Studies indicate that 60 to 70 percent of students with addiction problems relapse upon returning to their former high schools after treatment. Recovery schools, specifically designed with the goal of creating an empowering and sober environment for youth, are one way to address this problem.

In the fall of 2014, Austin will launch its first recovery high school—and only the fifth in the state of Texas. Lori Holleran Steiker, associate professor at the School of Social Work, is one of the driving forces behind the upcoming University High School. Though created in collaboration with partners at The University of Texas at Austin, among others, the school is independent of the university.

“Recovery high schools are unique because they give kids an opportunity to have a sense of purpose in their life. Not in spite of their drug addiction, but because of it,” said Holleran Steiker. “Instead of feeling ashamed and buying into the tremendous stigma attached to addiction, we want students to feel proud of who they are and what they have accomplished as people in recovery.”

For Holleran Steiker, the development of University High School is high point in her three decades of work in the field of recovery. At UT, in addition to teaching courses on substance abuse at the School of Social Work, she teaches the signature course Young People and Drugs, and is also a mentor for the Center for Students in Recovery and the Drug and Alcohol Peer Advisor group. Holleran Steiker helped found both organizations on the Forty Acres to support students confront issues with drugs, alcohol and misuse.

Holleran Steiker
Dr. Lori Holleran Steiker

“In 2013 I attended the annual conference of the Association of Recovery High Schools in Houston,” she said. “And I started to think, ‘What if we had a recovery high school in Austin? And what if it partnered with the Center for Students in Recovery, and those students were the mentors?’”

After returning from Houston, Holleran Steiker began to gather a strong team of interested individuals from different backgrounds to form a steering committee for University High School.

“We have input from social workers, educators, community outreach leaders, drug counselors, parents, and former alumni of Archway Academy, a recovery school in Houston,” Holleran Steiker stated. “Every part of this community has stepped up and said, ‘Yes, we need to make this happen.’”

The steering committee has secured a space for the school at the University Christian Church, located adjacent to the UT campus. The committee has also obtained financial assistance from the Baxter Foundation, community members, and private donors.

Dr. Hamilton Beazley, former president of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence and former member of the Executive Committee of the Division on Addictions at the Harvard Medical School, is a private donor.

University Christian Church
University Christian Church

“When an adolescent life is lost to drugs, it’s tragic,” Beazley said. “As parents as well as citizens, we have a responsibility to offer our teens who long for a life of freedom from drugs the opportunity to achieve that goal. University High School will provide recovering adolescents with superior academics, a supportive environment, and a continuum of care throughout the day and on weekends through alternative peer groups.”

The school’s steering committee has also incorporated the insight of individuals who have been directly supported by recovery schools. Cameron Taylor, a student in the Department of Government at the University of Texas at Austin, is a former alumnus of Archway Academy, and has been sober since June of 2010.

“The prospect of graduating high school was a dubious proposition at best. The idea of attending one of the best public universities in the nation was even more doubtful,” said Taylor. “Archway granted me a supportive and loving environment in which I could prosper.”

Taylor is deeply thankful for having had the opportunity to attend a sober high school–an opportunity that Austin teens have not had.

“I have been overwhelmed with good fortune by attending Archway Academy and The University of Texas at Austin,” Taylor said. “These two facts about my life are arguably the most distinct external measures of how dramatically life changing my ascent from addiction has been.”

University High School is slated to launch fall 2014. It will begin with a small student population in order to ensure a supportive and clean environment for the students. As the school grows, there are plans to broaden admissions.

“I get very moved by the fact that we can provide an educational setting in an incredibly rich environment to help these individuals hold their head high and say proudly, I am a person in recovery” said Holleran Steiker. “I love this project. It really is a culmination of everything I have ever cared about and done.”

Posted March 31st, 2014. By Miguel Gutierrez, Jr.