Daniel Rubin: Bridge Way School in Roxborough has recovery as top priority

Rebecca Bonner decided to start the Bridge Way School in Roxborough after seeing her daughter's struggle.
Rebecca Bonner decided to start the Bridge Way School in Roxborough after seeing her daughter's struggle. (LAURENCE KESTERSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 01, 2011

Rebecca Bonner had taught middle school for 11 years, so she figured her daughter's sleepless nights and sudden weight loss signaled something more troubling than stress.

The Swarthmore woman suspected the pot, but not the pills.

"Her pharmacy of choice was her high school," Bonner says. "That's where kids get most of their drugs: Percocet, morphine, prescription painkillers. Parents have them around. ... This is very common."

Her daughter, Elly, tells the story this way:

"A lot was going on at home, my parents going through a divorce, my sister going through some stuff. I just wanted to feel something else. I wanted to feel good."

Ninth grade meant new friends and an introduction to benzos, pharmaceuticals designed to calm anxiety and lift depression. Elly did a lot of them.

Several times that fall, Elly failed drug tests, and by spring, her parents had checked her into a residential program near Reading to face her addiction.

Returning to her old school wasn't the best solution. But there were no other options given her grades and the cost of special boarding schools.

"Once I got back sophomore year," she says, "I realized I had changed but everyone else was still doing the same thing."

She suffered a relapse, taking too many Xanax. Her parents confronted her. The school started watching her every move. She was miserable.

By then, Bonner had fully educated herself about addiction and treatment. The stats were daunting. Andrew Finch, a Vanderbilt professor, had found that eight out of 10 students who return to their old schools after treatment relapse.

What made most sense to Bonner was the concept of recovery schools - academically challenging high schools centered on battling addiction.

They're more common in the Midwest, but none was closer to her home than Boston.

So she decided to start one here.

On Sept. 8, the Bridge Way School (thebridgewayschool.org) is to open on Freeland Avenue in Roxborough, in several rooms rented from a synagogue. Since quitting her job at Greene Street Friends, Bonner has helped establish the Greater Philadelphia Association for Recovery Education, built a board, hired a staff, and gained city and state approval. That's a lot of red tape to cut.

"We've had to meet Pennsylvania standards in Algebra II while showing what is our safety plan for a nuclear disaster," she says. The school hired two full-time and five part-time teachers, all with middle school experience. Some staff members themselves are in recovery.

"We are a school that not only gets recovery, we honor it," Bonner says. "We respect how hard it is to stay sober."

The school will emphasize arts, music, and physical education. The day begins at 9 a.m. and runs until 4 p.m. No homework is required - their homework is life work, Bonner says, repairing relationships with family and friends, getting jobs, and going to meetings.

Assuming there are enough students to meet.

So far, the school has enrolled one student. Bonner expects a couple more by opening day, and there's room for 20 high schoolers this year. Tuition costs $19,000 a semester, $38,000 a year. Some money is available for scholarships.

Elly says a recovery school might have eased her battle. "It took a while for me to get on the right track," she says. "About 11th or 12th grade there was this click in my brain, like I wanted to get out of here, I wanted to do something.

"When you're around people trying to be clean, it's a lot easier to tell your stories. People actually know what you're going through. You need a group of teens talking about their struggles, what they need to change, how others can help them."

Elly's a sophomore at a local college, studying social work. These days, the strongest stuff she's into is roller derby. Which sounds pretty strong.

Contact columnist Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917, drubin@phillynews.com

or @danielrubin on Twitter. Read his blog at philly.com/blinq.

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