By Mark Powell
Reading, Writing, and Recovery
A high school is more than a building. It’s a place where exploration and discovery happen as teens learn about themselves, their friends, and their world. At one special high school in Columbus, it’s also a place where recovery occurs.
Heartland High School is the first recovery school in Ohio. It opened in July of 2019 as a private high school just for students with substance use disorders.
The idea started with founding board member Sarah Nerad. Originally from Houston, Texas, she moved to Columbus to head Collegiate Recovery at Ohio State University. She was surprised to learn that her new state lacked a school dedicated to helping young people address their problems. So she partnered with two others and spent several years creating a special school that did just that.
“Recovery schools have operated all across the country since the 1970s,” says Paige Stewart, Head of schools and Heartland High’s executive director. “There’s lots of research showing relapse rates tend to be lower among kids who attend recovery schools.”
Located in downtown Columbus on a bus line for easy access, Heartland is considered a private school with many students receiving scholarship money to attend. It offers Grades 9th-12th grades and accepts students up to age 22. “Our main priority is providing education for students in recovery,” Stewart explains. “While we’re a recovery centered high school, we don’t bill for services. Instead, we employ peer support coaches to work with our students and we work with outside agencies to support our students in treatment, while also encouraging participation in APGs (Alternative Peer Groups) so our students can begin to engage in sober activities and fun outside of school.”
Attendance is voluntary, not court ordered. “We want kids who want to be here,” Stewart adds.
That atmosphere of positive peer support makes Heartland stand out, Nerad says. “It’s like a traditional high school, and students will receive a diploma at the end. The difference is their classmates are peers who are also in recovery. It’s important to them that they not go back to the same environment, but instead have a fresh start with people who understand their unique needs.”
A summer program began in July followed by its first academic year commencing in September. The initial class is small— only 10 students. They are allowed to go at their own pace and to structure their individual academic goals. “We know this is very important, so we have to do it right,” Nerad emphasizes.
Above all, Heartland’s team hopes the new high school will fill an important void. Stewart recently spoke with a student’s mother. “She said her daughter has done three stints in rehab, and the environment at the old school wasn’t conducive to getting better. She’s hopeful that a recovery school is what has been missing.”
Heartland High School was a featured award winner in the 2019 Innovation Now project of the Addiction Policy Forum.
J. Mark Powell is an author, former network journalist, and veteran communications expert.