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Lawmakers Proposed the First Regional Recovery High School. Critics Say It May Deepen Racial Inequity.

Woman seated
Del. Carrie Coyner is proposing a first-of-its-kind in Virginia high school for students struggling with addiction. (Photo: Craig Carper/VPM)

To help students struggling with addiction, lawmakers are considering a proposal to create a first-in-the-state regional recovery high school. Recovery schools aren’t a new concept across the country, however. 2017 research found they can be effective in helping kids stay sober, and even more so compared to kids who aren’t in the specialty schools. 

Del. Carrie Coyner (R - Chesterfield) is carrying legislation to approve the creation of a pilot recovery school open to 25 students across Central Virginia - but it's unclear if the state will fund this. She says it’s best practice to keep the school small with 50 students or less. Coyner used to be on Chesterfield County’s school board and says the district is willing to provide physical space. Chesterfield County Public Schools Superintendent Mervin Daugherty tried to launch a similar school in Delaware before moving to Virginia. 

Coyner says the idea here started from a conversation she had five years ago with Chesterfield County Sheriff Karl Leonard about the number of people in jail struggling with substance abuse addiction. 

“And almost every one of their stories started from middle school or high school,” Coyner said. 

Under the proposed pilot, 25 slots would be divided up across all 15 central Virginia school divisions. One slot would be reserved for a student from each district, and larger districts like Chesterfield, Henrico and Richmond would get two slots. 

Coyner says the district would be ready to open the school as early as August. But it all depends on state funding at this point. Coyner is asking for about $900,000 in state funds to pay for teaching positions, a program administrator, a substance abuse counselor, a school counselor, psychologist and nurse. The funds would also pay for transportation.

“Transportation is a big part of the cost,” Coyner said. “But if you want children to be successful in school and recovery, we need them there every day.” 

Some community members like Chesterfield resident and mother Sheila Bynum-Coleman are concerned about how students would be selected for the pilot. Bynum-Coleman also ran against former House Speaker Kirk Cox for his Delegate seat last year. 

“The data has shown us that the kids who receive the best services in Chesterfield County are white kids,” Bynum-Coleman said. “It’s not the Black kids, it’s not the poor kids. We don’t see racial diversity in the advanced programs, in the honors program, dual enrollment, gifted program.” 

Bynum-Coleman worries the district’s legacy of racial inequality will carry over into the recovery high school. She says while addiction often leads to treatment for white kids, it too often leads to prison for Black kids.

“It’s a disease for white kids, but for Black kids, it’s a crime,” Bynum-Coleman said. 

Coyner says districts she’s talked to about the selection process are considering a lottery system if more than one student is interested in a spot in the two-year-pilot recovery school. 

“The fairest way to do it is to blindly choose someone even though you have five people who are all wanting it,” Coyner said. “The research shows that we likely will have a waiting list.” 

In order to be considered for the school, students would already have to be in some form of early treatment program, according to Coyner. Students would also have to volunteer to go, not be forced to attend.

Bynum-Coleman worries that the early treatment criteria will prevent the neediest students from participating. 

“Those [treatment] programs are typically families in wealth who have the ability to pay out of pocket for it,” Bynum-Coleman said. “We’re talking about using state dollars to pay for 25 kids who are already in treatment. We’re setting up a system for the most elite.”

Megan Pauly covers education and healthcare issues in the greater Richmond region. She was a 2020-21 reporting fellow with ProPublica's Local Reporting Network and a 2019-20 reporting fellow with the Education Writers Association.
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