In the fight against opioid addiction, it is important not only to find new approaches to treatment but to support programs that have already been proven to work.
It is difficult, then, to understand why the enrollment for the Northshore Recovery High School continues to drop, even as the heroin epidemic deepens.
As the need for Northshore grows, its support from the region has waned. The innovative high school, based in Beverly, went from a peak enrollment of 69 students in 2012 to 36 last year. Northshore’s budget calls for an average of 35 students this year. Any fewer kids and the school risks running a deficit of $200,000, with staffing cuts in the offing.
Simply put, Northshore’s woes are an embarrassment to the region. There is a growing, recognized need for better treatment of drug addiction. More than 1,000 people died of opioid overdoses in Massachusetts last year, the most in the state’s history. Northshore Recovery High School has long been a leader in providing effective treatment for teens while still supplying a strong education. More than 65 percent of the school’s graduates have moved on to college or trade school, and one only need to attend a Northshore graduation to see firsthand how successful its programs can be.
It is time for the region — its families as well as its educators and elected officials — to fully embrace this forward-thinking, life-saving initiative.
Northshore is one of four such schools in the state, with another one planned for Worcester. The state budget recently signed this summer by Gov. Charlie Baker sets aside $3.1 million for recovery schools. The schools are a key part of the state’s plan to combat opioid abuse, which makes its lack of local support even more surprising.
Francine Rosenberg, executive director of the Northshore Education Consortium, which operates the high school, called the drop in numbers “a little bit of a mystery” but outlined several contributing factors:
Many school districts are still wary about sending their students to a recovery high school;
The high cost of transportation — the school serves children around the region — is making it difficult for school officials as well as families;
There is still a sense of shame associated with drug addiction, Rosenberg said, particularly in affluent communities.
Let’s take the last issue first. If anything has become clear over the past several years, it is that opioid addiction is a disease, not a lifestyle choice. It touches everyone, regardless of age, income or zip code.
Given the fact that addiction is a disease is no less true for teenagers than it is for adults, the idea that transportation could be a barrier to treatment is all the more galling. If a high school junior suffered from cancer, one would expect educators would move heaven and earth to make sure there was a way to get the student to school. The same should be true for those committed to continuing their education while dealing with addiction.
Northshore Recovery High School at its peak served five dozen students. The transportation issue is surely one that can be overcome with help from educators, legislators and the governor’s own task force. The $3.1 million set aside in this year’s budget can certainly help address the issue.
Finally, it is time for local school districts — their superintendents and their school committees, especially — to recommit to the idea of sending students in crisis to Northshore.
Rosenberg told reporter Paul Leighton that many school officials have a “misconception” that a teen’s drug problem will get worse if he or she is around others facing addiction issues. The overdose deaths of two students this year only deepened that misguided thinking.
Northshore provides a sober environment for students, who aren’t allowed in school if they are under the influence of drugs. The students in the school are there for a reason — they are committed to their own recovery. It is vitally important they get the help they need from trained professionals.
Students are often better off getting out of their home school districts and away from the environment that helped contribute to their addiction, Rosenberg said.
“The pull to go back to the same crowd is very strong,” she said.
It is clear drug addiction still carries a stigma that makes fools of otherwise intelligent adults. We cannot continue to let that shortcoming damage the lives of the younger generation.