The only recovery high school in the state of Maryland is opening in Frederick on Aug. 31.
“I can’t wait to meet the students,” said Sara Varga, head of school for Phoenix Recovery Academy. “I cannot wait to meet them. I’m just so excited to see how we can help them, how we can help their families. I mean, I really see this as being like a beacon of hope for a lot of families in this community and I love teenagers and working with teenagers.”
Phoenix Recovery Academy, located on East Church Street, is a program of the Phoenix Foundation of Maryland, a nonprofit with a mission to serve those affected by substance use disorder.
The location is on the behalf of and due to the partnership of the Ausherman Family Foundation. Formerly, the building was home to Habitat for Humanity of Frederick County.
“[The Ausherman Family Foundation was] instrumental in helping us with this location and everything you see inside of the building as far as aesthetically,” said Sean Nicholson, director of development with the Phoenix Foundation.
Varga said a recovery high school provides an environment where students are enthusiastic about recovery without being exposed to the same temptations that might have been at their previous school. It also runs year-round, has rolling admissions and can take students who live outside of Frederick County because it's not a public school. The cost to attend is $1,150 a month, but financial aid is available, according to their website.
“They’re going to have, hopefully, a higher likelihood of being able to maintain their recovery and their sobriety, so it supports both them academically and in their recovery,” she said.
Nicholson said the recovery high school also provides a more intimate and personable setting.
“It provides the atmosphere that they need to work through their issues,” he said. “This is an environment that will allow them to understand and be educated on the issues that they have, and the really cool part is that there will be programming to engage the family, the parent or the guardian, so that they can understand and be educated on what this looks like as well.”
The goal is to start with two to five students and grow to 30-40 when the school is fully operational.
The school is complete with three classrooms, an admissions room, a kitchen, a meditation room, a library, a multi-purpose room where students will eat lunch and have their morning meeting and a currently unfinished upstairs that opens many possibilities, including alternative peer groups.
One full-time teacher and two part-time teachers are on staff, as well as an intern. The curriculum was developed with the Association of Recovery High Schools and Varga said it pretty closely resembles Frederick County Public Schools' curriculum models and standards.
Nicholson said nine out of 10 people who suffer from substance use disorder, including himself, started when they were in adolescence.
“I think that a lot of energy and money and effort is being put on the back end of a drug epidemic and a opiate crisis and not a lot of attention or resources are being applied to the front end of that, and if we’re going to ever really shift the whole dynamic of this issue that we are so aware of, we got to get in front of it and that starts with our kids,” he said.
In fact, according to data provided by the Phoenix Foundation, students that attend recovery high schools are more likely to stay sober and less likely to be arrested or have their parents report trouble with the law.
Varga said the Frederick community has embraced the project.
“I don’t know if the community is ready to see solutions, I think it’s a combination and a culmination of a lot of different forces at work. But I think we continuously are amazed at how well received, well-supported this entire project has been from its inception here in Frederick,” she said.
Nicholson said recovery high schools are a proven model and something that’s working across the country.
“We’re not inventing anything,” he said. “We’ve been counseled, mentored and provided guidance by people who have been doing this on a larger scale than our school is.”
While COVID-19 has impacted the school in some ways, Varga said they are still planning an in-person opening following all protocols and guidelines, including masks and social distancing.
“If we were to be told that we need to go to a distance learning model, we do have a continuity plan in place,” she said.
Varga is a licensed clinical social worker and has been drawn to working with adolescents and their families since her graduation in 2006. She’s worked for several programs, done in-home work, been a clinical director of a dual diagnosis intensive outpatient program for adolescents and a family program coordinator, and worked at a school for students with special needs.
“We as a recovery high school are not the end-all be-all solution but we are a part of that continuum of care that I feel is a huge missing piece, especially in this community,” she said.
Nicholson said he’s looking forward to providing an atmosphere for students to work on themselves and get through their struggles at an early age.
“I remember at a very late age when I was able to do so myself and get sober at 32 years old. I never was able to have that opportunity really at a young age. And so what if we can get some kids that have gone through some things sober and get them the help they need and the tools necessary to succeed early on,” he said. “These kids might not have to go through the things that me and my friends went through.”