Project Change Faces Challenges Reaching Kids Fighting Addictions
Waukesha School District remains committed to recovery program for students, despite potential non-renewal of charter contract.
A popular but low-enrollment charter school in the district is getting a closer look, with a possible end result of the program serving more students.
Project Change Charter Recovery School is a charter school in the Waukesha School District for high school students returning to school after treatment for drug or alcohol addiction. The charter agreement for the school is up for renewal and, with the school board scrutinizing the cost of the program versus the number of students served, questions were raised about continuing the school.
However, following an outpouring of public support at a recent School Board meeting, the district is looking at ways to serve more students and to do so in a “fiscally-responsible manner,” according to Jennifer Wimmer, executive director of special education for the School District of Waukesha.
“We’re looking at how do we still provide high-quality service to kids and access to programs or resources, and deliver those resources in a fiscally responsible way,” Wimmer said.
One way will be to reach out to community members and others in the area to help provide services and support for the program. The district is already doing that to some extent, and has been able to contain costs for the program. Last year, the district budgeted $120,000 for Project Change and this year, $95,000. Included are staff salary and benefits, materials and supplies, rent and other costs such as drug testing for the students, according to Wimmer.
The program: high in quality, too low in enrollment
Teacher Tracy Mitchell works to provide a comprehensive academic program for each of the students, tailored to their individual needs, and weekly counseling services are provided by La Casa through a cooperative agreement with the district. It’s a full day, credit-based academic program with therapeutic support embedded in the program, according to Mitchell.
The program, which has only two students enrolled this year, is a kind of modern-day, one-room school house, located in a room at St. Matthias Episcopal Church in Waukesha, away from old friends and triggers that could reignite the urge to use for students.
Mitchell is described as a “one-woman wonder,” working with the students personally and academically, helping them meet school requirements and integrate back into the community.
“She has a way of reaching these kids that’s amazing,” said parent Mary Ellen Wylie, parent of a 2010 Project Change graduate. “It takes a special person to understand the teenage brain that’s addicted.”
Sobering statistics on drug availability and use
“There’s been small enrollment over time – something’s wrong with our model because we know the kids exist,” Wimmer said. “No one’s saying that there isn’t a problem.”
In Waukesha County, according to statistics researched by the school district, there is an increasing concern about drug use. Drug use contributing to deaths in Waukesha County more than doubled from 2003 to 2010 – 15 deaths in 2003 to 33 deaths in 2010; 11 deaths were people 19 and younger, and 10 of the deaths were due to opiates or heroin.
There has also been an increase in availability of drugs in the community. Drug seizures for heroin increased from 1.7 grams in 2005 to 115.1 grams 2010; drug seizures for marijuana went from 9,185 grams in 2000 to 123,760 grams in 2010.
At the national level, in 2009, about eight percent of all adolescents ages 12 to 17 required specialty treatment for problems with alcohol and illicit drugs, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. About 4 percent of adolescents in Wisconsin needed but did not receive treatment for illicit drug use.
Often students who have received treatment relapse into addiction upon returning home. Almost all students who return following a treatment program are offered drugs, sometimes within the first 24 hours, according to Mitchell. Ninety-seven percent relapse in the first month and 47 percent go back to full-blown use within a year, Mitchell said.
For kids returning to everyday life after being in a treatment program, the change can be overwhelming.
“Kids have described it as what happens when you come out of movie theater into the bright daylight. You’re blinded,” Mitchell said.
Absent support and in an environment where they’ve used and relied on drugs before, it’s hard to break out of familiar habits and their circle of friends. Without a safe, sober and a new place and people to turn to, they start using again.
Wimmer is succinct: “Environment is key.”
Students Fight to Graduate
“It could be anybody’s child,” Wylie said.
Her son, who has ADHD, started using drugs to cope with the pressure of school and life. But it can be anything that starts the cycle of drug use, just something painful or too difficult for the adolescent to deal with, Wylie said.
And despite a stable home environment, her son wouldn’t have graduated without Project Change, which was instrumental in keeping him clean and sober to graduate.
“He’s a smart kid but he needed someone to in his corner to help him reach that goal,” she said.
Wylie and the other parents of her son’s relatively large graduating class were especially proud when their children graduated.
“We knew how hard they fought – in a battle most high school kids don’t have to face,” she said.
The future of the program: finding a better way
For next year, the district is considering working with CESA (Cooperative Educational Service Agency) to provide support for the program. CESA acts as a hub for other low-incidence programs, sometimes provides services within a broader area, according to Wimmer.
“We have the expertise, we have a program … we would like to grow,” Wimmer said. “There are kids out there, but we need some extra resources to support the recovery, to support the instruction.”
Another barrier for the program has been the charter contract itself, with language limiting which students can enter to those who have completed certain types of treatment programs, programs that may not be available in the area or available to students depending on their health insurance or family ability to pay for treatment. Another factor limiting enrollment is that students are allowed to register for the charter school according to state laws regarding charter schools and not necessarily when they have a need for the specialized program. Students who enter the program outside of open enrollment or the choice period pay tuition.
It may be that the district does not renew the school’s charter because of these limiting factors but the district is still remaining committed to providing the program for students who need it, according to Wimmer.
“When we look at the future, our program is really solid and we’re proud of the work we do,” Wimmer said. “But how do we get better at serving kids and identifying kids, not just in Waukesha, but across the county?”
Wimmer and others in the district is meeting with community members and other interested parties over the next month to work out some of these questions and will present a plan to the school board’s curriculum and instruction committee May 1.
Solving the problem of low enrollment as opposed to stopping the program because it serves too few students is preferable, according to Wylie.
“Question should not be why are we keeping it open for so few students but why aren’t there more students in it?” Wylie said. “Waukesha isn’t having any fewer drug addiction problems.”
Mitchell will be working with the district to implement and embed new practices for identification and access to the program. All agree that reaching kids early is critical to addressing the problem.
“If a child starts using in early adolescence, it’s almost a done deal that they will use as adults,” Mitchell said.
“If they caught kids early, before full-blown addiction, what a blessing that would be,” Wylie said. “There has got to be a better way.”