Why Sober Schools Are a Game Changer for Kids in Recovery

Staying sober is a round-the-clock process for these kids.

recovery high schools

The harmful effects of substance abuse on learning outcomes and classroom behavior, and the lack of effective interventions, frustrate many. But, there is a model of sobriety-based education that provides exactly what these students who deal with substance abuse need. It helps students get a diploma and does other lifesaving work. About 50 so-called recovery, or sober, schools exist across the country, in one case sending 92 percent of graduates to college . While traditional schools often fail kids who struggle with addiction, why do sober schools work?

Sober schools break the cycle early

The good news is that substance abuse is at  historic low levels.  The bad news is that people who become addicts are most likely to begin drug and alcohol abuse while teenagers.  In fact, adults who chronically abuse substances most often start at 12 or 13.  About 18% of adults meet the standard of “lifetime abuse” of alcohol and 11% for drugs. Addictive disorders often lead to homelessness, crime, and chronic illness. Therefore, if we can disrupt the pattern in the very early stages of use, we can address the lifelong suffering that follows.

Sober schools maintain an environment of safety and support.

Sober schools work for students who self-select sobriety after hitting a “bottom” that disrupts their lives enough to compel them to seek help. Often these kids go to rehab and cannot go back to a comprehensive school, where drugs and alcohol are ubiquitous. Sober schools provide both academic and therapeutic support, recognizing the connection between mental health and academic success. A recovery coach works on site along with certified teachers who understand the culture of recovery. Kids must agree to a recovery path, and if they do relapse, the school responds according to that student’s needs. If a student uses or sells drugs in a sober school, they cannot continue to attend. Each school creates policies for the students who need time to build resilience after relapse. However, every student comes to the community knowing that it is a safe and supportive environment for them.

Academics at recovery high schools are delivered from a trauma-informed teaching approach.

As school leaders, you are no doubt familiar with the social-emotional model of education. Sober schools embody this approach because the standard obedience-to-authority model rarely reaches kids in addiction. As a teacher in a recovery school, if a student lashes out at me, I will not respond with confrontation, but compassion. At the same time, we work to help students value honesty, respect, and accountability as the touchstones of recovery. Last week, a student told me, “Go f— yourself.” I took a breath and said, “I know you value respect, and you need to give it to get it.” She apologized immediately. This kind of response (on both parts) takes a lot of work, time, and support from others.

In their book, Eyes Are Never Quiet, Lori Desautels and Michael McKnight offer insight and tools into the trauma-informed teaching approach. They note that “discipline is not something we do to children. It is something we help them build from within.”

Sober schools work to reimagine education.


Small classes and individualized learning support this kind of education. Built upon the concept of community, which is key to recovery, these schools average an enrollment of 35 students (a dream come true for most teachers). In these conditions, sober schools work because the students are safe and engaged, though challenges can be daunting. Since parents facing poverty lack the resources for rehab, sober schools enroll a largely privileged population. This is work that needs to be available to everyone.

Where do these schools get the money to support such intensive individualized work? How does this happen in a huge and underfunded district? The Association of Recovery Schools provides information, resources, and help, should you want to explore this model further. When parents see the effectiveness of this environment, they often express overwhelming gratitude. Every day I see the lifesaving effects of a highly structured recovery program running alongside rigorous academics.

Is a recovery high school possible in your district?

The positive effects of a sober school in your district make it worth the time to identify the possibilities. Students abusing drugs and alcohol may live a troubled life of addiction. We catch these kids at a most crucial fork in the road, and we can change the course of their lives. Seth Welch works as a recovery specialist at Interagency Queen Anne in Seattle. He states: “Sober schools work because they provide the structure necessary for young people in recovery to build community and become leaders.” 

Have you ever considered the need for a sober school in your district? Share with us in our Principal Life Facebook group

Plus, Let’s Talk About Sexual Harassment in Our Middle Schools