abuse published a study that found almost all adolescents returning to their old school reported being offered drugs on their first day back in school.

Bonner researched treatment options for adolescents in the area, but her findings were troubling, she said. The closest recovery high school at that point was in Boston.

“We weren’t ready to ship her off,” she added. “Our family had a lot of healing to do.”

Recovery high schools are schools where the entire student body is in recovery.  Nationally, there are 35 recovery high schools in 15 states that are recognized by the Association of Recovery Schools.

Bonner opened Pennsylvania’s first recovery school, The Bridge Way School, during September 2011. The school serves students in grades ninth through twelfth. Students up to the age of 21 are considered for enrollment at the school, according to its website.

“The success rates we’re able to realize with recovery schools and the engagement and healing that we gain with families is simply invaluable and would flourish in other cities.”
– Sasha McLean, Archway Academy’s executive director

Andrew Finch, a professor at Vanderbilt University, said in Pacific Standard magazine that students who attend recovery high schools have a 30 percent chance of resuming substance use within six months, compared to a 70 percent rate for those who return to a traditional school.

“Regardless of a person’s age, or race, ethnicity or substance of choice, the more support the better,” said Devin Reaves, a board member for Young People in Recovery, a national advocacy organization that helps youth find and maintain their recovery. “This is especially true for a student we might be sending back to their drug dealer at school … We wouldn’t tell an adult with an alcohol problem to go hang out at the bar he got drunk at.”

Students who attend The Bridge Way School must have at least 30 days of sobriety. Most students transition from residential or outpatient treatment as part of a continuum of care.

Bridge Way is modeled after the Archway Academy in Houston. Bonner traveled to the school to shadow its program and meet Sasha McLean, the school’s executive director.

“It was so important to see a successful model and feel it was possible,” Bonner said.

Archway was founded in 2003 and is one of the biggest recovery high schools in the country.

“The success rates we’re able to realize with recovery schools and the engagement and healing that we gain with families is simply invaluable and would flourish in other cities,” said McLean, who is a person in long-term recovery.

“It was beautiful to see Bridge Way develop,” McLean said. “[Bonner] had that drive and if one path didn’t work, she was going to find another way.”

The private support Archway has secured hasn’t been established in Philadelphia yet, but Pennsylvania’s House Bill 1827 — which passed the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in May 2016 — would establish funding for a four-year recovery high school in Philadelphia. This legislation’s funding hasn’t been released yet, Bonner said.

“Funding is the biggest thing,” Reaves said. “Kids get sober at these recovery high schools, but there is a prominent part of society that … believes this student population shouldn’t get more resources than the average student.”

Bridge Way currently has 10 students, and Bonner said the school is at a point where it will either “grow or die.” She added that the school needs more funding and more students to be economically stable.

“With 30 students, we’d be running a surplus budget,” she said. “Even though we are small, we still have an economy scale, and more students is good for the kids, as we can develop a much more powerful and diverse peer community in that sense.”

Ben, one of the first students to graduate from Bridge Way who asked to withhold his last name, said the school helped him get into long-term recovery. Ben said there were 2,500 students at the high school he attended before going to Bridge Way, which made it easy to get overlooked by teachers.

“At Bridge Way, every student is going through the same thing,” Ben said. “It was really easy to open up and it made it feel much closer and comfortable and not intimidating to be yourself.”

“I ran into the mother of a student from our first graduating class and [the student is] still doing well,” Bonner said. “It’s those stories and moments that confirm what we’re doing.”

Bonner said it would be naïve to think that every student that goes to Bridge Way will never use again, but she hopes recovery schools “plant important seeds” for a foundation of sobriety.

“It’s important to recognize we are part of a continuum of care and every kid that comes through a recovery school has a better chance at sustaining long-term recovery and a rewarding life,” Bonner said.

About the author

Jim McCormick

For the past decade, Jim McCormick has worked as an analyst covering the NFL and NBA for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. From 2009 to 2010, he served as a regular panelist for The Washington Post’s online NFL platform, The League. In addition to written content for The League, Jim conceived and produced the interview podcast series, “Behind the Helmet.” From 2011-2012, Jim was the lead high school football editor for ESPN.com. Jim also served as an editor and co-publisher of the nationally distributed BLITZ Magazine from 2006 to 2010 in what was a broad learning experience as a media entrepreneur. Feel free to contact Jim at tua60748@temple.edu.

Add comment