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Recovery high schools in Florida help teens learn and heal from addiction

 Recovery high schools provide students with emotional support and wellness activities along with the math and English classes they need to earn diplomas.
Daylina Miller
Recovery high schools provide students with emotional support and wellness activities along with the math and English classes they need to earn diplomas.

High school can be a tough place for any kid, especially students struggling with drug or alcohol addiction. A few schools in Florida are dedicated to helping kids stay sober while they earn their diplomas.

Mornings at Victory High School in New Port Richey typically start the same way. Students read positive affirmations and write reflections in their journals. But after that, things can get creative.

They might visit a horse farm for equine therapy or participate in a drum circle. One recent morning, students made art projects of their choice. Some opted to sculpt brightly colored pipe cleaners into aliens and pinwheels. Others drew serene landscapes with oil pastels.

Encouraging kids to express themselves is a big deal at Victory, whether that's through art, music or talk therapy with a licensed counselor.

These students have all struggled with substance use disorder and may also have other mental health issues.

Victory is one of a few dozen recovery high schools in the nation that offer teens emotional support and wellness activities along with the math and English classes they need to graduate.

Other recovery schools in Florida are Freedom Springs High School in Orlando and River Oak Center in Jacksonville.

Pairing academics with healing

Principal Tina Miller opened the Victory location in Pasco County in April 2021. She struggled with addiction as a teen and has spent her career working with kids who have, too.

“So I kept seeing it with every young person I was helping, that they would get incarcerated or they would go to drug treatment and they would get a little sobriety under their belt, and then they would go back to their traditional school and relapse right away,” said Miller, executive director of Florida Recovery Schools of Tampa Bay.

 Only a dozen or so students are enrolled at the Pasco location, while a handful more attend a Pinellas location that opened in St. Petersburg in August.
Daylina Miller
About a dozen students are enrolled in the recovery school in Pasco County in New Port Richey, while a handful more attend a Pinellas County location that opened in St. Petersburg in August.

Victory is a nonprofit private school. Only a dozen or so students are enrolled at the Pasco location, while a handful more attend a Pinellas County location in St. Petersburg that opened in August.

There are no hallways lined with lockers or rowdy cafeterias. Teens share one classroom and do coursework through Grade Results, an online learning platform that offers state-approved curriculum. Teachers offer one-on-one support, while behavioral health specialists tend to kids’ emotional needs.

Weekly group therapy also gives students a chance to open up about challenges in their lives and help them process their feelings. One afternoon, a teen named Justin shared that he was struggling after the recent death of his grandfather.

“It was the first time I ever got real help. Relationships with my family got better, I started getting really good grades, I started being able to talk about whatever I needed to talk about.”

James, a student assistant and recent grad at Victory High School

“Everyone was comforting me, and they let me know that things would be OK, and that’s the special thing about this school,” said Justin.

Health News Florida not publishing students’ last names to protect future opportunities.

A 'second chance' at high school

Many teens at Victory are dealing with family trauma or financial hardship, said Miller, which can make recovering from their addictions and progressing in school more difficult.

“I always say our first priority is to keep our students alive - bottom line,” Miller said. “And I'll be honest, there are some days that academics are the last thing they need.”

Tina Miller talks with student
Daylina Miller
Tina Miller founded Victory High School to create a safe space for students recovering from addiction.

Students like Gladys appreciate that flexibility.

Gladys, 18, said she had a hard time dealing with the pressures of traditional high school. She has severe anxiety and used to depend on alcohol to cope.

“My entire life was kind of put on hold during the two years that I was drinking,” she said.

Gladys said she was often too drunk or hung over to do homework or show up to class, which caused her to suffer academically and emotionally. She entered addiction treatment and started attending Victory this past fall. Now, she feels like she's thriving.

“The expectations are reasonable and they're set according to the students' ability, and I think that’s just an awesome way of educating kids,” she said. “I’m really grateful we were given a second chance at school.”

A student smiles in class
Daylina Miller
Gladys, 18, struggled in traditional high school but feels more comfortable Victory's alternative learning style.

Fentanyl is driving teen overdose deaths

Some research suggests recovery schools help students maintain sobriety and graduate. But they're expensive to run. It costs about $18,000 a year per student at Victory, but families don't pay anything, Miller said.

School voucher scholarships through Florida’s Step Up for Students program — along with grants and private donations — cover expenses.

The cost is worth it, especially given the current drug crisis, said Miller.

Though overall teen substance abuse is down since before the pandemic, overdose rates are much higher. Researchers from UCLA found overdose deaths among adolescents soared from 492 in 2019 to 1,146 in 2021. The powerful opioid fentanyl is largely to blame.

Daylina Miller
James, 17, said he's seen several friends overdose and said fentanyl is usually the cause.

Recent Victory graduate James, 17, said his wake-up call to stop using Xanax and opioids a couple of years ago came after he saw a girl accidentally overdose on fentanyl at a party.

“I just remember sitting there thinking in my friend's car, like, this could be me, in a week, this could be me,” he said. “And since then I've seen three friends overdose. Only one survived.”

Students support each other's recovery

James now works as a student assistant at the school while he pursues an associate degree from St. Petersburg College. He said he was wary coming to Victory because of a bad experience at a residential treatment center.

But the trust the staff built with students made a big difference, said James.

“It was the first time I ever got real help,” he said. “Relationships with my family got better. I started getting really good grades. I started being able to talk about whatever I needed to talk about.”

Daylina Miller
Students went around the room addressing Peyton, 15, during a ceremony recognizing his seven-month sobriety anniversary.

He appreciates the continued support since graduating and enjoys helping other kids.

Part of that involves celebrating when students hit sobriety milestones. Recently, they recognized Peyton, a 15-year-old who has now gone more than seven months without using marijuana.

Students and staff cheered for Peyton and passed around a plastic chip, taking turns addressing him. They commended him for making big strides in coping with his parents' divorce and encouraged him to keep up the good work.

That meant a lot to Peyton.

“It really touches me and it's, like, it gives you a warm feeling in your heart, it just keeps me going every day,” he said.


To learn more about Victory High's Pasco and Pinellas locations, visit the school website.

If you or someone you know would benefit from attending, you can fill out a student referral form.

To get support with drug or alcohol addiction, contact the 24/7 helpline for the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Copyright 2024 WUSF 89.7

Stephanie Colombini joined WUSF Public Media in December 2016 as Producer of Florida Matters, WUSF’s public affairs show. She’s also a reporter for WUSF’s Health News Florida project.