Harmony Academy: Oregon’s Recovery High School

The main entrance for Harmony Academy in Lake Oswego, where Portland metropolitan area students struggling with substance use may attend. Harmony Academy is the only recovery high school in Oregon. Photo by Abby Emrich.

(Photo caption: The main entrance for Harmony Academy in Lake Oswego, where Portland metropolitan area students struggling with substance use may attend. Harmony Academy is the only recovery high school in Oregon.)

Going to high school is a rite of passage for the majority of teens in America, starting on the road to early adulthood and discovering what they want to do with their lives. For many, this road is natural and comes with few major obstacles. But for others, things get thrown off course with the introduction of drugs and alcohol. It is especially hard to overcome addiction when there aren’t any viable resources put in place to help guide our most vulnerable populations out of the grasp of this overwhelming dependence. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) estimated that 2.3 million kids from 12 to 17 had used drugs, but only 5.4% of these kids entered into a type of treatment program. SAMHSA says the main issue with general treatment programs for adolescents that are run outside of high school is that when said addiction treatment program comes to an end, kids return to mainstream high school and face immediate overpowering peer pressure and are put into countless opportunities to return to substance use. This can result in an extremely unsafe environment for those struggling to overcome substance use disorder.

Oregon is no exception to this lack of appropriate and varied resources for students struggling to overcome substance use. Along with suffering from one of the highest rates of adolescent substance misuse in America, Oregon also ranks third to last in providing treatment for youth.  Compared to other states like Texas and Massachusetts that allocated time and resources to the dilemma of teen substance use long ago, Oregon was lacking for some time. Luckily, Oregon has recently finished construction on Harmony Recovery High School in Lake Oswego. Originally built as an orphanage for girls in 1908, the first floor has been converted to be what is now Harmony Academy. With a focus on helping students earn their diploma, Harmony is Oregon’s first and only recovery high school. Specifically designed for students recovering from a substance use disorder, these schools have a focus on preventing relapse and helping with recovery, while simultaneously providing a safe space for students to receive a high school diploma. In these programs, students live at home and may receive treatment outside of the school itself.

Harmony Academy is unique in the fact that it is a recovery school, not solely a treatment center. According to Recovery.org, there are many types of programs for high school age kids. First, there are treatment high schools, which provide help for substance abuse while providing educational instruction. This is a treatment program, so students typically live on campus or receive outpatient care through the program. There are also therapeutic boarding schools, which offer educational programs with specialized structure and supervision for students. Students live on-site with this type of treatment. Admission to these types of programs is generally based on the student’s ability to pay, which can prove to be a barrier for many in need of treatment. Then there are recovery high schools. Though some students may need a more structured and restrictive system put in place for them during the delicate time of recovery, the recovery school system tries to diminish the impact of treatment by providing a local option that lets students continue living at home. Most importantly, they are available at no cost to any student in recovery.

President of Harmony Academy’s board Tony Mann says that it was apparent Oregon had a problem with helping teens with substance use. “As an educator myself and as a parent and lifelong Oregonian, it became clear to me several years ago that addiction and mental health were obstacles that were holding Oregon back. The Surgeon General declared in 2017 on a first ever report of its kind, [addiction] is not a moral failing. It’s a chronic condition of the brain for which there is a solution.” For many Oregon high schoolers, Harmony Academy is that solution. According to the Oregon Recovery High School Initiative, 70% of teens relapse within months of treatment and returning to normal high school, while 70% are clean and sober one year after enrolling in recovery high school. Mann says that students know that if they return to their community school, they will relapse. “Many believe the deck is stacked against them. It’s heartbreaking to see that a whole state has no system set up to help these students.” With the idea in mind that Oregon was obviously lacking support systems, Harmony Academy was born.

Harmony’s Principal, Sharon Dursi Martin, speaks about what the typical day at Harmony looks like, and exactly what systems are put in place to support their students. The day starts with a check in. The group of students meet with the recovery coach, acting as a support and resource for students. This group meets to discuss recovery milestones, challenges, and successes. Students then transition to academic learning, which is a blend of the online curriculum Edgenuity and a live teacher. The afternoons at Harmony consist of free time for community service, arts, cooking, PE, and field trips. The day ends with a check out, making sure everyone has a connection to something productive after school, like work, sports or an outpatient treatment program. This time is allocated to make sure students are successful outside of the school environment.

Dursi Martin knows firsthand what it is like to be in recovery as a high school student. “I started using in high school; I went to my own expulsion hearing,” said Dursi Martin. “I was a great student. I was really strong academically and I was just so disconnected. I felt like I didn’t know how to live life … I felt like everyone else had a handbook and I didn’t.” Dursi Martin has experience working as an educator, but the Harmony Academy position is unique for her. “I’ve worked in alternative schools but we always just kind of ignored that the kids were on drugs. We [didn’t] get to actually talk about it and say ‘how can we change this for you?’”

Students at Harmony are encouraged to come to any person in the building, be it the recovery coach, the principal, or other students and voice how they’re feeling. Dursi Martin says kids should be able to go to anyone and say “hey, I feel like getting high” without worry of repercussions or punishment. That is the point of a recovery school; there are constantly people willing to speak up with concerns. As Dursi Martin said, “someone might say ‘I noticed every time you see your girlfriend you want to get high or when you see your mom you relapse.’ There are always people there to notice things [a student] might not notice themselves. You get called on things in a loving way.”

Harmony is a charter school, so it accepts students broadly from the Portland metropolitan area, attempting to include as many students in need as possible. “Every kid deserves an opportunity to have obstacles removed and addiction is an obstacle,” said Tony Mann. “The young people who attend Harmony Academy are bright, capable kids who are going to change this world.”

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