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Ohio's First Recovery High School Prepares To Open In Columbus

Paige Pfleger
Nicholas Anstine and Jennifer Belemu stand in the room they hope will be Heartland High in January.

Right now, Heartland High School doesn’t look like much — just a few rooms on the second floor of Broad Street Presbyterian Church on Columbus’ East Side.

But soon, this space is slated to become Ohio’s first and only recovery school – a private high school for students with substance abuse problems.

“This is going to be our main room,” Nicholas Anstine says, gesturing around a well-lit classroom with rows of tables and chairs. “I love this room.” 

Something notable is missing from the room, though: students. Heartland High School was supposed to open in the fall, but was slowed down by Ohio’s accreditation process. Now, the goal is to welcome the inaugural class in January. 

“I plan on opening with a wait list,” Jennifer Belemu says with a laugh. She's is in charge of recruiting students for Heartland High School. 

Belemu saw first-hand the need for a recovery high school in Columbus when she worked with teens at Maryhaven Drug and Alcohol Treatment Center.

“They would come into the treatment center, they would get clean and sober, they would get their lives back in order,” she says. “Then we would send them back out to the same school and the same environment that they came from, and it was a set-up for failure.”

The National Institute on Drug Abuse found that nearly all students returning to their old schools after treatment reported being offered drugs on the first day. That sort of thing won’t happen at Heartland, Anstine says. 

“It’s positive peer pressure,” he says. “What we see with these schools is that it becomes the cool thing to be working an active program of recovery and being healthy.”

Heartland would be one of fewer than 50 recovery schools across the country. Research on these small-scale schools is limited, but Association of Recovery Schools co-founder Andrew Finch says outcomes detailed in a handful of federal studies have been encouraging.  

“Recovery high school students are twice as likely to report complete abstinence from alcohol marijuana and other drugs compared to students that did not attend recovery high school,” Finch says.

Researchers also found that graduation rates are higher for students with substance abuse issues after they’ve attended a recovery high school than if they didn’t attend a recovery school. 

Finch says it’s common for recovery schools like Heartland High to take a while to get off the ground. Part of the reason, he says, is because of their small size — usually about 30 students. 

“The funding is challenging,” he says. “Whenever a school has a small enrollment, the economies of scale mean it’s more expensive to educate a student. That’s why most of our high schools in this country are massive, because it’s cheaper to educate a student that way.”

A few state governments have passed legislation to help fund recovery schools - including Tennessee, Minnesota and Pennsylvania - but not Ohio. 

Heartland High is fundraising to help pay for the three teachers and principal they’ll soon hire. The tuition is high, $20,000 per student, although they hope to offer scholarships for some students. 

Board member Nicholas Arstine says the school’s price tag is still a deal compared to a typical rehab facility.

“For a full 30 days of treatment, you’re looking at $15,000 to $20,000 for that 30-day stay,” he says. 

Until class is in session at Heartland High, the closest recovery school is three hours away in Indianapolis.