BROCKTON - On the morning of the school’s grand opening, a cold and fidgety teenager named Tristine Mersing arrived at Independence Academy to begin her sophomore year.
Ninth-graders Maria Renae Kirnon and Felicia Goncalves, both 15, led Mersing briskly through a foyer packed with state and local luminaries to a quiet room in the freshly renovated 9,000-square-foot facility at 460 Belmont St. in Brockton.
“What’s going on? Is this going to be an easy day?’’ asked Mersing, 18, who is a recovering heroin addict.
“Nah. You get lots of attention here. The teachers don’t leave us alone,’’ said Kirnon.
“Yeah, but other schools - they don’t have a clue,’’ said Goncalves. “Here, it’s different - they give you the respect.’’
Independence Academy, a recovery high school for young people addicted to drugs or alcohol, is the first of its kind in Southeastern Massachusetts.
Operated by the North River Collaborative, an educational organization, the school is funded with $500,000 per year in state Department of Public Health grants and with tuition from the students’ school districts. It has the capacity to serve up to 50 students, ages 14 to 21, from communities south of Boston.
Three students were enrolled as ninth- or 10th-graders when the academy officially opened on Jan. 19, according to principal Richard Melillo. The aim is to have 20 to 25 students enrolled by June, he said.
Small class sizes and individualized instruction are key at a recovery high school, Melillo said. Teachers adapt lesson plans to the needs of students. This educational model includes rigorous academics matched with recovery-related components such as counseling and even mandatory low-impact exercise, such as yoga.
Independence Academy joins three other recovery schools - in Beverly, Boston, and Springfield - which have served a combined 520 students through the end of 2011. The national average stay at a recovery high school is about 7 1/2 months - but students can elect to stay all four years.
Planning for the school began in January 2010, after William Carpenter, a member of the Brockton School Committee, pushed for a public hearing to talk about a school for recovering addicts, particularly for young people struggling with addiction to opiate narcotics.
Independence Academy deals with both alcohol and drug abuse, but it comes at a time when opiate addiction has become a major concern in Massachusetts and in the country. The state recorded more than 3,000 deaths from opiate overdoses from 2002 to 2007, the leading cause of death for adults under the age of 25, according to a 2009 report by the Massachusetts OxyContin and Heroin Commission. The report notes that opiates were killing 42 Massachusetts residents for every Bay Stater killed on the war fronts in Afghanistan and Iraq during that time. The Obama Administration, meanwhile, labeled opiate abuse a “national epidemic’’ last spring.
In Brockton, Carpenter said that his son struggled with opiate abuse while in public high school, and that he watched his son get clean only to return to the classroom and to old habits.
“I was throwing him back in the fire,’’ he said in a recent interview, adding that his experience was too common. He said more than 250 parents came to the public forum in Brockton to talk about losing children to addiction and overdose. Soon after, Brockton Public Schools partnered with the North River Collaborative to launch the recovery school.
“At the end of the day, we feel the school will serve students in a positive, safe, caring, supportive environment that focuses both on academics and recovery,’’ said Matthew H. Malone, superintendent of Brockton Public Schools. The school not only serves Brockton but also Abington, Avon, Bridgewater-Raynham, East Bridgewater, Hanover, Rockland, West Bridgewater, and Whitman-Hanson.
Malone said it took about 18 months for the school to materialize, from idea to project implementation. “This is one of the fastest rollouts I’ve seen during my time,’’ he said.
Students are welcomed into small classrooms bathed in natural sunlight where teachers are prepared to teach Shakespeare and mathematical equations - but never lose track of the needs of students in recovery.
“It is OK to fail. It is not OK to give up,’’ reads one of many inspirational sayings on the wall in Colleen Monahan’s social studies classroom.
“We pay attention. We’re always there,’’ said Janet Braggs, a math teacher, making quiz-related notes on the chalkboard in her classroom.
“When is the last time you got angry at someone for treating you with respect?’’ asked Joseph Shrand, medical director of CASTLE, which stands for Clean and Sober Teens Living Empowered, a new intervention unit for at-risk teens at the High Point Treatment Center in Brockton, a partner of the academy. He said recovering students will learn to value themselves and their capacity to make positive change in the world.
Recovery high schools were created in response to the high rates of relapse among youths returning to traditional high school settings. Since 1989, when the first recovery high school opened in Minnesota, eight states have started such schools in more than 30 locations across the country.
Students at the Northshore Recovery High School in Beverly, William J. Ostiguy High School in Boston, and Springfield Recovery High School have experienced increased sustained sobriety, higher attendance rates, and improved grade-point averages compared with students returning to traditional high schools, according to annual assessments conducted since the schools were launched in 2006.
Amy LeFort, a Scituate resident and middle school English teacher in Bridgewater whose younger sister, Elizabeth, died of a heroin overdose on Jan. 13, 2011, called the Independence Academy a godsend for Southeastern Massachusetts.
“My sister would be alive today if she had this kind of opportunity,’’ said LeFort, who talks about the new school at public events.
“I tell them Liz’s story,’’ she said.
LeFort delivered her first speech at a legislative breakfast just six weeks after her sister’s death at age 23. She described her sister as she once was: a student at Whitman-Hanson Regional High School, gymnast, National Honor Society member, cheerleader. Elizabeth LeFort started using painkillers after a friend gave her a few OxyContin pills and, within a year, was addicted to heroin, a cheaper alternative to the prescription drug.
“We did not understand addiction. We didn’t understand the depth of it at all,’’ added Janis McGrory, LeFort’s mother, who attended the Independence Academy’s grand opening on Jan. 19.
Interviewed after the ceremony, McGrory kept touching a beaded bracelet she wears - it was found on her daughter’s body. Both she and LeFort have a tattoo of a red heart with Elizabeth’s signature on the inside of a wrist.
“People need to understand. These children - these beautiful children - don’t want to be addicts. They don’t want to wake up every morning craving the drug and needing it. They made a mistake and now they’re stuck,’’ McGrory said.
Both mother and sister said Elizabeth LeFort never stopped trying to quit using heroin - but her recovery and relapses were so numerous it was impossible to tally. Fifteen? Thirty? What they knew for sure is that she always called them to check in - even from the streets. She would send holiday cards, ring up to say, “I care about you. I love you. I’m sorry.’’
“She wanted her life back. She wanted Christmas and family dinners and days at the beach - all the things she couldn’t have when she was on drugs,’’ said LeFort.
“I believe if she had an opportunity to attend a school like this one, maybe she’d be here now. But she never had a chance.’’