MADISON, Wis. — Preston Grundy started drinking at 14 to escape from his depression. He soon moved on to marijuana, Xanax, Adderall and cocaine, smoking pot when he woke each day and snorting pills in the bathroom between classes.
The Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, teen went to treatment, but quickly relapsed upon returning to school, where he had constant access to drug dealers.
Now 18, Grundy has been clean for 17 months and will begin college this fall to study social work and chemical dependency counseling. He credits his switch to a recovery school, PEASE Academy in Minneapolis, which he attends with about 60 other teens trying to beat addiction and where he says he wouldn't be able to find drugs if he tried.
"I needed a safer environment. I needed an environment where I could guarantee I wouldn't be offered drugs," Grundy said recently. He said without the school switch, he'd likely be "dead or in jail."
PEASE Academy is one of about 36 recovery high schools nationwide that pair traditional classes with addiction support groups, drug testing and a community of peers committed to recovery. Though such schools have been around since 1979, they have become an increasingly popular option amid the spike in U.S. opioid abuse, with seven new ones planning to open in five states — Florida, Illinois, Colorado, Minnesota and Washington.
"There's something nationally going on with the movement," said Kristen Harper, executive director of the Association of Recovery Schools. "We've got the attention."
Though recovery schools have seen increased demand, their numbers have remained largely static over the past decade, with an average of two opening and two closing each year. And more than half of the 77 U.S. recovery schools that have opened since 1979 have closed, some after only two or three years.
Among the challenges recovery schools face are fluctuating enrollment, uncertain funding and questions about the quality of education they provide. Advocacy groups, legislators and researchers are now working to make them more sustainable.
"The schools are funded in so many different ways that there's uncertainty from year to year," said Vanderbilt University professor Andrew Finch, a board member of the Association of Recovery Schools.
Some recovery schools run primarily on private tuition, while many get per-pupil funding that otherwise would have gone to a student's public school. That money often is only enough to cover the costs of educating students, but not the pricey drug testing or counseling support they receive. And with students coming and going from treatment or their old schools, the per-pupil funding can fluctuate from month to month.
Paul Moberg, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin's Public Health Institute, said the best funding model for such schools draws from sources in education and health care. He said there hasn't been much health insurance funding, but some schools, such as Horizon High School in Madison, are partnering with county human services programs or nonprofits focused on improving mental health.
States such as Minnesota and Massachusetts have also added grant funding for recovery schools. Congress has explored doing the same, but hasn't done so yet.
"As awareness increases, I think there is greater support," said Minnesota Rep. Linda Slocum, who sponsored the creation of the state's annual half-million dollar grant program.
Michael Durschlag, executive director of PEASE Academy, said that grant money "has stopped the bleeding" for recovery schools. But he and Slocum said it could evaporate if a governor or Legislature less invested in the cause takes office.
Proponents say that for recovery schools to flourish, it's important for people to understand that they fill more than an educational need.
"As a society, we're either going to pay now or pay later," said Juli Ferraro, the principal of Serenity High in McKinney, Texas.
She said that without Serenity, many of the 270 students who have graduated over the years "wouldn't have graduated, might be in jail, or dead."
Although those who swear by recovery schools say they're effective because they provide a safe space for students to learn among peers who are also in recovery, some districts don't see the need for them, saying their own campuses are already drug-free. Some also hesitate to send students and the dollars that come with them outside the district, instead opting to provide services within their own schools. But students say school is where they have easy access to dealers or friends who smoke in cars at lunch.
"It's really hard to break out of those patterns," Finch said. "It's really hard to just start hanging out with new friends when these old friends are still there."
Paige Petri, 15, said most of her family uses drugs and that she started smoking pot and getting high on cough medicine two years ago. Now a student at Horizon, she said she expects to graduate in a couple of years and that it likely wouldn't have been possible if not for the Madison school.
"I'm making sober friends," Petri said. "That's a really important part of sobriety for me."
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