At 10:30 on Monday morning, it’s check-in time at P.E.A.S.E. (Peers Enjoying A Sober Education) Academy in Minneapolis.
A group of some 29 students, teachers, staff and administrators gathered in a large, sunny room. Some students slumped in their chairs, some snuggled and talked, others sat still, alone and quiet. Staff mixed in with the students, ready to participate: This weekly check-in is an opportunity to take the group’s temperature, to start the week off on the right foot.
Monday’s check-in instructions?
“Say your recovery date, your highs and lows, and your hidden talent,” said Michael Durchslag, P.E.A.S.E. Academy director, a cheerfully intense bespectacled man with close-cropped hair, a friendly smile and a pink tie. Each member of the group took their turn checking in, most rattling off sobriety dates, some as fresh and delicate as 3 months old. They shared highs, like, “I got a new job” (this earned a round of applause), and lows, like, “I’m recovering from a bad cold.” A few revealed secret talents, including, mysteriously, “I can hear colors.”
Versions of this scene have been repeating themselves at P.E.A.S.E. Academy for nearly 30 years. As the oldest recovery school in the United States, the scrappy school — and its leader, Durchslag — hold a distinct position: They have an inside understanding of the history of the recovery school movement and a rightful concern about its future.
An abstinence-based recovery program, P.E.A.S.E. grew out of what its founders saw as a need for a high-quality, chemical-free educational opportunity for high-school students with substance use disorder.
These days, despite record rates of drug addiction in the United States, the school’s enrollment is lower than it has been in recent years, with just 42 students between 9th and 12th grade.
“There have been times when we’ve had as many as 60 kids enrolled here,” explained Durchslag, who also serves as a board member of the Association of Recovery Schools. After the check-in, he settled in a table in his small, shared office. Students and staff scuttled the halls, heading to class. Durschlag continued: “It’s not just P.E.A.S.E. that’s seeing a drop. Nationally, there’s been a general downward trend in enrollment in recovery schools.”
Minnesota’s recovery schools have certainly seen their ups and downs. There were once 13 recovery high schools in the state; today there are six, up from a low of four two years ago. P.E.A.S.E. is the largest program in Minnesota. Nationally, there are 40 recovery high schools, Durchslag said: “Most states don’t have any recovery schools. The Association of Recovery Schools has made continued efforts to try to get more open.”
What accounts for this decline in schools emphasizing sobriety and chemical abstinence? Durchslag isn’t certain, but there’s no doubt he’s given the issue some serious thought.
“Research says that numbers-wise, fewer adolescents are using chemicals,” he said. “But that still doesn’t account for why we are seeing a national downward trend.”
Even if fewer teens are using drugs than in the past, Durchslag reasoned, there are still plenty of adolescents who struggle with addiction. The national shortage of youth treatment programs attests to the fact that there is a clear market for programs designed to serve addicted kids.
“The discrepancy between the number of people in the United States who have been diagnosed with substance use disorder and the number of people who are able to access the services they need is huge, so it really shouldn’t account for any kind of downward trend in our schools.”
Traci Bowermaster, lead teacher at Insight Recovery School in White Bear Lake, said that there was a point when Minnesota may have had too many recovery schools. Some of those programs did not have the sound footing needed to survive, so their decline was likely part of a natural weeding process.