On Wednesday, the Office of Educational Opportunity released its request for proposals for a recovery charter school slated to open in Wisconsin in fall 2018.

In July, Gov. Scott Walker signed the bill to create a public charter school for students recovering from substance abuse. The recovery charter school is a part of the Heroin, Opioid Prevention and Education, or H.O.P.E., agenda, a package of 28 bills aimed at battling addiction in Wisconsin.

The school can be located anywhere in the state and serve up to 15 students a year. The school cannot charge students for attending. It also must provide coursework that meets the state’s high school diploma requirements and therapeutic services to support students’ recovery. Proposals are due by Dec. 2. 

Students must be sober for 30 days prior to admission and consent to random drug testing.

State Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, introduced the first components of the agenda in 2013 after his daughter’s battle with opioid addiction.

On Wednesday, Nygren and Wisconsin state Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, released a joint statement praising the RFP as a “huge step” to battling opioid addiction in Wisconsin.

“Creating a recovery high school was a part of the special session on the H.O.P.E. Agenda to combat opioid abuse,” they said. “We appreciate that UW's Office of Educational Opportunity acted so quickly to begin the process of authorizing a recovery school.”

The RFP asks applicants to consider several aspects of creating, managing and sustaining a recovery charter school. The OEO will fund the recovery school pilot for four years with the intention of transitioning management to a school district or districts, local government or a private operator.

Gary Bennett, who leads the OEO, said strong applications will showcase partnerships with local mental health providers, municipalities or other funding sources who can support the costly model.

“We are wide open for whoever has the strongest proposal in terms of who can create the partnerships and, once we incubate this, who can continue it once we step out,” he said.

Bennett said the state will provide $8,000, per student, per year. The school will also receive $100,000 in seed money from the state and OEO.

The money is a fraction of what it costs to support a student at Horizons High School, Wisconsin's only recovery school.

Horizon’s principal, Traci Goll, said she needs about $17,000 per student each year to provide them with the therapy and academic support required for their success.

Horizon supports 15 high school students each year, the same number as the upcoming charter school.

Goll relies on a combination of funding from a student's home district and fundraising to sustain her work.

Horizon charges tuition, but no student is turned away for a lack of ability to pay.

“We are constantly fundraising and trying to find other avenues to support our school,” Goll said.

“When I first started here, there were more families who could afford to send their kids to Horizon, but our students just don’t have the means, so we have to rely on the school district. Even though it covers hardly anything, it is better than nothing, and without it our doors would be closed.”

Goll said cost issues are compounded as more students start at Horizon in the early years of high school. In the past, most students were seniors.

“It’s really changed in the last five years where we are getting younger kids,” she said. “I had two freshman last year. That means they were in rehab in eighth grade.”

If students start younger, they are more likely to spend a large chunk of their high school experience at Horizon. Goll said a student’s home high school is often a trigger, and returning there can derail their success.

“The goal, lots of times, with the school districts, is to have them come to Horizon and get them as healthy as they can possibly be so they can come back and function in a regular school. But to be totally honest with you, that just isn’t a reality for most of our students,” she said.

“That is where their contacts are, that is where they knew where the drugs came from. It’s sort of like if you were an alcoholic and you went back to the bar. I’ve had a couple kids who were able to do it and had success, but very few are able to go back and have that kind of success,” she said.

Nygren and Darling referenced that struggle in their joint statement, noting: “Evidence shows that attending a recovery high school instead of going back to a residential high school immediately following treatment can set a student in recovery up for a substance-free future.”

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In addition to financial concerns, recovery charter school leaders also have to consider the stigma surrounding drug abuse. Goll said finding students who are open to attending a school designated for teens struggling with drug abuse can be difficult.

“Everyone always asks, ‘Why are you so small?’ Well, there are not very many teenagers who want to admit that they have a drug or alcohol problem, or mental health issues. Parents don’t want to brag about that (either),” she said.

“We are trying to break the stigma by having students feel good about themselves so they will want to get help and see that they are worthy of being happy and healthy.”

In order to break the stigma, Goll works hard to build close bonds with her students so they stay dedicated to recovery.

“Not only do our students struggle with alcohol and drug issues, they also have mental health issues. So, our school needs to be a safe and secure place where you can educate them,” she said. “We have to have a lot of trust, which takes time to build.”

Although the recovery school model is a “heavy first lift,” Bennett said the school can serve as a model to fill a critical gap in the state.

“There is not a community in Wisconsin, whether it's a large urban setting, or a small rural setting, that is not suffering from the addiction crisis,” he said.

“These schools are expensive and high risk. Incubating it outside of a traditional setting, we can, as a university system, provide technical assistance to help school districts do something that is needed across the state.”

Despite the challenges of operating a recovery school model, Goll said she is looking forward to having another partner in the state who will help students recover from addiction.

“We are it right now. I know there are tons of teens out there struggling, and more could use a school like Horizon. People constantly reach out to me and say, ‘I wish there was a school like this when I was a teenager,’” she said.

“I think it is awesome. I think there is a giant need for it. I think it is about time.”