Special Report: RI’s First Recovery High School

Written by The Providence Center | May 14, 2015

Posted: Thursday, May 14, 2015

Part 1 – Changing how we support teens in recovery

Instead of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, why not try a different approach?

When that question is posed at The Providence Center, groundbreaking recovery programs are created, including Anchor Learning Academy, Rhode Island’s first—and, much needed—recovery high school.

In Rhode Island, teen drug and alcohol use surpasses the national average: 15 percent of teens ages 12-17 reported using illicit drugs in the past month, compared to the nationwide rate of 9.2 percent according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration’s 2013 survey.

“Many teenagers are successful in addiction treatment programs,” said Elizabeth Conley, director of Anchor Learning Academy. “But, the challenge to stay sober when they return to high school is hard to overcome.”

Faced with social pressures and a lack of recovery supports within school, relapse is inevitable. Ninety-three percent of students report being offered drugs on their first day back to school following substance abuse treatment. Within 90 days of returning to school, 50 percent of students resume using at levels at or above where they were before treatment.

The Providence Center proposed a different approach. Instead of sending high school students back to the place where triggers and pressures to use exist, why not build a safe, sober learning environment that would support them both academically and in their recovery?

In 2012, Anchor Learning Academy became one of 35 recovery high schools in the U.S. dedicated to students returning to high school following addiction treatment. The Rhode Island Department of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education approved the school as a pilot project. Tuition is covered by the per pupil allocation provided by school districts. Most students attend the school for a semester or more before attaining the recovery skills and academic readiness that will ensure a safe and successful transition back to their district school or help them graduate.

Without intervention and the right supports, teen alcohol and drug use could result in a host of costly, negative outcomes—some even fatal. Poor academic performance, lower graduation rates, involvement with the juvenile justice system and the financial burden of years of treatment programs cast dark clouds on the futures of teens who engage in such risky behaviors. Recovery high schools present a solution. The national recovery school model has shown increases in graduation rates for at-risk students and improved academic achievement, in addition to being cost-effective in both the long and short-term.

“Anchor Learning Academy finally gives students the resources and support to build a brighter future and a strong foundation for long-term recovery,” Conley said. “These students deserve a place that supports their recovery, a way to break the cycle of teen substance use that has plagued our educational system for so many years.”

Conley and her team, a combination of academic instructors and recovery support staff, develop a plan aimed at two important goals: Gain the academic credits required to graduate or advance and develop the skills necessary to maintain recovery. Chris Mahon coordinates educational programming and serves as a liaison between Anchor Learning Academy and parents, teachers and community partners. Michael Esposito, LMHC, leads the implementation of clinical services and recovery supports.

The curriculum emphasizes the key skills students need to become informed decision makers and contributing members of the local community and the global society—critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, creativity. Because students hail from a mix of school districts with varying credit needs, the Common Core-based academic program is tailored to each student, with learning conducted through a blend of traditional classroom instruction and online learning.


“Many of our students are behind academically, either because they have had lengthy absences due to being in a residential treatment program or because their drug use contributed to truancy,” Mahon explained. The school works diligently with each student’s district to develop a credit recovery plan that will satisfy district requirements.

Anchor Learning Academy’s 20-student capacity creates the ideal environment where students can address the social-emotional factors that contribute to their substance abuse while focusing on academics. Clinical services provide tools for students to maintain recovery, including daily interventions to prevent relapse, one-on-one counseling sessions, recovery groups and accessing resources that support recovery outside of school. Twice-daily “check-ins” assess each student’s readiness for the school day then later address issues the student might encounter after school that could put their recovery at risk. Drug testing ensures accountability.

A recovery high school’s small size and direct access to supports offers a real advantage for students juggling academics and recovery. Prior to attending Anchor Learning Academy, 100 percent of students used drugs or alcohol multiple times per week. But here, staff is attentive to even the most subtle behavior changes that signal a potential relapse. More than 70 percent of the time, Anchor Learning Academy’s staff spots behaviors like anxiety or avoidance and has an opportunity to intervene before the relapse occurs.

After two years in operation, Anchor Learning Academy is already demonstrating an impact on academic performance and the students’ recovery. Statistics from the current school year include:

  • After 30 days at Anchor Learning Academy, the student average attendance rate was 80 percent, compared to 53 percent at the sending district.
  • After one year, the average attendance rate was 87 percent, compared to 65 percent at the sending district.
  • 93 percent of students increased their grade point averages while at Anchor Learning Academy, by an average of one grade point over one year.

“The increases in our attendance rates and grades show that students are engaged in learning and in their recovery,” Conley said. “They recognize the connection and are seeing the opportunities that exist for them if they make positive changes in their lives.”

Next: Part 2 of the Special Report targets Anchor Learning Academy's unique in-school recovery services

Anchor Learning Academy is located at 520 Hope Street in Providence. For more information on making a referral to Anchor Learning Academy, please contact Elizabeth Conley at 401-432-7326 or econley@provctr.org.