Ask the Expert: Michael Durchslag of P.E.A.S.E. Academy

We feature an expert in the mental health and substance use disorder field to answer questions. This issue we talk to Michael Durchslag of P.E.A.S.E. Academy about recovery high schools.

Q: What is a recovery high school, and how is it different from a traditional high school?

According to the Association of Recovery Schools, founded in 2002, the primary purpose of a recovery high school is to educate students in recovery from substance use or co-occurring disorders. The intention of a recovery high school is for students enrolled to be in recovery and working a program of recovery from substance use or co-occurring disorders as determined by the student and the school. Each school meets state requirements for awarding a secondary school diploma. Recovery high schools are also available to any student in recovery who meets state or district eligibility requirements for attendance, which means students do not have to go through a particular treatment program to enroll, and the schools are not simply the academic component of a primary or extended-care treatment facility or therapeutic boarding school.

How a recovery school differs from a traditional high school is significant. First and foremost, all of the students who are enrolled at a recovery high school are committed to staying engaged in abstinence-based recovery. In other words, they are committed to not using substances and to do so, they are looking to create new peer groups with other like-minded youth. This is not the case in a traditional public school. In fact, the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) did a study that showed that over 97% of high school students who return to their traditional high school after completing a treatment program are offered drugs their first day back . Furthermore, to support the students in their recovery, recovery high schools employ chemical health specialists and provide specific training for all the staff to be able to effectively work with young people who have been diagnosed with a substance use disorder. Licensure requirements in education do NOT require any specific training in substance misuse, addiction, or recovery. Lastly, recovery high schools recognize that a re-occurrence and/or return to use are a potential symptom of a substance use disorder. Therefore, the schools have created specific procedures and support systems to intervene more quickly and do so effectively helping the young person more quickly stabilize without having to experience the horrors which this disease frequently presents.

Q: What are some of the unique needs and challenges of students who enroll at a recovery high school?

There are several challenges that students face. Stigma and minimizing the significance of substance use is frequent. Too often, former schools, parents, loved ones, and even the students themselves, want to believe that it’ll now be as simple as “just say no” once treatment is completed. Creating new peer groups that are supportive of a life free from drugs including alcohol is incredibly difficult. Other challenges include: Transportation, most students who are in need of a recovery school must travel great distance to get to one; credit deficiency, substance use disorder and mental health robs people of making adequate progress towards graduation; gaps in education, many young people have gone to multiple treatments and have tried several schools before getting to a recovery high school.

Q: What are the resources and support that a student receives?

Most recovery high schools are small in nature; therefore, the chemical health specialists and counselors are able to provide the students with the time that they need. The small size also means significantly smaller class sizes which allows the teachers to really meet students where they are academically and provide the scaffolding needed for the student to be successful. Recovery high schools also really emphasize “relationship-based education.” Students are seen as whole people and staff take the time to get to know them while also providing students with opportunities to know their teachers. Through relationships, real learning can take place as students are more willing to take those healthy academic risks in an environment where they know and trust the people around them. But the best support that students receive are the students themselves. They are able to go to school with people who want the same thing they want: To stay engaged in their recovery and get a good education while doing so. They go to outside meetings together, they socialize and fellowship together, they create lifelong bonds with peers who sincerely provide love and support.

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Q: Can you describe why recovery high schools are successful?

Every day not using is a success. But it doesn’t end there.Recovery schools are successful because they provide the necessary supports in the continuum of care that are essential in a young person’s life after treatment. They teach students how to hold each other accountable in a loving and caring manner. They also recognize that a person in recovery needs additional supports in place to be successful and are committed in providing those supports. Equally as important is the fact that the schools provide a high-quality education that prepares students to be successful at the next phase that comes after a high school diploma, and they spend a good amount of time helping students prepare for that transition.

Q: What might success look like for an individual student?

Every day not using is a success. But it doesn’t end there. Success can mean a lot of different things depending on the individual. However, some commonalities include improved relations at home, successful employment, meaningful and caring peer relations, improved attendance and grades, successful completion of high school, applying to and starting a post-secondary institution whether it is a 2-year college, a specific job training program, a 4-year college or university, or enlisting in one of our branches of the military.

Q: P.E.A.S.E. Academy was a pioneer in the field and is the oldest recovery high school in the United States. Please share more about the history?

