Kevin Burnes thinks his school saved his life. He arrived there at 14 years old, just out of rehab, and says it was exactly what he needed: a place where kids with drug and alcohol problems could stay on a path of recovery as they worked toward high school graduation.
“I have no question that it changed the course of everything I was doing,” said Burnes, now a music teacher and musician.
The school that made the difference was Phoenix, in Montgomery County, believed to have been the first of its kind in the country. It opened in 1979 amid concerns about student drug use and continued for decades before fizzling to an end four years ago at a time of flux for alternative programs.
Now the idea may be making a comeback, with school leaders looking into the possibility of a new “recovery” school program as the nation’s opioid epidemic draws wide attention. While some in Montgomery pose questions about cost and effectiveness, others say the program worked well years ago and could help those who struggle with addiction today.
“I believe there is a need out there, and I believe we certainly could have enough students involved in this to make it successful,” said county school board member Rebecca Smondrowski, chair of a committee examining the issue in the 159,000-student district, Maryland’s largest.
With two campuses at its height, Phoenix provided academics along with group counseling, random drug testing, 12-step programs, peer support and outdoor experiential learning. Parental involvement was required, and enrollment was small, about 50 a year, split between Gaithersburg and Silver Spring.
“There were hundreds of kids that I know who went through the program and turned their lives around,” said Mike Bucci, a Phoenix teacher for 20 years.
Nearly four decades after Phoenix opened, there are 38 recovery high schools across the country, said Andy Finch, a Vanderbilt University researcher. Another five or six are expected to open in the next year, he said, and a string of other proposals are in early stages, including one for a D.C. charter school.
Driving the enthusiasm, Finch said, are the increasing awareness of addiction, the surge in opioid-related deaths and a recent documentary that spotlights recovery schools called “Generation Found.”
“I can’t remember a time when there’s been so much interest in opening schools,” he said.
In Montgomery, the idea came in response to growing concerns about substance abuse and addiction. School officials recently outlined options for a recovery school, including one for a regional program that would draw students from other school systems, but no decision has been made about taking on the project.
Montgomery’s school board is expected to discuss the issue in the next few months.
“We just want the school back — it never should have closed,” said Patty Winters, leader of a group called Phoenix Rising: Maryland Recovery School Advocates, which is pushing for a modern version of the old school.
Gov. Larry Hogan (R) declared a state of emergency in Maryland related to the opioid crisis, committing an additional $50 million over five years to beef up enforcement, prevention and treatment.
In Montgomery, opioid-related deaths were up 40 percent in 2016 from a year earlier among those 18 and older, county officials say.
Though K-12 students have not been part of that spike in deaths, drug-related visits to Montgomery emergency rooms are up for youth ages 6 to 18 — from 411 in 2013 to 493 in 2015, an increase of 20 percent, said Raymond Crowel, chief of behavioral health and crisis services for Montgomery County.
“I would argue that at least some of that is related to the increase in opiate use,” he said.
Crowel said the idea of a new school raises questions about which students would be admitted, how long they would stay and what the academic setting would be like.
He says more rigorous research is needed on recovery schools and wonders whether they are the most cost-effective answer or if interventions in regular high schools might be a better option.
“The devil is in the details,” he said.
Nationally, many recovery schools enroll 20 to 45 students, with an average cost of $12,000 to $20,000 per pupil, said Sasha McLean, board chair of the Association of Recovery Schools and executive director of Archway Academy in Houston.
When Phoenix started, Brian Berthiaume, founding program coordinator, said there was no model for what worked best. The school grew more successful as it added random drug testing and 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, he said. Many students completed the program and graduated.
But over the years, support faltered for the original model, said Berthiaume. Staff left, feeling it had lost its focus, according to Bucci, the longtime teacher. Phoenix was eventually consolidated with other alternative programs and just three students were enrolled when it closed, district officials said.
It’s important for a new school to have steady backers from school boards and top administrators, Berthiaume said: “Hopefully this time it’ll have more consistent support at higher levels.”
Research has begun to show promising outcomes for students in treatment who then attend recovery schools, said Finch, of Vanderbilt. He and three researchers from other universities, in a joint project, found relapse rates significantly lower for students attending recovery schools, he said.
While no scholarly analysis was done of Phoenix’s effectiveness, Finch said, it appears to have succeeded.
“In education, you don’t find programs that last so long if they’re not working, if they’re not doing something good,” he said.
Former students recall the importance of the school’s recovery-minded community, apart from their old friends and bad habits. At Phoenix, other teenagers were trying to stay clean; they often remained at Phoenix a year or two, then returned to their high schools or graduated.
Henry Bockman, 48, who attended in the mid-1980s and is now a business owner in the county, says he recalls team-building during outdoor trips — rock climbing, caving, rafting — Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, support from other teenagers and teachers who took the time to really know students.
“It took you out of a negative element and put you into a positive element,” he said. “It gave you better coping mechanisms so everything didn’t get bottled up.”
Lindsay Maines, 42, who graduated in 1992 and is now a mom of four, said she was drinking, taking acid and “just melting down” before she landed at Phoenix in Gaithersburg at age 15.
“It was definitely scary,” she said. “But it had so much structure and there was no avoiding the issues we had all been avoiding.”
Looking back, she said, “it helped to have a peer group that was consistently trying to make the right choices and stay sober.”
Maines said she would not have graduated without Phoenix. Not everyone who attended Phoenix thrived, she said, but she believes the numbers are better than they would have been without the recovery school. “Phoenix took these kids at really critical points and said there are other choices,” she said.
Kevin Burnes, 46, was among those who made good. He spent 10th and 11th grades at Phoenix, and said it gave him — and his family — a way through what had become a rough situation.
He had been drinking, smoking a lot of pot and doing some PCP, popular at the time. His parents sent him to rehab and then insisted on Phoenix as a condition of coming home. Both parents were involved in the school.
“A singleness of purpose, to me, was why the school was successful,” he said. “Without that environment, I probably would have gone back to what I was doing.”