Sobriety, mental health and the pandemic: A look inside Colorado's only recovery high school
On a recent Monday, Keith Hayes is rounding up students inside 5280 High School in Denver for the morning meeting.
“Let's go. Let's go,” he yells. “Let's go please.”
Dressed in typical teen wear — jeans, hoodies, t-shirts — they plop down on large steps in the open auditorium. Hayes, the school’s director of recovery, poses the question of the day. “How has your mental health been a struggle that has maybe affected you and your sobriety? How has your sobriety maybe affected your mental health?” he asks. Every day starts like this: with a recovery program called Summit. The students, who are in recovery for drugs and alcohol, can share if they want. A teenage boy goes first.
“I didn't want to have, like, any emotion. So I thought, like, the best way to, like, put it down would be to do more and more and more drugs,” he says.
A female classmate is next. She started doing drugs to have fun and party, then her habit turned into an addiction. Another shares that his addiction lowered his mental health. A third announces an upcoming milestone.
“In like two days, I'll be six months sober,” says a teenage girl as her classmates cheer.
5280 is a recovery high school within Denver Public Schools. The Summit program is just a part of the curriculum. The charter school follows a project-based learning model where students focus on hands-on learning like building a tiny home for a man experiencing homelessness. They also take traditional subjects like English, math and Spanish. Every afternoon students participate in a wellness elective that focuses on developing the whole person, topics range from basketball to journaling. The school follows DPS academic requirements and policies.
“Teen culture is drug culture”
There are at least 45 recovery high schools across the country and 5280 is the only one in Colorado. The charter school opened in 2018 and enrolls over 100 students each year. Most of them live in Denver but they come from all over the Front Range and even out of state.
“The mission is to help kids who are struggling with substance use to not only learn how to live a substance free life, but be educated,” founder and executive director Melissa Mouton.
When the COVID-19 hit in March 2020 and schools shut down, this mission became much more difficult. 5280 quickly felt the impact as students started using drugs and alcohol again.
“Within 60 days, by the end of that school year, our relapse rate increased by more than tenfold,” she said. “I was terrified that we were going to have a kid overdose and die.”
The stakes were high. Overdose deaths among 15- to 24-year-olds in Colorado more than doubled between 2019 to 2020.
In August 2020, 5280 reopened with in-person learning. The school split students into cohorts and followed safety protocols like masking, distancing and rigorous cleaning. It was a tough decision but ultimately the right one Mouton said.
“It was a non-negotiable for us because our kids need social connection. They need to be part of a community,” she said. “They literally can't survive, isolated at home on a computer screen.”
That was a challenging time for children everywhere. Most were stuck at home: lonely, isolated and stressed. Nearly 19% of Colorado youth ages 11 to 18 reported poor mental health in 2021, about twice the rate reported in 2017 according to the Colorado Health Access survey.
“There's a whole collection of things that impact young people's mental health,” said Vincent Atchity, president and CEO of Mental Health Colorado.
In 2020, those things included increased access to drugs, family members dying from COVID, the murder of George Floyd and school closures.
“That isolation associated with remote learning, that's got an impact on kids whose development really depends on their access to and regular interaction with peers and others,” he said.
According to Colorado’s 2022 Youth Mental Health report, when kids are in crises many of them turn to alcohol or drugs to cope.
“Teen culture is drug culture, unfortunately,” Mouton said. “What drives kids to that is anxiety, social anxiety, depression. There's a lot of what we call co-occurring disorders that kids have.”
“Hard to get sober young”
Teenager Alexis Castillo loves to be around people. The 16-year-old has always had big friend groups and would have sleepovers with them all the time. When the pandemic started, Castillo was in the 7th grade and drank alcohol and used fentanyl regularly. Then she got stuck at home, lost her access to drugs and was forced to stop cold turkey.
“That messed me up pretty bad, like mentally, and I think during the pandemic was probably the most depressed I ever was,” she said.
She also missed her friends. Her depression got so bad she even tried to take her own life and ended up in a psychiatric hospital.
“I just couldn't find a way to live because there was no purpose in it. If I wasn't going to be around people, like that was my purpose for being at that point,” she said.
Castillo recovered and eventually started using again. But by the time she started her freshman year of high school, she was sober and enrolled at 5280. At first she loved the school but after a while that changed and she stopped showing up for class. She didn’t want to take accountability for her actions.
“Because it's something they're really good about, like if you're in recovery and you're trying to get sober and you go here, they give you a lot of accountability to that,” she said. “That was not something I wanted.”
Castillo relapsed and school staff helped her get into rehab. Three months later she was back at 5280, sober and ready to do the work.
“It was nice to be back here with people who really supported me and had seen me at some pretty low points in my life,” she said.
Recovery is fluid and personal. 5280 has an open door policy and students can attend as long as they want. The school purposely stays under capacity so teens can enroll anytime. A student won’t get kicked out if they relapse, but there are two requirements. Students have to want to be sober and they must attend an outside recovery program.
“The staff treats us like we're not less than them and they're super understanding of sometimes, like we need a second being in class with everything going on,” she said. “It's really hard to get sober young.”
About a third of the school staff are in recovery themselves, including Brittany Kitchens.
“The number one step is just letting them know out of the gate, no matter what's going on, that we love them. We are here for them,” she said.
Kitchens is the school’s recovery coach. Her job ranges from teaching students how to navigate recovery and regulate their emotions to just checking in to see how their day is going. She likens herself to a hall monitor, constantly on the lookout for changes in their behavior.
“I tend to be the first kind of line that the kids will come to when they're experiencing something that is just a little bit too big for them to process,” she said.
Some of these difficulties stem from traumas students have experienced. Situations that include sex and drug trafficking, sexual abuse and abandonment. Students also have to deal with traumas they have caused, said Kitchens, actions that have landed them in jail or on probation. Kitchens own recovery journey has helped her connect with the teens and provide coping mechanisms to deal with trauma.
“A lot of times it just starts with, ‘Hey, take a breath, breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth. Put your hand over your heart, that's purpose right there, ’” she said. “It's just really being able to pull them out of that traumatic cycle, bring them back into the present reality, and then just cover them with love.”
According to the Association of Recovery Schools, these students have higher graduation rates, attend school more often and are more likely to stay sober compared to their peers who receive treatment and attend a traditional high school.
5280 graduated 32 students last May and the school has plans to expand. Administrators regularly field calls from people around Colorado, and across the country, wanting to know how to start a recovery school.
“What we do is so unique and so specialized that most educators have no clue how to do what we do,” said Mouton. “In every major metropolitan area, there should be a place for kids who want to go to school and be sober and learn how to live life substance free.”
“Able to help each other”
At 5280’s morning recovery program students continue to share their thoughts on mental health and sobriety.
“When I was younger, I didn't even think I would make it till 15. I thought I would be dead by 14,” says a teenage girl. “It's just so crazy that I'm 15 years old and I have almost nine months sober and I'm genuinely like, I love my life and I love myself.”
The daily meeting is an opportunity for students to build community and support each other, which experts say is important to maintaining sobriety. Each student closes their share by saying, “I love you.” A sentiment immediately and reassuringly repeated back to them by their peers.
Castillo sits on the top bleacher with several other students. She chose not to share today but still feels the love. She’s been sober 11 months.
“We all are able to help each other in a really unique way. I actually have friends that care about me today and that wasn't really something I had using,” she said.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, help is available. 988, Colorado's Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, is available 24 hours a day.