Just over two years ago, Tina Fithian, then a 10th grader at Seneca Valley High School in Germantown, was routinely using the drug LSD and continually getting drunk, leading to discipline problems at home and at school.
"If we pushed, maybe we could get her to go to school one day a week," said her father, Charlie Fithian.
Yesterday the teen-ager with light green eyes and a shy smile proudly received her high school diploma in a ceremony held for seven former drug and alcohol abusers who attended Montgomery County's Phoenix School, a special program that helps students kick their drug habits by providing intense counseling while they attend regular high school classes.
The three-hour outdoor program was an emotional commencement for the students, the largest graduating class in the seven-year history of the rigorous program. Some of the students and parents broke into tears when the graduates told the audience of 150 their stories of drug and alcohol abuse and friends recounted how much the graduates meant to them. Afterward, students unabashedly hugged their parents, who were sobbing.
The graduates and their parents were quick to credit the Phoenix program for improving their lives.
Fithian said she had not used drugs in more than a year and plans to attend Montgomery College and study social work and psychology "so I can work with drug and alcohol addicts."
Her mother Betty said things are different now.
"Until Phoenix, there was a lot of yelling, a lot of conflict," she said. "Now, we not only love her, we really like her."
Gregory Baldwin, 18, a burly, gruff-sounding habitual runaway who wound up in restraints at a psychiatric institute after drinking half a gallon of scotch, has joined the Marines and intends to study auto mechanics.
Cindy Roberts, 18, a small, dark-haired girl, began using drugs at "11 or 12," but said she has now given them up and has a part-time job working for a veterinarian.
Her goal is to become a veterinarian's assistant or interior decorator. "I'm the first person in my family to get a high school diploma," she said.
And Steve Schwab, 17, who has spent the last seven months in the Phoenix School, will be attending Frostburg State College in Frostburg.
"I have mixed feelings about graduating because I can remember the days when I couldn't get out of bed," he said. "But I'm sad to be leaving my support system behind."
Dr. Richard Towers, director of interagency, alternative and supplementary programs for the Montgomery school system, said Montgomery is one of the few school systems in the country that runs its own treatment program for teen-age addicts.
The Phoenix program costs Montgomery County about $6,000 a pupil per year, slightly more than the average per-pupil cost of $4,600 a year, he said.
About 200 students have enrolled in the program since it began, and about 19 have graduated. Most of the others have returned to their regular high schools once they no longer used drugs or alcohol, officials said.
Students in the program are required to take frequent urinalysis tests to confirm that they are not taking drugs.
The Phoenix School relies on students applying peer pressure on newcomers to stop taking drugs and involves parents in counseling sessions, said Brian Berthiaume, the coordinator for the school, which had 42 students on two campuses this year.
Because students spend all day at the Phoenix School and return home in the afternoon, parents are an important part of the program.
"We empower parents to take charge of their child's life," Berthiaume said. "If I don't have parents in control, then I can't do anything for the kids."
After the congratulations were finished, Phoenix officials cautioned the graduates that they must still be careful not to slip and return to drugs or alcohol.
"I feel good about the kids leaving," said Sally Eller, a staff member. "I worry about [one student] because he's been with us such a short time. I worry about Greg because he will have pressure in the Marines to drink. But they know how and where to get help. They know what denial is."