Like many young people, Becky Clark learned about high school from an older sibling. Her brother made school sound like fun, describing picnics and other adventures with his new buddies.
But Clark didn't seem destined to enjoy high school. In fact, she seemed destined for an early demise. She had been struggling with drug addiction and alcohol abuse since she was 11 years old, ending up in a girls' correctional center and spending time in a foster home. She skipped her entire freshman year of high school, unable to resist the allure of addiction.
Finally, last year, while in a treatment program, she asked to be sent to the high school her brother had attended. And Clark began attending classes at Sobriety High School, tucked away in an office plaza in the wealthy suburb of Edina, Minn.
Founded in 1989 by Ralph Neiditch and Carol Robson, Sobriety High School was designed to help students who had gone through treatment programs and returned to school, only to fall off the wagon and end up back where they had started.
Although it's not a drug and alcohol treatment program, the school provides a support system for high school-age students in recovery. There are regular group meetings to discuss sobriety, and parents are required to attend monthly meetings with school staff to discuss their children's progress. Although the school's approach isn't punitive, substance abuse is not tolerated. Students are expected to report any relapses immediately.
"They want to get well. They don't want to die," explained Judi Hanson, the school's director. Students are willing to police their peers, she said, because "they want to stay here. If they don't keep it safe, it's hypocritical."
The high school also works because the students feel a genuine connection with the other students and teachers, said Clark, 16, now a sophomore. "The school is a family and I just wanted to be a part of it," she said. "I love it. The teachers are down to earth and we call them by their first names. If something goes wrong in our lives, it affects us all."
In traditional high schools, it's rare to find freshmen and seniors eating lunch together or walking down the hall talking. However, Sobriety High School unites all its students with one common goal: to get better and stay better. During the school day, and even after hours, the school's teachers act as surrogate parents, handling more than typical teen-age troubles.
"If I have a problem at home I can call Judi or any of my teachers at home," Clark said. "We also have group meetings every day when we talk and bond with each other."
Students are recommended for the program and must complete an application process that includes an interview. Teen-agers who want to get in also have to have completed at least the primary stages of a 12-step treatment program.
The school has been so successful that there's a waiting list to get in. There are usually between four and 10 students waiting for a chance to enter Sobriety High. Because the school is small -- there are only around 40 students -- new students are admitted only if someone graduates, drops out or decides to return to a mainstream high school. Sobriety High differs from other sobriety programs because the students do not have to leave after a year of being sober. A second Sobriety High School has opened in St. Paul, Minn., serving 20 students.
More than half of the students -- 50 to 60 percent -- move on to college. Others wait a year and then enroll in college, Hanson said.
"The students that are here longer are demonstrating to the others that you can have a life and be sober and it's a happy life," Hanson said. "They are role modeling, they are showing that it's cool to have a brain and to study."
Clark said that most importantly, Sobriety High helped instill hope that she could have a fulfilling and successful life.
"I tell people that without the school, I wouldn't be sober today. The school has made me come to realize that I am OK," Clark said.
Contacts: Judi Hanson, program director, Sobriety High School, Edina, Minn., 612-831-7138; e-mail; firstname.lastname@example.org. Becky Clark, student, Sobriety High School, Blaine, Minn., 612-783-9506.