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Nashville's Fledgling Addiction Recovery High School

A couple hours before lunch, 15-year-old Owen Rockenbach was perched on a beanbag mattress on the floor, notebook in his lap, talking about depression with a clinical psychologist.

It’s just another day at Ridgecrest Academy, which is definitely not just another high school.

“The teacher picked up Chinese food for the kids for lunch the other day. They’re a little spoiled when it comes to food,” director Rebecca Rosenblatt said, smiling.

Ridgecrest Academy – opened in 2014 – is Nashville’s only “recovery high school,” a school that serves teens struggling with using drugs and alcohol.

And the school is struggling to stay open, even though teens in Tennessee and elsewhere are abusing pain pills and heroin in record numbers.

Ridgecrest, with its $25,000 annual tuition, has just two students right now. They started with four, but two are back in treatment.

Such are the struggles for recovery high schools. Most people in recovery relapse soon after getting clean or sober, and teens relapse more than any others battling addiction, experts say.

Plus, it’s harder to get teens interested in recovery in the first place.

“At first I was like hell no, I’m not going anywhere,” Rockenbach said, “and then, it was, OK, I’ll give it a shot.”

“It’s a tough population,” said Samuel A. MacMaster, chief clinical officer for JourneyPure addiction and mental health treatment centers, including a new 60-bed facility in Rutherford County.

“It’s difficult to keep kids engaged,” MacMaster said, “and young people in recovery often have lots of secondary issues that are hard to address.”

And the price: parents often send troubled children to $20,000-$50,000 treatment centers, and many struggle with being able to afford private school tuition after that.

Several Nashville addiction experts say recovery schools are awesome places for teens trying to stay off drugs. The schools keep them away from peers who are using or selling.

Most importantly, teens in recovery are like any other teens, badly wanting to be in community and strongly affected by peers. Teens in recovery want and need to feel supported by having friends trying to do the same, experts say.

That’s especially true after the teenager has been through rehab.

“I went back to Father Ryan (high school) after treatment, and I did not stay sober,” said Jack Taylor, 17, sitting by Owen in a cubicle at Ridgecrest Academy.

“I came here and I felt comfortable and safe. It’s kind of isolated, but it’s good.”

Ridgecrest students go to school from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday. They work with a teacher and by themselves on class work. They meet and check in daily with a recovery coach. They have weekly sessions with a psychologist.

Students who graduate end up with the equivalent of a home-school diploma.

Ridgecrest gives partial or full scholarships to some students, and the school stays open with big donations and support from several donors.

The director, Rosenblatt, a former executive with private Learning Lab schools, is an enthusiastic leader inspired by seeing some of her family members battle addictions.

But she and others know that the school isn’t sustainable with two students. It needs a census of 15-20 to work.

Most of the nation’s 37 recovery high schools are part of public school districts, and the others have growing student bodies that keep the schools financially afloat.

Rosenblatt is exploring all options, including aggressive marketing, starting partnerships within the recovery community, and looking at how Ridgecrest might become part of Metro Schools.

“We never were able to access public school dollars at all. When the school closed its doors, families were pretty distraught.”

What has changed since then is an explosion in opioid and heroin abuse as well as increased public awareness of those issues.

School backers hope to capitalize on the growing awareness to get the word out that Ridgecrest Academy exists.

Among those cheering hardest for the school’s success is Dean Porterfield, the director of Cumberland Heights’ adolescent and young men’s services, the only residential treatment program for teens in Nashville.

“That would mean everything in the world," he said. "It would be huge.

“What we know is that the longer [teens] have services, we increase the likelihood of keeping them sober.”

What she’s not willing to do is quit.

“I like a challenge, and I have a huge passion for these kids, kids in general but especially kids who struggle with addiction issues,” Rosenblatt said. “I just think they need a lot of support and a lot of support outside the home.”

It’s a tough road, though, say those who were involved with Nashville’s first recovery high school, Community High School, which operated from around 1997 to 2008.

“The business model wasn’t sustainable,” said Andy Finch, former school director who is now a Vanderbilt professor.

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