‘Sober school’ to open inside Roxborough synagogue

Roxborough will soon be home to the region’s first high school entirely devoted to students recovering from drug and alcohol abuse.

After nearly two years of planning and clearing city and state hurdles, The Greater Philadelphia Association for Recovery Education (GPARE) will open The Bridge Way School in September. It will be housed inside, but not in connection with, Mishkan Shalom Synagogue on Freeland Avenue.

GPARE’s vision recently became a reality after the Pennsylvania Board of Education awarded the “sober school” a state license and accreditation.

Executive Director Rebecca Bonner, who will teach and act as the school’s academic head, said the state’s approval made for an emotional moment.

“We left the hearing room and a couple of us burst into tears,” said Bonner of the May 13 hearing in Harrisburg.

Bonner was joined by Sharon Weinman, the school’s board president, and Susan Josephs, the school’s vice president.

The nonprofit previously had to win approval from the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment in order to hold daily classes inside the space they’ll lease from the synagogue. The city’s department of Licenses & Inspections then had to inspect the building and issue a certificate of occupancy.

Bonner said those first two steps took some time and ultimately delayed the school’s initial plan to open in February.

GPARE’s overall goal, however, remains the same: to provide recovering students from across the Delaware Valley with a safe place to learn before transitioning back to traditional learning environments.

“We’re kind of providing the bridge from treatment to life as a recovering person,” said Bonner. She said that concept is one of the reasons why the word bridge ended up in the school’s name.

Another is that the independent day school will look to maintain strong relationships, or bridges, between recovering students and their support structure, usually their families.

And still another is that The Bridge Way School will be located near the city’s iconic Manayunk Bridge, an artistic rendering of which will be used as part of a school logo.

Academically, the school’s curriculum will be somewhat similar to most of the area’s college preparatory high schools, but will have an added focus on art, music and physical education.

“Kids in recovery often need various forms of creative expression to work out addiction issues and other emotions associated with recovery,” said Bonner in an email Monday.

“PE is being offered every day since research indicates that sobriety is easier to maintain with adequate levels of endorphins hitting the brain,” she added.

Students, however, will be required to attend 12-step meetings each day and must agree to random drug testing.

The school will also hold non-traditional hours – 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. – so students will learn when they’re more alert and have less opportunity to mingle with kids from other neighborhood high schools. The latter, said Bonner, could lead to relapse.

Enrollees will also be asked to stay at the school for an entire year before moving on, though the school is set-up to hand out diplomas.

Most of the student body will be coming to the school from residential or outpatient treatment programs.

Many of the teachers, said Bonner, will be people who have recovered from substance abuse or have experience with that world. She said that fact sets the school apart from other recovery schools in the country.

“We’re not only a place that provides support for students in recovery; we’re actually a place that honors recovery,” said Bonner, who said the school will also have an in-house clinical director.

There are about 30 recovery schools across the country. The closest of the non-boarding variety is in Boston.

The day school’s tuition will be $19,000 a semester or $38,000 for the entire year.

So far, Bonner said there are no enrollees, but she’s not worried. She said many students that might need the school’s services may not reach the point of considering a recovery school until the start of summer, after they’ve made it through the current school year.

The Bridge Way School plans to start off with 10 students. It can gradually grow to 50.

The first day of classes will be Sept. 8.

For more information, go to the The Bridge Way School’s website

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal