There is Hope: University High School

There is Hope: University High School

A Testimony from a University High School Graduate:

There is Hope: University High School

Here at UCC, we feel incredibly lucky to share our church space with University High School (UHS), Austin’s only recovery high school for youth struggling with the powerful disease of addiction. Housed (mostly) on the second floor of UCC, our partnership with UHS throughout the years has been nothing short of inspiring.

We wanted to share how UHS and its incredible program battles addiction and changes lives, one student at a time.

The History of Addiction Treatment and High School Students

Studies show more than 66% of students with addiction problems who return to their former high schools after treatment quickly begin using drugs or alcohol again. (Finch & Wegman, 2012). This meant that teenagers who chose recovery faced the following dilemma:

  • Return to a hazardous high school environment that could provide fertile ground for a relapse; or
  • Put their education on hold completely as they pursued recovery.

Thankfully, the first sober/recovery high school was founded in 1987. The model proved so successful that approximately 40 of them have been founded in the United States over the last 30 years, including eight facilities in Texas.


A Solution Arrives in Austin

Modeled after Archway Academy, a well-established and successful school in Houston, TX, UHS opened its doors in the fall of 2014 with 13 students and the mission is to enable each student to fulfill his or her personal and academic potential within a supportive recovery environment.

UHS students are young adults who have chosen the path of recovery and pledged to support each other in healthy, productive, and drug-free living at all times. The culture is based on the recovery principles of honesty, hope, courage, integrity, willingness, fellowship, justice, perseverance, and service.

Small classes are a key factor in students’ success because they allow for individualized attention from teachers, counselors, and program staff; most recovery schools are quite small, ranging from 6 to 70 students. (Finch, 2010).

Julie McElrath, executive director of University High School, shared the following introduction to UHS in late 2017:

“Our school is located in University Christian Church, just steps from the Littlefield Fountain on UT Campus. This is fitting, as our academic curriculum and staff are provided by UT Charter School, and we are closely aligned with the UT School of Social Work and UT’s Center for Students in Recovery.”

Our students work on their respective academics throughout the day, both online and through direct instruction. Each young person is given a personalized curriculum plan and receives one-on-one support from our state certified teachers. Understanding that each student’s journey to UHS is unique, our school offers flexible and open enrollment throughout the year.


Life at University High School

The average day starts at 8am with a group processing ‘check-in’ that is student-led, staff supported, and includes peer-to-peer sharing through honesty and accountability.  Each student is an integral part of their own recovery process, as well as that of their peers.

Our recovery support staff interact with the students throughout the day, providing support for their social/emotional wellness and sobriety. Students regularly attend weekly 12-step meetings, engage in service at a local food pantry, walk over to the UT Center for Students in recovery for mindfulness activities, and invite guest speakers to share their stories.

We also believe that recovery is fun, so we go off campus for lunch on Friday afternoons and spend the last two hours of the day engaged in an off-campus activity that can be educationally enhancing, recovery related, or just plain fun.

The culture at UHS is one of loving accountability. It is important for our students and their parents to know that they are heard and supported, their voice matters, and we are here to help them along their journey through high school and into the next phase of their lives. Our team considers this work an honor and a privilege, and often share with one another how grateful they are for the reciprocal nature of this beautiful journey.”

Why Do We Need Recovery High Schools?

In October 2017, Judge Darlene Byrne spoke to a UHS fundraising breakfast and shared from her extensive experience in working with the recovery community in the Austin area.

“A national survey showed almost 1.5 million 12-17 year-olds met the criteria for a substance use disorder in 2014. Nine out of ten U.S. adults with addiction problems admit that their chemical dependency began before age 18. The Center for Disease Control tells us that Texas is no exception:

  • A recent CDC survey showed that almost four in ten teenagers in Texas currently drink alcohol and the same amount has tried marijuana.
  • Nearly three in ten teenagers of those surveyed stated they had been offered, sold, or given an illegal drug on school property.”

A student who seeks treatment for drug and alcohol problems and returns to their school of origin faces enormous pressures including shame, the desire to fit in, and negative peer pressure from former friends who may still be using substances. The risk of relapse in such an environment is extremely high.

By contrast, recovery schools offer a safe, inclusive community where a young person can find a community of support for their recovery. In short, University High School and the other approximately 40 recovery high schools across the nation offer a unique antidote to isolation – you offer an opportunity for a “time in” rather than “time out.”

Such schools provide the opportunity for more connections and less shame. It’s the chance for each student to continue to build their own sense of worthiness, self-love, and belonging – all while traveling along the road of recovery, self-awareness, and educational success.




“Each young person at University High school has a unique opportunity to beat the odds and move forward in life with the skills to thrive. I’m thankful for everyone at UCC who believes in and supports the work of University High School. I’m in awe of the parents who so love their children that they support them in their recovery journey and bring them to this place of healing called University High School.”

On February 15th, UCC will be hosting a panel on addiction in youth, titled “There is HOPE: Understanding and finding solutions for today’s alcohol and drug addicted youth.” The panel will feature some of University High School’s best, including: Julie McElrath, Executive Director of UHS, Peggy Robinson, a supportive parent of a UHS student, and Boomer Mackay, a recent graduate of UHS. Considering current events such as the worsening of the opioid epidemic as well as the several instances of hazing and binge-drinking turned deadly (to name a few), we feel this topic is especially crucial to discuss. To RSVP for the free event, visit our Eventbrite page. We hope to see you there!