University High School: The Recovery High School of Tomorrow

By Mary H.

In Austin, between the Texas state capitol and the UT tower, there is a small Christian church. In the fall of 2014, it will open its doors as the city’s only “sober” high school.

University High School will join more than 20 high schools across the nation in the Association of Recovery Schools, serving student populations with substance abuse problems.

The school will be unique, as it is the first of its kind located on the doorstep of a college campus. Classes will be held in the meeting rooms of University Christian Church on 21st Street.

Lori Holleran-Steiker, a professor of social work at the University of Texas at Austin, serves as president of the school and leads the community effort to establish the institution.

University High School Austin

She said the idea was born at a Houston coffee shop after an Association of Recovery Schools conference in the summer of 2012. Holleran-Steiker met casually with Greg Hambrick, who helped found Houston’s Archway Academy, one of the largest recovery high schools in the nation.

“Here’s how you start your recovery school in Austin,” Hambrick said.

Holleran-Steiker was hesitant at first, feeling the weight of her other responsibilities and not sure where she would find the time to start a school.

“When a community needs something like this so desperately, it’s a spiritual thing,” Hambrick said. “Once you start talking about it, all the people who need to be involved start to show up.”

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association, more than 7 percent of adolescents age 12 to 17 reported alcohol and drug dependence problems in 2010. CASAColumbia, a scientific organization that confronts addiction, identifies adolescent substance abuse as America’s number one public health problem, with nine out of ten drug-addicted Americans reporting first use before age 18.

Holleran-Steiker believes there is a missing piece in the continuum of care for young people in Austin that struggle with substance abuse. A recovery high school will provide a much-needed resource to that community.

She described the first year of planning the school as mostly conversation.

Holleran-Steiker recalls a community gathering one morning in her living room, where she and her husband served more than 100 bagels.

Packed on her couches and spread across the floor were addiction treatment specialists, counselors, members of AA, Al-Anon, students from recovery high schools, UT professors, parents of kids in treatment, parents of kids who died from addiction – every imaginable community was represented.

“We had literally the makings of a school,” Holleran Steiker said. “There was this level of conviction that you could hear in people’s voices.”

It still gives her the chills.

What has resulted after much hard work and collaboration is a blend of a non-profit organization and a charter school.

As a non-profit, University High School is able to accept individual donations and receive public grants. The Baxter Foundation in Houston awarded $50,000, and the board matched that amount through private donations. Holleran Steiker hopes UHS can raise $500,000 by opening day to ensure the school has everything it needs to be successful.

These funds will be used to finance the recovery portion of the school – to staff licensed recovery coaches and counselors, pay for drug testing, support after-school activities and cover other miscellaneous programming costs.

Students will pay tuition and program fees totaling about $700 per month, but the school’s non-profit status will guarantee that families pay only what they can afford. Holleran-Steiker wants to ensure that the doors remain open to anyone in need of a safe and sober learning environment.

The board of directors is still determining the best way to provide education to UHS students but boasts a strong and supportive partnership with the University of Texas-University Charter School system, their board and their superintendent Gwen Boyter. The UT charter school system is part of the Continuing and Innovative Education program at the university and has been serving special needs students with university resources since 1998.

UHS is also considering UT Online High School and the Bridge School as possible academic resources.

Their first priority is to establish the recovery community of the school and work with the alternative peer groups that exist to support students outside the classroom.

According to Recovery Today Online, the alternative peer group model began in Houston more than 40 years ago to address the emotional, psychological, spiritual and social needs of adolescents struggling with substance abuse.  Groups like this already exist in Austin, including the Palmer Drug Abuse Program and Teen and Family Services.

All UHS students will be required to attend an after-school program of this kind, and the school expects that its first students will be drawn from these existing programs.

The school will start small to ensure the highest level of care and attention, reserving space for fewer than 20 students.

“We will be looking for students who are committed to recovery,” UHS co-founder Laura Kelly said.

Kelly emphasized that UHS is not a haven for troubled adolescents, forced in by the court system or disgruntled parents. It is a place for students who really want to learn how to live a sober life.

Chandni Kamdar, 18, who graduated from Archway Academy in Houston in 2013, recalls begging her counselors to attend a recovery high school.

“I pushed, and I fought to get a referral,” Kamdar said.

Kamdar struggled in public school to fit in and started taking drugs at 14. Shortly after she dropped out her junior year, her dad found her passed out in her bedroom after a night of taking cocaine and Xanax.

Kamdar went to an adolescent treatment center in Houston and, afterward, joined an adolescent peer group. It was there she learned of Archway Academy.

She described her first day at Archway as “eye-opening.” It was a community where people introduced themselves as addicts and alcoholics and embraced it.

“I think sometimes I felt more at home there than when I went home,” Kamdar said. “That feeling of being wanted and loved was something I got at Archway that I never got at public school.”

Archway Academy serves as the model for University High School. It opened in 2004, and over the past four years, more than 80 percent of students have stayed sober.

The executive director, Sasha McLean, is proud of this achievement.

McLean said that University High School will not look identical to Archway Academy.

“It’s going to take on its own personality,” McLean said. “They will be the only sober high school in Austin, but they will not be alone.”

UHS will have the support of a network of recovery schools all over the country, five in Texas.

Kamdar believes the missing piece in the continuum of care for Archway is an easy transition into college life. This is the gap that UHS hopes to address in its collaboration with the university community and the Center for Students in Recovery at UT and why they feel their location on University Drive is so critically important.

Ivana Grahovac, the director of the recovery center at UT, describes the symbiotic relationship that will exist.

“Their students get to see what college and sobriety looks like, and our students get to give back and feel useful. It’s empowering,” Grahovac said.

The board of directors is still tying up loose ends, but Holleran-Steiker said they are determined to open on Sept. 2, for the 2014-2015 school year. She invites people to witness it themselves and help support the school as it comes to fruition.

“It’s going to be amazing. It’s going to blow people’s minds.”

Anyone who has questions about UHS or is interested in attending for the 2014-2015 school year can email directly to

BRC_Mary H.Mary H. has been sober since April 17, 2012 and is a grateful alumna of BRC Recovery. She studies journalism and government at the University of Texas at Austin and plans to graduate fall 2015.