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Graduating Hope: A look at Indiana’s only high school for addicted teens

Hope Academy, 2017

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.— As students across central Indiana prepare to graduate this June, one group of high school seniors will celebrate much more than their diplomas. At Hope Academy, graduating means a dedication to rehabilitation, and for many students, it means sobriety.

Tucked away on the second floor of Fairbanks Recovery Center is Hope Academy, a small public charter high school. There are only a few dozen students, each with varied backgrounds and upbringings, but all battling substance abuse.

“Our kids say they start using at age 12,” said Hope Academy Chief Operating Officer Rachelle Gardner. “Typically they start with alcohol and marijuana but then progress throughout the course of their high school careers into much harder substances. Nobody wants to admit that they have a problem. The ones that are successful are constantly working at that and make that commitment to try new things,” said Gardner.

Hope Academy operates like a typical high school in many ways. Students attend eight classes a day, seven of which are “traditional,” while the eighth focuses on basic skills. It offers every class a student needs to receive a Core 40 diploma upon graduation and even offers online classes for students who need to fill academic gaps.

“The academic side is as rigorous as any other public high school and that’s the intention. The other platform we offer is the recovery side,” says Linda Gagyi, principal of Hope Academy.

Gagyi describes the students at Hope Academy as heroes. Staff doesn’t measure student success by typical educational standards. Rather, they look at how a student’s behavior adapts throughout their time at Hope and recognize that setbacks aren’t the end of the world. “High School is hard enough as an adolescent let alone adding into that drug addiction and then the recovery which is, it’s a lot of effort, a lot of time, a lot of conscious decision making.”

Students that don’t make it to graduation, or choose to leave before finishing high school, are typically not committed to their recovery, according to Gagyi. One of the biggest hurdles getting students to enroll in Hope is having families recognize that their teen has a deeper rooted substance abuse problem.

Most students are referred by outpatient and inpatient treatment centers and even the court system. The school is free for students to attend, and many of the teens enrolled commute from all over central Indiana.

Ian Lewis, 18: Co-Valedictorian

“I think it’s an epidemic across the nation,” said Ian Lewis, 18. He is poised to graduate as co-valedictorian of Hope Academy’s senior class. His future, much brighter now, than when he first enrolled at Hope Academy during the spring of his junior year.

Lewis started experimenting with drugs and alcohol in middle school. He says his use intensified to “harder” drugs like benzodiazepines, opiates and amphetamines, and by the time he reached high school he was selling.

“My use escalated to where I was emotionally unable to work on anything,” Lewis said. He attended a large high school in a wealthy central Indiana community, and he says drugs and alcohol were easy to come by.

Lewis says his life had fallen on difficult times; he was kicked out of his father’s house, his grades declined, and he says he was ready for a change. Eventually, he went into intensive treatment out of state. “If I continued down the path I was going I would’ve probably dropped out of school.”

When Lewis returned to Indiana, he says he wanted to fully embrace his recovery, and enrolled in Hope Academy.

“It was definitely a lot different, but for me it’s a better environment because I can connect on a deeper level. At my old I just tried to blend in and be a chameleon and not be noticed.”

The turnaround was quick. Lewis has been sober for more than 15 months and attributes much of his success to the community, classes and programs offered at Hope Academy. He says empathy is key to recovery and he finds that in his classmates. “It’s allowed me to really open up myself to new possibilities in recovery.”

Lewis will attend classes at IUPUI in the fall. He plans on majoring in biology or a similar field so he can eventually go to veterinary school. After that, Lewis says he plans on becoming a successful veterinarian so he can donate back to Hope Academy.

Julia Myers, 18: Co-Valedictorian
Hope Academy co-valedictorian, Julia Myers, is a perfect example of accepting a problem and vowing to make a change.

She voluntarily enrolled at Hope Academy her sophomore year after a prolonged battle with substance abuse and anxiety.

She says, she was excited at the prospect of change.

Myers grades were poor when she first started, but improved time: “I attribute it to accepting who I am and giving up the struggle to be something else, and just like…not be an addict, not have mental illness.”

Like many of her classmates, Myers’s substance abuse started in middle school. That’s when she says she first tried alcohol. From there, Myers says she took “random pills” she found in her house and even stimulants.

“I couldn’t get stimulants anymore because my friend went to treatment, so I ended up freaking out and doing all the drugs I had done before stimulants and I ended up in the hospital and inpatient.” Myers said that last hospital stay really changed her.

She describes waking up in a hospital bed with a weird attitude: “Like, an attitude of ‘I can’t fight this anymore, I can’t do this anymore, I can’t resist getting better anymore.’ Thinking oh great, I’m here again—wasn’t a statement of resistance or rebellion against it, it was more of ‘Here I am again, why am I still doing this?’”

The small class sizes and comradery has helped Myers in her recovery. Unlike her previous school, Myers said the group therapy circles on the bookends of the school week are extraordinarily helpful.

But she wasn’t always so optimistic. When asked about her outlook prior to attending Hope Academy, Myers says she wasn’t sure if she would’ve lived long enough to see her own graduation. But Hope Academy changed her life.

“Just having kids my age who get it is really incredible and something I can’t find anywhere else,” Myers is graduating co-valedictorian. She plans on finding a full-time job this summer before pursuing her associate’s degree.

Graduating with ‘Hope’
Hope Academy will celebrate the graduating class of 2017 on Saturday, June 3. It’s a small group, but administrators say they students have worked hard to get where they are.

While Hope doesn’t currently track students’ success and rehabilitation after high school, but it is something they’re working to keep tabs on. Over the past 11 years, more than 600 students have passed through the program.

“I think the kids will say it best—we are very relational in our teaching methods and in our school,” says Gardner. “When you come here you feel you’re part of a community whether you’re a teacher or a student. That’s the best thing that gets us through the trying times.”

Gardner explains that recovery isn’t just addressed in therapy sessions; teachers will often weave core concepts of rehabilitation into lesson plans for English and even science.

“We see such great things happen to them as they stay clean and sober as they go on and have such great things happen to them in their academics which they’ve never had before,” Gardner spends much of her free time travelling across the country to talk to other recovery high schools. There are only 35 others nationwide.

Hope Academy is also becoming a model to other communities who wish to start up their own programs as the nation’s drug problem creeps into younger generations.