As the opioid epidemic stretches across the region, it’s seeped into the lives of high schoolers. Massachusetts is taking on the oft-forgotten, at-risk population through publicly funded recovery high schools. Students take standard classes to complete their individual district curriculum requirements, but each day is peppered with one-on-one mentorship and group counseling. WGBH News visitedNorthshore Recovery High School, also known as Recovery High, in Beverly to hear from students about how it works.

Just off the 128 North highway, Recovery High is discreetly tucked away. It’s on the top floor of a nondescript cement building, surrounded by a huge parking lot. Upon entry, its sparse exterior is seemingly erased. The halls of Recovery High are vibrant art galleries, packed with student photography, paintings and poetry about overcoming addiction. Classrooms have typical furnishing like desks and whiteboards, but some rooms have cozy additions like couches, blankets and essential oil diffusers.

“We treat sick children like they're sick and not like they're bad,” explained Michelle Muffat Lipinski, the founder and director of Recovery High. She instills in her students and families that addiction is a disease — and she treats it as such.

“These young people have chosen to travel sometimes hours to get here to do drug testing,” explained Lipinski, “and they have these honestly brutal conversations with people that don't happen in typical high schools, and that's what they need.”

Students travel from far and wide to attend, some riding more than an hour to and from school. One student explained that his mother is struggling to get his district to cover transportation, which has made it difficult for him to get to school.

Because teen drug abuse is still provocative and Lipinski doesn’t dismiss students out for relapse, there is some controversy surrounding the school. 

“A lot of school districts don't like the model because we don't kick kids out for relapse,” said Lipinski, “They want it to be this true recovery high school, and [for them], recovery is abstinence. But what I've learned, and in adolescent recovery, is it's not about the abstinence. It's about the journey to abstinence, and it's going to be a lot of peaks and valleys and bumps in the road.”

Recovery High believes students learn best through trust and growth, rather than by discipline and ranking.

“Honestly, it's not like a regular high school whatsoever,” explained one student. “The teachers are as cool as the students. These teachers actually care about you. You can just talk to them and relax. They're not even just teachers, they kind of treat us like friends, or like family, or whatever.”

Being open with adults, let alone peers, isn’t an easy thing to ask from teenagers. But Lipinski believes creating an environment where students can be vocal about anything without fear of punishment establishes a pathway to healing. This may start with students feeling comfortable cursing to their teachers, and lead to them bringing forth deeper discussions about pain, love or addiction. It’s a learning environment of unconditional acceptance where it’s okay for students to be unfiltered.

“When I came to Recovery High School, you know, a couple of weeks later I ended up relapsing and it consumed me again,” described another student. “It's been like a battle ever since then. I just got seven months clean. And this is the longest I've ever been clean.”

She says her teachers and school community is what made the difference. “They are so supportive. If you feel like you need help, they will go out of their way to help you. No matter what. And that's a lot,” she said. “Because, you know, only growing up with one parent that's not even a parent, being here makes me feel wanted, makes me feel like I am cared about.”

In the harsh face of addiction, Recovery High affirms angst and affection. The school meets students wherever they are on the path to recovery.

“There's so many students who come here and say that they just felt invisible,” said Lipinksi. “Their teachers, their family members, they treat them like they're nothing and they're invisible. And it would be really great if when you see a young person who's struggling to put your arm around him and say, 'Hey, I see you do need some help.' I think that's where we can end this.”

Our coverage of K-12 education is made possible with support from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.