Even in a typical year, the challenges facing teens at North Shore Recovery High School are distinct. The school in Beverly is designed to meet the academic, mental health and recovery needs of students with diagnosed substance use disorders.
But, in March of 2020, the abrupt shift to remote learning because of the coronavirus crisis compounded a lot of difficulties for students who already have struggled with personal crises. And the lack of face-to-face interactions created complications in a school that’s built on a close-knit and direct model of learning and support.
By last July, the school had adopted a hybrid approach, with some students in the building, sometimes. On Monday, North Shore Recovery High is set to resume a fully in-person schedule.
Stephen Phan, a 17-year-old from Saugus, says he can’t wait.
"I'm actually looking forward to it,” says Phan. “At my old school, I would not want to go to school. But I actually like coming here. To come back full-time will probably be really good for me.”
Phan says when he attended Saugus High, he was late every day.
“School started around 7:30, and I wouldn’t get there 'til 10, 11. But over here, I set my alarm clock to actually wake up," he says. "I’m actually coming here on time — sometimes early! It's just my family here, you know?”
Carly Baker, an 18-year-old senior from Marblehead, knows.
“We all kind of have this common understanding of each other,” says Baker. “We all relate to each other on some level, because we're all suffering with addiction. And that makes it easier for us to get along, I'd say.”
Baker says she’s eager to return to five days a week of in-person school, in part because of the support she receives from teachers.
“When you're having a bad day, they'll talk to you and work through your problems with you,” says Baker. “And then once you're OK, they'll [say], ‘Hey, I'll help you with this. Let's start doing this work together.’ It's like it’s you and the teacher versus the world. It's not just you versus the world.”
Connections like that are central to North Shore Recovery High School. When the building shut down at the start of the pandemic, all the educators took on a few students to check in with each day. They couldn’t prevent every problem, but English teacher Micaela Gile says they did make sure nobody fell through the cracks.
"I think that established a connection that hopefully had made it possible for the kids to hang in there and not feel quite so isolated and alone," Gile says.
Phan agrees that the genuine care his teachers offer stands out.
“The people here are just very understanding,” says Phan. “They give you motivation, not like at other schools.”
At other schools, Phan says, “they just give you a bad grade.”
The people here are just very understanding. They give you motivation, not like at other schools.Stephen Phan
Phan also says now that he’s making progress at NSRH, he’s separated himself from most of the people he knew in Saugus.
“Almost everyone's cut off,” he says. “Because, you know, I don't want to be surrounded by other people who don't have ambitions and stuff, you know?”
And in reflecting on his life before enrolling at NSRH, Phan points to a significant difference.
“As I was growing up, I didn't have a lot of people who believed in me,” he says. “But over here, people really believe [in] your dreams and what you want to do."
Phan wants to work in the music industry, producing songs that speak to people who've experienced struggles like his own — including the loss of someone special.
"A lot of people take losses every day," he says. "Losing people, you're not alone. I've lost a couple of friends in the past few years — a lot of close people. But it gets better.”
Phan and Baker both say the pandemic has been rough for teens with substance use disorder, given the dangerous combination of extra time and a shortage of human contact.
Baker says she’d like to offer encouragement to her peers.
“They felt alone, and they wanted to do something to help their pain,” says Baker. “Just know that numbing the pain doesn't make the pain go away. It just makes it ultimately worse. So if you can reach out and get help, that's the best thing for you to do. And you're just one call away from getting help and changing your life.”
Staff members say it’s common for students to set a goal of helping others, based on their own experiences and talents. Gile, the English teacher, says she sees this kind of empathy all the time.
“Our students’ life experiences have been complex and often harrowing,” says Gile. “And we see a lot of kids leaving the school and becoming people in the helping professions, because they are wise and insightful, and they have come out on the other side. And so we always try to convey to them that their painful past can be an asset as well.”
Baker, the 18-year-old senior, has taken that lesson to heart. She says she explores her own history and her feelings by creating art. When she starts college in the fall she plans to study psychology.
“My biggest goal in life is to help people,” says Baker. “Especially to help children who are suffering from abuse. I want to just be that person to reach out to them and let them know that they're not alone, and that there is help out there, and that we can get them out of their situations that they’re in.”
"Our students’ life experiences have been complex and often harrowing. And we see a lot of kids leaving the school and becoming people in the helping professions ... We always try to convey to them that their painful past can be an asset as well."Michaela Gile
Baker says when she herself is in need of an assist, sometimes she seeks out NSRH staff, and sometimes she turns to the school therapy dog.
“Franklin, my best friend! He's my little buddy,” says Baker. "Whenever I get stressed out in school, I just tell my teachers I’m going to see Franklin, and they’re like, ‘OK, that’s fine!’ He’ll sit on my lap and lick my face and just sit with me. He knows when you're upset, and all he wants to do is be there and love you and make you feel better.”
Michelle Lipinski, the school principal, says these interactions illustrate how NSRH helps students succeed. She says after the struggles of this past year, Monday's full return to campus is exciting not only for the kids but also for the staff.
“For anyone who’s an educator, or for anyone who works with adolescents or children, this is a calling,” says Lipinski. “People lost their identity when they weren’t able to actually be in a classroom or able to be in therapy with people. So I think [now I’m] just looking at life as though every day can be magical.”
Lipinski says the pandemic intensified a lot of suffering, and yet the problems remind her and the rest of the North Shore Recovery High School community about what they value.
“Because we saw that there were days that, you know, we all sat alone in our houses,” says Lipinski. “And I know that I, for one, was incredibly depressed for a large portion of that. It was really hard. So I look forward to coming to work every day, and seeing these faces! And I just don't take anything for granted anymore.”
This segment aired on April 25, 2021.
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