Guide to school-based recovery support programs and services

School-based recovery support programs and services are designed to help individuals in early substance use disorder recovery achieve their educational goals while also focusing on the areas of their social, emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being needed to help sustain recovery. While addiction thrives in isolation, recovery is a process of hope and healing that thrives in the positive peer communities that exist within school-based recovery support programs and services. Our goal is give you the all the necessary information to help you find the right program or service when addiction causes a disruption in your education or if you are looking for an educational setting that allows you to reclaim your academic journey while in recovery.

The rapid expansion of recovery support programs and services in educational settings over the past decade can certainly be viewed in the context of the broader addiction and opioid epidemic that has taken hold in the U.S. As public health professionals and organizations race to identify and promote access to effective treatment options for 20.8 million Americans, another 23.5 million Americans are either initiating or maintaining an often-challenging life in recovery. This is most challenging for adolescents and young adults who have limited time and experience with aftercare and recovery maintenance and are facing enormous obstacles to reclaiming educational goals and aspirations.

The ability to distinguish among a variety of recovery support programs and services, in both secondary and higher education, has emerged as an important activity when it comes to supporting students who are looking to resume or advance their education while in recovery. More specifically, students in early stages of recovery are in need of school settings that welcome and understand students like them, and integrate with nearby recovery support programs and services within the community.

Throughout the United States, programs such as dedicated recovery high schools, community college recovery support and referral services, and collegiate recovery programs have emerged to help support the education and enrichment of students in recovery. And each year we are witnessing program diversification as outpatient treatment and recovery housing services are being adapted to support students enrolled at educational institutions.

This guide has been assembled to help you better understand the variety of support options available for students in recovery. In doing so, our hope is to help you find the right program for your educational advancement. We try to do this in plain language and there are a few important terms we need to acquaint you with as we go. Importantly, this guide is not meant to replace any advice from a professional counselor or academic advisor. And we cannot guarantee, in any way, that you will receive a quality educational experience or have a positive outcome.

Finding recovery support in secondary education

For high school students with substance use or co-occurring disorders, schools offer a variety of programs to assist with the continuum of care, from prevention to early intervention, treatment and recovery support referral. In most cases, programs and services are embedded within the overall school program and are essentially adjunct to the academic curriculum. Recovery high schools are specifically designed to integrate academic instructions with social-emotional skills acquisition and support for high school students in recovery from substance use disorder. Specifically, recovery high schools are secondary schools designed specifically for students in recovery from substance use disorder.

Although they operate differently depending on available community resources and state standards, each recovery high school shares the following goals:

  1. To educate all available and eligible students who are in recovery from substance use disorder or co-occurring disorders such as anxiety, depression, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder;
  2. To meet state requirements for awarding a secondary school diploma;
  3. To support students in working a strong program of recovery.

The staff of recovery high schools most often includes administrative staff, teachers, chemical dependency counselors, and mental health professionals that each play a critical role in supporting their students. Additionally, recovery high schools provide support for families learning to how to live with, and provide support for, their teens entering into the recovery lifestyle.

Distinct from a dedicated recovery school experience, other support programs and services can be found in traditional and non-traditional school settings. In most cases, students access a program for part of a day, whether it is located in the school or not. Available programs may include:

  • Alternative Peer Group Programs (APGs) and after-school/after-care programs
  • Recovery support referral and/or group counseling for students in recovery
  • Recovery classrooms including school-day support group meetings
  • Student Assistance Programs, social workers, and school counselors
  • Alternative schools traditionally set up for disciplinary purposes

Finally, Therapeutic Boarding Schools offer an alternative to the traditional school setting and feature a curriculum integrating physical, emotional, behavioral and academic development. Often they include outdoor behavioral health and wilderness programs with enrollment that typically ranges from 1 to 2 years. Parents and students should also be aware that residential or day-treatment programs in which minors are admitted for 10 days or more often provide a certain level of schooling for their patients.

Knowing the different types of recovery support programs and services in secondary education

This definitional framework is intended to assist students and their families with understanding the differences between educational choices for school-age students in recovery from substance use or co-occurring disorders. 

Recovery High School Secondary schools designed specifically for students recovering from substance misuse or dependency.
Alternative Peer Group Program Alternative Peer Groups (APGs) are after-school programs designed specifically for students recovering from substance misuse or dependency. APGs typically combine peer recovery support with clinical practices and place an emphasis on education, accountability, and family support. They are led by a certified counselor who sets standards for the group, which differentiates APGs from general support groups.
Recovery Support, Non-Traditional Schools of Choice A variety of non-traditional public and private educational options exist and schools of choice with targeted substance misuse programming have an explicit substance misuse prevention/recovery support programs/curricula. The modalities most likely to include a therapeutic component are:
  • Alternative schools – Traditionally set up for disciplinary purposes, most blend a variety of student populations and are time-limited rather than open-ended.
  • Charter schools – Schools that are granted a charter by the state or local district that exempts them from certain rules and regulations (such as teacher credentials or facility requirements).
  • Contract schools – States or districts “contract” with an organization or private group to provide education and/or therapeutic services.
  • Home schools – Students receive academic instruction at home. Some families choose to form “cooperatives” with other home-school families to pool services, often under the umbrella of an independent school.
  • Virtual/Online schools – Academic coursework, usually accredited through regional accrediting bodies, available through the Internet.
  • Area Learning Centers – Also known as “Alternative Education Programs”, Area Learning Centers (ALCs) offer individualized programs focusing on academics and workforce preparation, rather than traditional disciplinary alternatives.
Recovery Support, Traditional Secondary School Public or independent schools providing academic curriculum, most commonly in grades 9-12, leading to a regular education diploma. Most traditional schools offer some level of substance misuse programming, including:
  • General, targeted and indicated prevention;
  • Early identification and intervention for substance abuse;
  • Low-intensity, brief intervention/treatment for substance use and co-occurring disorders; and/or
  • Recovery support referral and/or group counseling for students in recovery.
Therapeutic Boarding School Schools and programs offering a curriculum integrating physical, emotional, behavioral, familial, social, intellectual and academic development. Includes outdoor behavioral health and wilderness programs with enrollment that typically ranges from 1 to 2 years.
Treatment Center School Residential or day-treatment programs in which minors are admitted for 10 days or more and often provide a certain level of schooling for their patients. Medication management and medical monitoring is generally available on-site. Facilities treat adolescents with serious psychological and behavior issues and most are state licensed or nationally accredited. Services are highly structured.


Finding recovery support in higher education

For college-age students in recovery, collegiate recovery programs provide seamless access to recovery-related social and other educational supports for students in recovery. Collegiate recovery can be found on 2-year community college campuses and, more prevalent, at 4-year colleges and universities. In general, these recovery communities and programs place emphasis on the peer support group, with friendship and mutual support being the primary aim. These activities are intended to help college students meet their educational goals while maintaining a focus on their emotional and physical well-being, all in the context of substance use disorder recovery.

You will find collegiate recovery “communities” and “programs” when looking for recovery support at institutions of higher education. While both share a core set of common traits and goals, a recovery community is commonly understood to be a network of individuals who share a common goal of lifelong sobriety and offer support and fellowship to their peers. Alternatively, a program often refers to institutional authority or acceptance with the connotation of a more structured service for students enrolled at the college or university. Both terms reflect viable support systems for students in recovery in higher education.

Each collegiate recovery program or service has stated requirements for participation. Typically, these requirements include that the student have at least some time of continued sobriety, and a commitment to remaining sober from alcohol and other illicit substances. This approach is important for students for many reasons, including the desire for the peer support community to remain a safe place in which all member's sobriety is protected. Of importance is the fact that students can feel confident that no one will be actively using while in a program space or at sponsored events. There are some programs that do not require complete abstinence, believing that it's helpful for students further along in their recovery to be there to provide their experience and support to students just contemplating change.

Based on experience, here are a few questions that you can ask to find a collegiate recovery experience that will support your specific needs:

  • What is required for students to join your program?
  • What services do you offer to students in your program?
  • Does your campus provide accommodations to students in recovery?
  • Are there recovery support meetings close to campus?
  • Do you support students through the admissions process?
  • Do you provide financial assistance to students in your program?
  • What is your policy on relapse?

Beyond the programs and services associated with collegiate recovery, students often have access to recovery support referral services from on-campus Alcohol & Other Drug Prevention (AOD) Programs, which offer screening and interventions for substance misuse; Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), which offer clinical services for behavioral and mental health; and, Student Health and Wellness Centers.

When enrolling at a college or university, students in recovery can inquire specifically about substance-free recovery housing options or make specific requests regarding roommates meant to protect their sobriety. Of interest is the recent emergence of living-learning and specialty communities that center on supporting recovery lifestyles.

Recently, a number of universal treatment and recovery programs have begun expansion into areas that are meant to directly support students in recovery. These include:    

  • Individualized outpatient offerings or part-time Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) for students enrolled at an institution of higher education;
  • Recovery housing options that are student-oriented, not affiliated with an institution of higher education, and offer an environment of peer support with other students continuing their education online or at a nearby college campus;
  • Residential treatment programs in which individuals are admitted for 10 days or more and can enroll and attend classes through a participating college or university (online, at the treatment center, or on-campus).

Knowing the different types of programs and services in higher education

This definitional framework is intended to assist students and their families with understanding the differences between educational support choices for college-age students in recovery from substance use or co-occurring disorders. 

Collegiate Recovery Programs and services designed specifically for students recovering from substance misuse or dependency at institutions of higher education. A collegiate recovery community refers to efforts by a group of students, supporters, and allies to create safe, supportive learning environments at an institution of higher education for students in recovery from substance misuse or dependency.
Collegiate Recovery Program (CRP) Programs offered by institutions of higher education that provide safe, supportive, and structured learning environments for enrolled students in recovery from substance misuse or dependency. The primary components of collegiate recovery programs are:
  • Mutual aid support groups near or on campus for students in recovery;
  • Physical space for students to gather together socially, participate in sober activities, and experience peer recovery support in a safe environment;
  • Institutional acceptance of and authority over the program and the academic goals of students in recovery;
  • Staff, counselors, or student leaders who are dedicated to the program; and,
  • Peers, recovery coaches, or counselors who are available for recovery support.
Outpatient Care and Education Program Individualized outpatient offerings or part-time Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) for students enrolled at an institution of higher education. Outpatient clinical care for young adults typically offers flexible day and evening programs so that students can manage treatment services with on-campus class schedules. The primary components are:
  • Individual and group therapy sessions;
  • Life and study skills development and workshops;
  • Relapse prevention, health and wellness classes;
  • Case management and peer mentoring; and,
  • Drug testing.
Recovery Housing and Education Program A collegiate recovery program may include an alcohol and drug-free living residence for students in recovery enrolled at an institution of higher education. The residence is a part of the institution’s housing authority. In general, recovery housing refers to an alcohol and drug-free living facility for individuals recovering from substance misuse or dependency that often serves as an interim living environment between detoxification experiences or residential treatment and mainstream society. Housing options with an educational program are student-oriented, not necessarily affiliated with an institution of higher education, and offer an environment of peer support with other students continuing their education online or at a nearby college campus.
Recovery Support Referral Colleges and universities that offer some level of substance misuse prevention services and referral-based recovery support resources for enrolled students. These services and resources may include:
  • Alcohol & Other Drug Prevention (AOD) Programs, which offer screening and interventions for substance misuse;
  • Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), which offer clinical services for behavioral and mental health;
  • Student Health and Wellness Centers, which provide referral services for mutual aid support groups and general wellness classes;
  • Resource sites, which provide listings of recovery support group meetings and services on or near campus; and,
  • Assistance with placement in substance-free housing on or near campus.
Treatment and Education Program Residential or day-treatment program in which individuals are admitted for 10 days or more and can enroll and attend classes through a participating college or university (online, at the treatment center, or on-campus). Medication management and medical monitoring is generally available on-site. Facilities address serious psychological and behavior issues and most are state licensed or nationally accredited.


Related national associations and organizations

To learn more about specific types of school-based recovery support programs and services, we recommend extending your search to include these recognized national associations and organizations. 

You can also find associated resources by selecting the desired Group in the resources hub.

ARHE - Association of Recovery in Higher Education  - The Association of Recovery in Higher Education represents collegiate recovery programs (CRPs) and collegiate recovery communities (CRCs), the faculty and staff who support them, and the students who represent them. ARHE provides the education, resources, and community connection needed to help change the trajectory of recovering student’s lives.

ARS - Association of Recovery Schools  - The Association of Recovery Schools assists in the creation, development, maintenance, and growth of recovery schools across the U.S.

NATSAP - National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs  - The National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs membership includes therapeutic schools, residential treatment programs, wilderness programs, outdoor therapeutic programs, young adult programs, and home-based residential programs working with troubled teens and troubled adolescents. All are working through NATSAP to ensure the highest quality services to the young people and families they serve.

References

Association of Recovery Schools (2016). The State of Recovery High Schools, 2016 Biennial Report. Definitions and Operating Characteristics for Recovery High Schools. Denton, TX. Retrieved from https://www.recoveryschools.org

Transforming Youth Recovery (2018). 2017 Census and Definitions for Recovery Support in Higher Education. Retrieved from: https://www.transformingyouthrecovery.org/research/2017-census-and-definitions-for-recovery-support-in-higher-education

Transforming Youth Recovery (2016). Recovery Support in and around Community College Campuses in the U.S. Retrieved from: https://www.transformingyouthrecovery.org/research/recovery-support-in-and-around-community-college-campuses-in-the-u-s-2016

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