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Recovery Schools as Viable Environmental Supports – Need for Additional Research

By Emily A. Hennessy & Andrew J. Finch

In principle, secondary schools and colleges should be substance-free learning environments. However, research has demonstrated that, especially in the United States, students are offered alcohol or drugs on school grounds. Our own research with youth in recovery from substance use disorders indicates that youth in recovery know that their home school environment is often not safe for them to return to – it was often where their peer network of substance use originated and could be maintained.  


Recovery High Schools – schools for youth in recovery – were developed in the 1970’s to combat this problem. Additionally, given the educational trajectory of most youth, educators recognized the need to develop sober spaces on college and university campuses to meet the needs of older adolescents. Since their initial development, these secondary schools and collegiate recovery programs have popped up across the USA to create a recovery-supportive academic environment. Visiting some of the secondary schools, you will see a variety of school buildings – some are situated in churches, in office complexes, or in a separate part of a public school building. And the model used in each school varies as well – for example, some focus on credit recovery until the student can return to graduate from their home school while others anticipate that youth would be enrolled through graduation (https://recoveryschools.org/). Some schools focus on harm reduction whereas others practice complete abstinence. Alternatively, collegiate recovery programs on campus are sometimes housed in student health or mental health services and offer anything from sober dormitories to financial aid scholarships (https://collegiaterecovery.org/).

  Our own research has begun to study the effectiveness of recovery high schools and collegiate recovery programs for youth in recovery. Given that the schools and programs are over 40 years old, and there is a growing support for implementing these programs, as evidenced by funding and policy decisions, we responded to the need for synthesizing the evidence of recovery supportive academic environments for youth by conducting a systematic review of recovery schools for adolescents in recovery. The review highlights the large gap of research in this field. Although the review indicated that recovery high schools had positive effects among students, there was only a single primary study with high risk of bias. There were no studies of collegiate programs eligible for the review. Thus, we call for researchers in recovery to conduct rigorous controlled studies for whole schools (recovery high schools) and programs on college campuses (collegiate recovery programs). 

About the authors:

Dr. Emily A. Hennessy holds a PhD in Community Research and Action from Vanderbilt University with a quantitative methods minor. As a US-Norway Fulbright scholar, she received a Master of Philosophy in Health Promotion from the University of Bergen. She is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the Institute for Collaboration on Health, Intervention, and Policy (InCHIP) at the University of Connecticut where she studies mechanisms of behavior change. Her focus for the past 10 years has broadly been on adolescent health promotion and she focused specifically on adolescent recovery and recovery capital for her doctoral research. She has a number of presentations and publications from her research on adolescent substance use and recovery. Through her work with Dr. Andrew Finch, she was involved in the first empirical national US study of the effectiveness of recovery high schools. She is currently collaborating on a national study of secondary data analysis of collegiate recovery programs in the USA.

Andrew J. Finch, PhD is Associate Professor of the Practice of Human and Organizational Development at Vanderbilt University. Dr. Finch co-founded of the Association of Recovery Schools in 2002. Among his numerous published works on recovery and education are Starting a Recovery School (2005) and Approaches to Substance Abuse and Addiction in Educational Communities: A Guide to Practices that Support Recovery in Adolescents and Young Adults (2010), on which he was a co-editor. For nine years, Dr. Finch worked for Community High School in Nashville, one of the early schools for teens recovering from alcohol and other drug addictions and a school he helped design and open in 1997. Dr. Finch also helped found Vanderbilt University’s collegiate recovery program in 2007 and currently serves on its advisory committee. Dr. Finch most recent projects include a recovery school outcomes study, funded by NIDA, and a recovery high school history, to be published by Oxford University Press.

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