Ray Carter | October 17, 2019

School-choice programs aid in teens’ recovery

Ray Carter

Officials at Mission Academy, the only sober-recovery high school in Oklahoma, don’t believe in small goals.

“We’re in the miracle business,” said Joe Don Fennell, executive director of Teen Recovery Solutions, which operates Mission Academy High School in Oklahoma City.

In many instances, the school has delivered those miracles for families from all walks of life. But school officials say action by state policymakers is crucial to allowing those miracles to happen.

Mission Academy is a private school serving students in grades nine through 12 and does not receive state appropriations. Its tuition is need-based, and the school has never turned away anyone because of an inability to pay. While private funders cover much of the school’s cost, Oklahoma’s school-choice programs have played a crucial role.

Last year, 80 percent of students who graduated from Mission Academy were recipients of a tax-credit scholarship or beneficiaries of the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship program, which provides state funds to children with special needs and those who’ve been through the state foster system.

“Without those things, it would be very difficult to provide the services that we do,” Fennell said.

Fennell is among the vocal supporters of raising the cap on Oklahoma’s tax-credit scholarship program. Under that program, those who donate to scholarship-granting organizations receive a tax credit. After accounting for all local, state, and federal dollars expended on public schools, independent research has found the tax-credit scholarship program saves $2.91 in government school spending for every dollar issued in tax credits.

But the program is capped, which limits its impact and results in many needy children going without the financial aid they need to attend schools tailored for them, while other children can see their aid reduced.

Legislation awaiting approval at the Legislature in 2020 will raise the cap and allow more scholarships to be awarded. Fennell said many families whose children have completed rehab will struggle to stay sober without school alternatives like Mission Academy.

“We’re one of the few schools that having access to those dollars, I can say, has saved someone’s life,” Fennell said. “That’s not hyperbole. That’s a fact.”

Mission Academy opened in 2006 because officials with Teen Recovery Solutions noticed kids who completed treatment were then often going back to their previous schools with predictable results.

“We tend to become the average of who we hang out with,” Fennell said. “What they noticed was that the kids who went to rehab to get sober came back and had trouble staying sober and in recovery because they were back with the same people who were not being sober.”

Robyn Meade-Ritter, academic coordinator for Mission Academy, said statistics show that youth who’ve completed rehab and then return to the public school they attended prior to treatment relapse within 60 to 90 days. But school also plays a role in helping kids avoid bad habits, so alternatives are needed.

“We kind of have to really work to keep kids engaged in school, because if you can’t keep a teen engaged in school, they’re way more likely to go back to those people, places, and things that were taking us maybe down a really bad path to begin with,” Meade-Ritter said.

While many traditional districts offer alternative schools to children with addiction issues, those facilities are often a catch-all for a wide range of pupils, including teenage mothers, students with behavioral issues, and others.

“Oftentimes, the resources just aren’t there to really help a student,” Meade-Ritter said.

Ana Lankford, program director for Mission Academy, said Mission Academy’s small size ensures that counselors are able to truly aid students in a way not possible in many traditional school settings. In some traditional districts, she noted just a handful of counselors are available to serve hundreds of students.

“It’s really literally impossible for those counselors at those schools to know the kids, to be really in any way, shape, or form effective,” Lankford said. “Here, I’m available to them pretty much anytime during the day.”

Fennell noted many students are a year or more behind academically when they arrive at Mission Academy, “because you can imagine what goes on before they get here.”

“Our academic staff does an amazing job of meeting those kids wherever they’re at and, sometimes, getting them caught up so that they graduate where they normally would, or maybe even a semester or just two behind,” Fennell said.

The school is fully accredited. Student instruction is provided via a combination of online learning and instructor-led learning. Concurrent enrollment, in which students can earn college credit while still in high school, is also available.

The school also helps teach pupils life skills and has relationships with local employers that provide Mission Academy students with internship opportunities.

The typical student at Mission Academy spends 18 months to two years at the school.

Fennell said 60 percent to 90 percent of kids at the school are typically beneficiaries of either the state’s tax-credit scholarship program or the Henry scholarship program. By the time youth can attend Mission Academy, he said their families’ finances have often been depleted by the cost of treatment and other issues, and the school-choice programs prove lifesavers to those families.

“Even if families do have pretty good means or they do have good income, by the time they get to us, they’ve already spent who knows how much on rehab, doctors’ bills, insurance co-pays, and deductibles, sometimes legal issues, and the list goes on and on—before they ever walk in here,” Fennell said.

Rita (last name withheld because she is a minor) is typical of many students who attend Mission Academy. During a recent luncheon at the school, she recounted growing up in a home where her parents were also addicts.

“Escape is what I wanted the most, so I’d run away, starting in kindergarten,” she recalled, “and my parents didn’t really care.”

By age eight, Rita was in foster care. By age 11, she was adopted. By sixth grade, she was smoking marijuana and drinking, and she attempted suicide before reaching high school. She spent seven months in rehab and completed treatment in July. She has now been sober for 10 months “and I’m happier than I ever thought possible.”

“This place has helped me and my mom, and we continue to grow daily, and I’m thankful to have this place in my life,” Rita said. “It’s helped me, and I know it will help others as well.”

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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