Harmony Academy brings youth recovery out of the shadows
Lake Oswego is now home to the first high school in the state dedicated specifically to helping students who are recovering from substance use disorders. Harmony Academy, a recovery high school located on the former Christie School property near Mary's Woods, opened its doors Sept. 3 and be the first charter school created in partnership with the Lake Oswego School District, as well as the first dedicated high school for at risk youth.
The need for a place like Harmony Academy is evident. Oregon has one of the highest ranks of adolescent substance misuse (the use of a drug for purposes for which it was not intended or using a drug in excessive quantities) in the United States but ranks 48th of the 50 states in terms of providing substance use treatment to adolescents according to the Oregon Recovery High School Initiative (ORHSI). By partnering with ORHSI, the Lake Oswego School District hopes to do their part to help close that gap.
The LOSD school board voted in May 2018 to sponsor a recovery high school in the district. The schools are designed to "support adolescents recovering from substance use disorders by providing an alternative environment to support their recovery, usually after treatment," according to ORHSI.
"This is a dedicated space for at risk youth specifically," said Harmony Academy Principal Sharon Dursi Martin. "Seventy percent of students who return to their old schools after treatment relapse within weeks. At a recovery high school, 70% of youth are clean and sober one year after enrolling. There is compelling evidence that this is a better way."
The school will serve students in grades 9-12 in Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties. It will not cost the school district any money, and it will not charge tuition to students. Rather, the school will be funded by per-pupil state allocations and a combination of grants and donations.
The LOSD's involvement is necessary, though, because a charter school needs a district, the State Board of Education or a university or college to sponsor it.
"I couldn't be prouder of the fact that we are the district that is stepping forward to make this happen," school board member Rob Wagner said at a May 2018 school board meeting. "To bring recovery conversations out of the shadows is so powerful."
Superintendent Dr. Lora de la Cruz said she is extremely supportive of the school as well. "We are pleased that Harmony Academy, as a school of choice in LOSD, is open to any student in recovery from any district in the region," she said. "Harmony provides an alternative environment to support recovery for students, while supporting them to complete their high school degree, and develop skills and strengths needed for success."
The school currently has about 15 students enrolled. Dursi Martin said they have a rolling application process and students can apply throughout the year. "Not everyone gets out of treatment at the same time or is ready to come here right at the beginning of the school year," she said. Any high school student committed to maintaining a recovery lifestyle can enroll, and Harmony Academy is tuition free.
Dursi Martin said allowing students a place to be open and honest about their recovery is an important element of a recovery high school. "This is a place where people can be who they are that day. Given the size of the school, we can really get to know people. Not just the face they put on, but who they really are that day," she said. "They can be vulnerable around each other here because it's a safe place."
It's also important for students to have structure when they get out of treatment in order to avoid relapsing. "Treatment is so structured that when students go back into the real world and have so many choices, it can be overwhelming," Dursi Martin said. "Here, they can practice their recovery with a group of peers who are in the same place and they support each other. Once you put down a substance, you really have to develop new habits and find a way to live without substances, so you don't end up picking them up again."
Dursi Martin has experienced substance abuse herself, and is now in long-term recovery. In fact, from the board of directors to the staff, everyone at Harmony Academy has been affected by addiction and recovery. Ian Nisley, the school's recovery coach, said he hopes to build a close-knit community of students who support each other in recovery, as well as help the students explore healthier activities. "That's what worked for me," Nisley said.
Another important aspect of a recovery high school is helping students get back on track academically. This means offering personalized support so students can uncover their skills, passions and goals for the future — and earn their high school diplomas on time.
Dursi Martin said the beginning of the school day is structured, with more freedom in the afternoon. "We start each day with a morning check-in at 8:30, then the students split into their academic classes, which are four periods a day," she said. "Then, from 1:30-3:30, that's time for creative expression, service-learning, physical education, recovery activities and field trips."
Dursi Martin said she and her staff are ready to get the school year started. "Working with at-risk youth is something I'm really passionate about," she said. "I'm most excited to watch kids develop and learn about who they are as people."
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