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Wisconsin's only sober high school says Milwaukee needs a recovery school

Horizon High School is one of a kind. In Madison, Wisconsin, it's a sober high school, designed specifically to help students in recovery from drugs and alcohol addiction.

It was formed in 2004, when a group of Dane County residents decided Madison needed a recovery school.

"Some of them just really saw the need -- really sick of teenagers dying, really sick of constant overdoses," said Traci Goll, the director at Horizon High School.

After 13 years, Horizon High School has served hundreds of kids on the brink, taking in students dealing with more than just drug or alcohol addiction.

"I've had two suicide attempts, I've been hospitalized three times, I've been in and out of therapy and multiple therapists over the past 5 years," said Ken Adams.

Adams says he has a complicated family history, and was diagnosed with depression and anxiety at a young age. He went to four different high schools before finding Horizon.

"There's no falling through the cracks at horizon because i'm aware of every step," said Ketrick Lehman, Director of Curriculum.

Horizon is in a strip mall, and inside, it's essentially a one-room school. There is a bathroom, front room and therapist office, but all the learning happens in one big room.

The recovery school only takes up to 15 students each year, and staff says each one needs one-on-one support.

"Because there are so few students, I'm put in a position where i can really address each individual defecit... and they all because of the nature of the school come here with some sort of defecit. That doesn't have any indication of how intelligent they are -- they've missed school, they haven't paid attention at school, they've been left to go through the cracks," said Lehman.

The typical day starts with two hours of normal high school subjects. The afternoons are always different. Students often attend therapy and get out of the building for an activity.

"We've done lazer tag, every park, museum, zoo... trying to give them opportunities of what's available in the community so hopefully they'll go back and do it on their own so when they're in their recovery and working on their sobriety, they can find out how to have fun," said Goll. "Without using drugs," adds student Aaryn Hicks.

To be enrolled at Horizon, students have to be sober for 30 days so they don't jeopardize the sobriety of current students. They have to want sobriety -- and wont accept anyone court ordered or forced by their parents. Lastly, they're drug tested every week.

Goll says the opioid epidemic is changing the way their school operates.

"Kids are spending much more time here. It used to be, the goal was they'd come here and try to get back to their school and we've found... it just hasn't been a positive. Overall, it's almost like sending an alcoholic back to the bar. It's just not an environment they can necessarily be healthy or safe in. Our students all know if they go back to their home schools who's got the drugs," said Goll.

Students says they need this school, and other areas do too.

"We need something like this. We can't just have one. We can't just have two. We need this. It's not like it's just a school, it's lifesaving," said Adams.

Goll says outside of Madison, she receives the most calls for possible enrolles from the Milwaukee and Waukesha area.

"We have had actually one student, his grandma drove him to school here every day from Milwaukee just to keep her grandson educated, sober and alive," said Goll.

Over the summer, the legislature passed Wisconsin Act 30 with unanimous support.

A state education office has already begun taking proposals for a pilot substance abuse recovery high school. It will have the same enrollment criteria as Horizon High School, and can be located anywhere in Wisconsin.

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