U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos visited Hope Academy in September as part of her four-day, six-state “Rethink School Tour.” The tour, which also included stops in Wyoming and Kansas City, was designed for DeVos to visit and learn more about schools that are actively delivering creative educational models for students.
“I’m really happy to be here,” DeVos told those gathered at Hope Academy for her visit – which included students and their parents along with board members, staff and officials from the local, state and federal levels.
“We’ve been intentional about visiting a wide range of schools that are meeting students’ needs in a wide range of settings and with various focuses and creative ways to meet students where they’re at,” DeVos said. “It’s exciting for me to learn more about this model.”
Hope Academy is a tuition-free, public charter high school for teens in recovery from drug and alcohol substance-use issues. Dr. Andrew Finch, a Vanderbilt University researcher and co-founder of the National Association of Recovery Schools, noted schools like Hope Academy have been around about 40 years and particularly flourish in states with robust school choice laws.
“Schools like this are the crowning jewel of school choice, because they make options available for students who need a different type of school environment,” Finch said.
However, there are currently only 38 recovery high schools in the United States.
“I get calls almost every day asking how to do this and how we can support children in our community,” said Rachelle Gardner, Hope Academy’s chief operating officer.
A parent of one current Hope Academy student testified on how her whole family moved from Georgia to Indianapolis just so their daughter could attend the school. She felt they had run out of options after their daughter had three stints in rehab totaling nine months. Any boarding schools she could’ve attended required private pay. And going back to her former school would put her back in the environment that started her drug use.
“You get to the point where you just want to make sure your child lives and possibly graduates and has a life,” the parent said. She added moving so far away was difficult on the family, but ultimately worthwhile.
“The recovery community here is amazing,” she said. “There has been so much support. It’s important for these kids to know they have a disease, not a moral issue. They can recover and do good things.”
Hope Academy, which is in its 12th year, was one of the first schools accredited by the National Association of Recovery Schools. Finch said the association recently completed a five-year study of its schools, which found that graduation rates are 20 points higher than for students in recovery attending regular schools. Attendance rates are higher too.
Of the 61 students who attended Hope Academy in the 2016-17 school year, they had 3,118 days of sobriety in one semester. It’s estimated there are 133 Hope Academy graduates who probably wouldn’t have graduated from high school without the recovery school model. These students also showed growth in standardized testing for reading and math.
“I know Hope Academy has saved countless lives in the 12 years it’s been around,” said Marissa Manlove, a board member.
That’s true for Julia, a 2017 Hope Academy graduate who now works as a peer specialist at the school. She started drinking at age 13 and abusing pills at 14. Julia came to Hope Academy after getting kicked out of her previous school.
“Since coming to Hope, my life has completely turned around,” she said. “I came here not thinking I was going to live to graduate or even turn 18 and have a future.”
Julia wishes there were more schools like Hope Academy.
“My peers and I are the future. Each of us has potential. Without schools like this, thousands of us are slipping through the cracks.”
Indiana Congresswoman Susan Brooks noted how proud she is that Hope Academy is in her district, Indiana’s 5th. She recalled how powerful it was to attend one of the school’s graduation ceremonies and a Community Circle, where students and staff share personal details about their recovery, read meditations and discuss spiritual principles they’re working on like perseverance, commitment and faith. Brooks met a student who was celebrating her birthday for the first time sober in years. Her classmates offered to hang out with her that evening if she was afraid she’d relapse.
“This is a tightknit group of students that come together to support each other,” Brooks said.
Following a tour of the school and roundtable discussions, DeVos thanked the students and parents for bravely sharing their stories.
“I give you so much credit, and I’m going to be cheering you on continuously,” she said, while also applauding the staff for their commitment.
“This is another amazing example of a school meeting the specific needs of students who are unique individuals. They all have so much potential, and you recognize that.”
Gardner thanked DeVos and the other officials (which included Congressmen Luke Messer and Todd Rokita and State Rep. Robert Behning) for attending, and encouraged them to share the story of Hope Academy wherever they go.
“We believe all kids across the country deserve what these kids have at Hope.”