P.E.A.S.E. Academy first opened in January 1989. The original name was The Holos School, named after the non-profit board that started us, The Holos Foundation. The three founding members were Barb Schmidt, the visionary for the school, Ken Simon, the educational expert, and his friend Joe Mailman, who was in long-term recovery and who provided much of the initial start-up funds. In March of 1989, the name was officially changed to Peers Enjoying A Sober Education, P.E.A.S.E. Academy, after one of our first students, Joannie Hannigan, came up with the acronym while trying to find a name that captured the peace that the students felt by attending the school. It was the first time in many years that any of them had felt at peace and so from there our name was born. In fall 1989 we moved into our current location, renting space from the University Lutheran Church of Hope in SE Minneapolis or Dinkytown. P.E.A.S.E. Academy was a contract alternative school with Minneapolis Public Schools until 2003, when the Board made the decision to become a separate charter school. In the interim, we partnered with MN Transitions Charter School (MTCS) and when Michael Durchslag became the Director in January of 2007, he solidified the relationship with MTCS and we’ve been partnering with them ever since. From our humble beginnings of 7 original students, we grew to 35 students by 1995. By 2000 we had close to 75 students enrolled at any one time. However, due to market changes, including rules regarding how education must be delivered to those still in treatment, our enrollment dropped to its current number of 35-40. Since 2007, P.E.A.S.E. Academy has seen close to 85% of all their graduates enroll in a post-secondary program for the following fall and over 75% of all students served stay engaged with their recovery.

Q: How can someone enroll in a recovery high school?

Most recovery high schools both in Minnesota and nationally are publicly funded schools that anyone who wants to enroll (and who is able to physically get to the school) can openly enroll at the school. In some states, the administration of the school needs to work with the district that the student is coming from to receive payment for educational services, but in Minnesota, because of the open-enrollment laws, that process is very simple and requires no work on behalf of the family or school beyond reporting that all schools follow. Almost all schools have a fairly lengthy Informational Meeting with the prospective students and their family in order to make sure that the student understands the rules and expectations of the school. No recovery high school wants to set up a student for failure, so great care is given to make sure students want to be at the school and parents support that decision. My suggestion is to call the school and set up an Informational/Enrollment Meeting. It’s really that simple.

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Q: What other resources can you pass along to our readers?

There are 6 recovery high schools in Minnesota: Lakes Recovery School (Detroit Lakes), McKinley ALC Recovery School (Waite Park), P.E.A.S.E. Academy (Minneapolis, Insight (White Bear Lake)), Central Freedom (Mankato) and APEX (Rochester). There are also 40 other recovery high schools in a variety of different places around the country. A great resource for finding those and/or support in trying to open one in your area is the Association of Recovery Schools (ARS). ARS works closely with the Association of Recovery in Higher Education (ARHE) as there are over 150 Collegiate Recovery Programs (CRP) across the country, including several in Minnesota. Going from a recovery high school to a collegiate recovery program allows young people to find a peer group in college and get additional supports.

Another great resource is the Alternative Peer Groups (APGs). APGs have been running in Texas for over 45 years and provide professional, Peer Recovery Specialists, who provide programming for youth and their families after school hours. APGs have been growing in the United States, and the P.E.A.S.E. Community Foundation opened Minnesota’s first APG in Summer, 2021, the P.E.A.S.E. Community After-School Program.

A newly launched website, All Sober, is a phenomenal resource for all things recovery. It helps people find available resources such as different treatment options, recovery high school, collegiate recovery programs, recovery housing, as well as different recreational opportunities that are made up of recovering people. For example, there are sober sports leagues, and if you live in the Twin Cities and love music, there is a wonderful organization, Dissonance, which supports musicians in recovery.

A relatively new online recovery community for youth, parents, and adults in recovery is Recovery Club of America. All support is done virtually as well as providing online forums.

Michael Durchslag is the Director of P.E.A.S.E. Academy (Peers Enjoying a Sober Education), the longest running recovery high school in the United States. He began working for P.E.A.S.E. in November, 1995 as the Social Studies teacher. Michael became the school’s Director in January, 2007. He is a licensed 7-12 social studies teacher and earned his Masters of Arts in Teaching from the University of St. Thomas in 2002. Michael also holds a B.A. in Religious Studies from Beloit College (1991). His commitment to recovery schools goes beyond P.E.A.S.E. Academy as he also serves as a part of Minneapolis College’s Advisory Board for their Collegiate Recovery Community and Program, founded the state’s first Alternative Peer Group, is an advisor on the Coalition of Recovery Investments (CORI), is the Vice Chairperson of the Association of Recovery Schools (ARS), and is a part of the ARS Executive Council.

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Last Updated on July 15, 2022

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