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Heartland High: Ohio's First School For Students With Addiction

Alyssa, left, discusses her academic record with teacher Leslie MacNabb.

A high school in Columbus welcomed its first set of unique students this month. They have all struggled with addiction to drugs or alcohol. Heartland High School is the state’s first recovery school.

“I have to take 15 hours of one of these classes.”

Bouncing on a purple exercise ball, Alyssa talks to her new teacher about what classes she needs to take to graduate. 

“There’s a psychology 1 as an elective, I would take that but I already took psychology and sociology. And I feel like heartland in general is a psychology class,”

Alyssa is one of five students at Heartland High, a recovery school for students who have struggled with substance abuse. Most recovery schools start off small, with about 5-15 kids.

We’re not using Alyssa’s last name to protect her privacy. She started using drugs and drinking when she was 13.

“Drugs was what I thought was curing my depression and really helping me through those times, which ya know, turns out only made it worse.”

After a suicide attempt, Alyssa went to Utah for a treatment program. She learned coping mechanisms alongside other teens who were trying to be sober. But when she came back to Ohio and started school, peer pressure made it hard to remember what she learned.

“All these people are attacking me, and saying ‘Oh you’re lame because you don’t want to go to an after party for homecoming or whatever.’ And I was like, ‘I don’t want to use drugs. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink anymore.’ ‘What’s wrong with you, why don’t you want to party, why don’t you want to be a normal high schooler?’”

Alyssa relapsed, she overdosed on pills.

Heartland High School holds classes in a room at Broad Street Presbyterian.

Her experience is common, says the head of Heartland, Doctor Paige Stewart.

“Because when you go and you go back to your school of origin, ya know you’re around the same people you used with before, the same people who might be dealing to ya. You’re around the same stressors. And now you have extra stressors, because now you’re that kid who comes back to school that’s been to rehab, so there’s stigma there.”

The National Institute on Drug Abuse found that nearly all students returning to their old schools after treatment reported being offered drugs on the first day. Stewart says peer support and access to a recovery coach are vital parts of Heartland’s success.

“There’s a lot of supports out there for adults who are in recovery, but there’s not as much for kids. And so the wonderful thing about recovery high schools and what the research is showing is now these parents and these children have support.”

Heartland is one of fewer than 50 recovery schools across the country. Research – which is limited - has found that graduation rates are higher for students with substance abuse issues who attend a recovery school than those who don’t.

While students come to school every day, classes at Heartland are online. Students get individualized academic plans which helps them make up for time spent in treatment. Teacher Leslie McNabb says students like Alyssa really benefit from that.

“The smaller environment is really important for her, rather than being grouped in with a bunch of kids and maybe getting lost in the shuffle might be overwhelming. And she also voiced that she likes going at her own pace rather than saying, hey you need to do this right now. That’s going to help her be most successful.”

From left to right, Paige Stewart, Alyssa and Jennifer Belemu inside the Heartland classroom.

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Since Heartland is a private school, that success comes at a price. The regular school year tuition costs $20,000 the summer program $500. Paige Stewart says Heartland has received enough financial support to offer this summer’s programming free.

“I was sharing with a mom the other day, she filed bankruptcy and had to take out a second mortgage on her home just because she’s depleted her savings account because of sending a kid off to treatment. And so it’s like, we’re going to find a way to get you here.”

Heartland is working to secure scholarships for the students enrolled in the full school year. That’s what Alyssa is hoping for.

“You put me in a sober environment and I hear all these sobriety terms and recovery words and that’s what I’m going to want, ya know? That’s what I’m excited to want.”

Paige Pfleger is a reporter for WOSU, Central Ohio's NPR station. Before joining the staff of WOSU, Paige worked in the newsrooms of NPR, Vox, Michigan Radio, WHYY and The Tennessean. She spent three years in Philadelphia covering health, science, and gender, and her work has appeared nationally in The Washington Post, Marketplace, Atlas Obscura and more.