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Rebecca Bonner, M.Ed., MUPP

Executive director, The Bridge Way School

"Never give up. We had so many obstacles in getting Bridge Way School started and keeping it sustainable ... Now, I’m trying to replicate this on a national scale.” 

One in 27 teens has been diagnosed with a substance use disorder (SUD), and 1 in 7 with a mental health issue. Yet for those with both, up to a third receive no treatment. That’s why I founded The Bridge Way School in 2011 — the first high school in Pennsylvania to serve students in recovery from substance abuse disorder and co-occurring mental health disorders.

The problem I’m trying to solve

Even with the spotlight on the opioid scourge of the past decade, there has been very little attention paid to adolescents. Yet 8 out of 10 teens who return to their prior school relapse within the first year, and 50 percent of them will return to using at similar or higher rates than before they entered treatment. The Bridge Way School provides an environment for high school students who have committed to making better choices to get back on track with their lives. It offers a chance for a student to avoid the people, places and things that can trigger a recurrence.

We also work with the local juvenile justice systems to provide a different diversionary program for teens who would otherwise be placed in juvenile detention facilities. Unfortunately, these are often kids of color. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, over 80 percent of previously incarcerated youth have had a SUD at some point.

The moment that sparked my passion

About 15 years ago, one of my daughters developed an opioid use disorder at age 14. She got excellent treatment, but we know treatment alone is not enough. I began looking for programs that could provide her both with an education and with recovery supports. I had heard of recovery high schools, and as we were in a major metropolitan area (Philadelphia), I assumed there must be one. There wasn’t. The closest school was in Boston, and we couldn’t uproot our lives to move there.

The only option for my daughter was to return to her high school. Thankfully, she had a couple of teachers in long-term recovery who reached out to her and provided a lot of support. It wasn’t easy, though, and it highlighted the need to open a recovery school in Pennsylvania. I knew my daughter would not benefit directly, but I wanted to help other families have this option.

What I wish other people knew

Too many parents dismiss their child’s substance use disorder as just a phase their teen is going through. Unless their kid gets into trouble with the law, they tend to avert their eyes and just assume it will go away. I wish parents would understand that this is a disorder that can only remain a disorder with prompt intervention. Recovery schools try to intervene early enough to stave off a full-blown addiction.

Thankfully, the federal government is beginning to realize the importance of recovery in substance abuse services--it included $3.5 billion for the Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block Grant, which for the first time includes a 10 percent set-aside for recovery services. It’s not enough just to get teens well — we have to help them stay well, too.

Why my approach is unique

There are organizations that address the inequities of the juvenile justice system, organizations that address substance use disorder, and organizations that address inequities in the educational system. But as a recovery school, Bridge Way addresses all of these things. We recognize that these students often need a different approach, which is why we have recovery support services and mental health support built right into our program.

Advice to others who want to make a difference

Never give up. We had so many obstacles in getting Bridge Way School started and keeping it sustainable. The first was getting parents on board. So many were concerned that if their child attended a recovery high school, it would mar them for life. (We’ve actually found the opposite to be true: Colleges look highly on kids who at a young age faced and fought demons.) The second one was getting appropriate funding. Many students — particularly students of color — who could benefit from Bridge Way could not afford tuition. We convinced the Pennsylvania legislature to create a Recovery High School Pilot Program, which provides tuition payments for any student who qualifies for admission, regardless of income. Now, I’m trying to replicate this on a national scale. I’m currently working with representatives of Congress on legislation that would provide funding streams to recovery high schools across the country. 

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