By: Allison Pohle

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Zach has spent most of the summer sitting in front of a computer inside a brick building in downtown Boston, occasionally staring out the window. His friends at home were outside enjoying the warm weather, but Zach wasn’t envious.

“Compared to last summer, man,” he said, pausing to put his hand on his head as he spoke on his last day of class. “I’m in such a better place. Now I know what I have to be grateful for. “

Zach is a student at the city’s Ostiguy High School, a drug recovery school where summer classes aren’t a penalty — they’re a necessity. About 20 students, all of whom are recovering from drug addictions, are paid by a nonprofit group to show up every day and stay out of trouble during the dangerous warmer months, when the chance of relapsing is especially strong. Summer school helps them stay sober.

The six-week summer session is supported by the ABCD Summerworks program, a nonprofit that provides summer jobs to Boston’s low-income youth. At Ostiguy, their job is simply the act of coming to school and committing to recovery. In order to receive the stipend, they have to complete a project that revolves around financial literacy and money management. Handed out by ABCD, the workbook is a required part of the summer coursework.

“When it’s light out, kids are hanging out later,” said Roger Oser, the school principal. “They don’t need to be inside at a residential center because they don’t need shelter, and it’s not dark and they don’t have the feeling that they should be in school getting work done. That can make it tough for them to stay motivated to come to school.”

Ostiguy is one of five drug recovery high schools in the state that helps students who are addicted to prescription drugs, alcohol and, increasingly, heroin. The school, which opened in 2006 as part of a statewide effort to prevent and treat drug abuse, has held a summer session every year since it opened.

“Addiction is a fear-based disease,” said the school’s principal, Roger Oser. “And one thing that triggers fear is transition.”

During the regular school year, students at Ostiguy have access to a recovery counselor and individualized plans to help them stay sober. They’re randomly drug tested and take part in group therapy sessions.

Studies show that recovery high schools help students stay clean. Only about 30 percent of those in recovery high schools relapse within six months to a year, compared to about 70 percent who relapse after returning to their communities following treatment.

During the summer months, students can make up credits they missed during the school year, usually from when they were out due to a relapse. They can also take part in random drug testing, group meetings and field trips.

“This program helps us stay connected to students, and also introduce new students to the school and its policies before they’re thrown in at the beginning of the year,” said the school’s operations coordinator, Lyonel Traversiere. “We focus on the mind, body and spirit. So the mind is classwork, then body is physical activity and spirit is going to meetings to help their recovery.”

This summer is markedly different for Zach, whose last name wasn’t used because of the school’s confidentiality policy. Last summer, the then 17-year-old opened his eyes to find his mother sobbing next to his hospital bed after he had almost died of alcohol poisoning. As he listened to the beep of the monitors, he knew something needed to change. After spending time at a treatment center for his addictions to alcohol, marijuana and psychedelics, he transferred to Ostiguy to complete his senior year.

In addition to the stipend he receives, Zach has another job in retail. But he said the summer course’s financial literacy training has helped him better budget for his future.

“A lot of kids in this program, we’re used to blowing any amount of money we get on drugs,” he said. “We don’t necessarily have a lot of practice with saving. This summer, I was able to save money to spend on my sister for her birthday, and also buy a skateboard. It feels good that I’m taking care of myself and my family.”

In addition to tracking information about their incomes, students also use the portfolio to record their developing skills and interests. Before they began recovery, many students’ lives revolved around their next highs. The school helps them explore and develop interests by giving them the chance to exercise during the day at a gym down the street, as well as take organized field trips to hike, go to the beach, and take art classes.

“For a lot of kids, this is the first time they’re feeling their feelings,” Traversiere said. “We want to give them outlets that they can turn to that are constructive.”

Even though he’s spent much of the summer making up credits for psychology, sociology and media literacy classes, Zach said the greatest lesson he’s learned is that he doesn’t need to use a substance to have a good time. His favorite outing was the class trip to Georges Island, when he and his classmates spent the day skipping rocks and walking along the shore.

“I went to the beach with my mom a few weeks later, and I was so happy that I’m able to have that memory of doing that with her and having a great time instead of being too high to remember it,” he said.

He officially graduated from the school last week, , and said he wants to go on to become an electrician or a dancer (he hasn’t decided yet), but knows that, no matter what, he wants to work with young kids in recovery.

“Before I came here I had the wrong idea about success,” he said. “Now I’ve learned that success is when you get back to a path where you’re happy with what you’ve done. And that’s what I want to be able to say going forward.”

The students are only paid during the summer, not during the school year. About half of them live in one of the Cushing houses, which are residential recovery homes for students struggling with addiction. There, they’re monitored by professional staff, who can help ensure they’re spending their $10 an hour allotments properly.

“Some people might think it’s controversial,” Oser said. “But this is a high-needs population, and we need to keep them engaged.”

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