Very Few Schools Across The Country Can Help Young People With Addiction Graduate : NPR Ed An estimated 1.3 million teens struggle with substance use disorders. For teenagers in Wisconsin, there is only one high school that treats students' addiction while they earn a diploma.

Kids Struggling With Addiction Need School, Too, But There Are Few Options

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Across the country, an estimated 1.3 million teenagers between the ages of 12 and 17 struggle with substance use disorders. That's about 1 in every 12. For teens in Wisconsin, there is exactly one high school where students can be treated for substance abuse while they earn a diploma. Rachel Morello from member station WUWM visited that school and brings us this story.

RACHEL MORELLO, BYLINE: Horizon High School is in a strip mall, down the street from Target and Pick 'n Save on the outskirts of Madison.



MORELLO: It's been open 12 years. More than 150 kids have passed through the doors at one point or another. Des, who just turned 15, is finishing her first year here.

DES: At the beginning when, like, I first got introduced to the idea of coming here, I thought it was going to be, like, intense. And I didn't really like that idea.

MORELLO: Des is one of just 15 students at the school.

DES: But it's not bad 'cause it's a small, comfortable environment.

MORELLO: She and her peers are here because they're struggling, working through alcohol or drug abuse and, in many cases, mental health issues. Des started drinking back in middle school. Her mom was in and out of jail on drug charges, which meant Des moved a lot between guardians, neighborhoods and schools. We're not using her last name to protect her privacy. Des says constant uprooting led her to depression and anxiety. And she turned to alcohol, which quickly became an addiction. After rehab and a halfway house, she says she hopes Horizon is her last stop in recovery because here, she gets a kind of support she didn't see at other schools.

DES: I got in-school suspensions all the time. I was in the office all the time. They didn't really work with my mental crap.

MORELLO: Didn't really feel like you were in school?

DES: Yep, I was in a room.

MORELLO: Horizon carves out time for therapy every day. Certified counselors lead group and individual sessions to talk mental health, social life, family, anything going on in the kids' lives that could pull them back into substance abuse.

TRACI GOLL: Who has lunch money today? Yay, Ben.

MORELLO: It's Traci Goll's job to get to know each of these students and make sure they're successful in the program. She's the director at Horizon.

Do you feel like the mom kind of in some of these situations?

GOLL: Oh, yeah. They call me Mom. I had one call me Grandma. That really ticked me off.

MORELLO: (Laughter).

Goll says students in recovery have extra needs, so it takes extra attention and resources to get them through school.

GOLL: All of our students have a random UA once a week.

MORELLO: UA is a drug...

GOLL: A drug test, yep.


GOLL: So they pee in a cup. Not my favorite part of the job, but kind of goes with the territory.

OK, I need UAs today from Lili, Aaryn, Paige...

MORELLO: Research shows kids in recovery schools like Horizon have better sobriety levels and better grades than students with addictions who remain in regular class settings. But those extras, in addition to all the regular stuff, costs money, something Horizon doesn't have enough of. When students are referred here, the money to educate them comes from their home district. But that amount only covers about a quarter of the cost it takes to get each kid through. For Traci Goll, that means having to cobble things together for her students, sometimes through fundraising or donations.

GOLL: Every year at this job, I never know what's going to happen next year. I mean, we have lots of bills. And if we don't have funds coming in, how in the world are we going to keep this going?

MORELLO: Goll is from the area, so she knows a lot of folks who can help out. The day I visited, she was thrilled to get a text from her friend, who's moving out of town and offered the school furniture.

GOLL: Oh, look at these fun chairs.

MORELLO: I have never seen someone so excited over chairs.

GOLL: Look at that.

MORELLO: Horizon has attracted attention at the state level. As part of their efforts to curb opioid and other drug related deaths, Wisconsin lawmakers just approved funding for a state-run recovery school. Just like Horizon, it will educate up to 15 students. That might not sound like a lot right now. But the idea is to scale up, to replicate what works out of this pilot program. Democrat Christine Sinicki supported the project. She represents the southern suburbs of Milwaukee, an area with one of the highest rates of overdose deaths in the state.

CHRISTINE SINICKI: It's gotten to the level of being a public health crisis, and we're losing too many young people. And we need to really start looking at creative ways to work with children who are addicted.

MORELLO: The folks at Horizon like the idea of a new state school, knowing that more than just their students need the help.

For NPR News, I'm Rachel Morello in Madison.


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