'I felt like an outcast'
Anxious and uncertain, 17-year-old Kiara Bufford frantically was searching for ways to continue her education while simultaneously kicking her drug and alcohol addiction.
The Rochester girl began using at age 12 and has been stuck in a vicious cycle of rehab-then-relapse during the past five years. Bufford's parents were stuck in the same cycle, and her circle of friends perpetuated the problem.
As Bufford prepares to celebrate nine months of sobriety on Tuesday, she points to Rochester's new APEX Recovery School for helping end that destructive loop — hopefully for good.
"Toward the end of my (last rehab), I was getting extremely anxious about going back to school because my relapses were always from the same old school setting," said Bufford, who otherwise would be enrolled at Mayo High School. "My social worker came to me about APEX, and I was really excited.
"The thing I like about this school is it's a whole lot smaller. There's a lot of one-on-one time to talk (with educators) whereas when I was in a normal school, I would bottle everything up because I didn't think anybody would get my addiction. There was a lot of judging, and I felt like an outcast."
Rochester Public Schools created the APEX program for the 2016-17 school year, with classes starting Aug. 15. It's housed at the Alternative Learning Center with a unique schedule and individualized education plans aimed at filling credit gaps, limiting social influencers and eliminating past temptations. Showers, laundry facilities and a food shelf also are located on-site to meet other potential needs of the at-risk students.
"The APEX Program demonstrates another example of how Rochester Public Schools is supporting all of our learners," RPS Superintendent Michael Muñoz said. "The focus of APEX — academic and personal excellence — is in line with our mission as a district to empower all students to reach their full potential. We have high hopes for this program."
RPS communication director Heather Nessler says the new program is virtually budget-neutral, with expanded hours for educators Amy Stite and Marian Holtorf requiring an additional $28,000 annually; a grant fully covers the salary of chemical health specialist Kristin Veldhuisen.
The program has served 14 students since opening Aug. 15, with one graduate thus far. Of those students, 12 have been diagnosed with mental health and addictions problems, Veldhuisen said. National research suggests those populations relapse 80 percent of the time in a traditional school setting, while about 30 percent relapse in a sober school.
Acceptance into the APEX program requires an extensive screening process and a vow to abstain from drugs and alcohol. The program has six students, which reflects strict adherence to those rules.
"We talk about removing barriers … and we felt like one of the things we weren't addressing was the chemical dependence component," said Gordie Ziebart, ALC principal who spearheaded the APEX proposal. "It was kind of a leap of faith. The district said we'll give it a try, and we're learning as we go."
Stite and Holtorf say they're most proud of how the students have taken ownership of the new program. That began on Day 1 when the students complained the proposed name — ALC Recovery School — was too bland.
Holtorf turned that concern into a public speaking project, encouraging the students to craft a persuasive speech on renaming the school to fulfill an English credit. They came up with APEX Recovery School, which plays off the mantra preached by Holtorf and Stite — academic and personal excellence.
"They loved this idea of getting to the peak of something on this journey to recovery," said Holtorf, who teaches English and social studies.
Stite has engaged Mayo Clinic as part of APEX's math and science curriculum. The program InSciEd Out has included touring three Mayo labs, plus Limb Lab, and recently recovering a pregnant crawfish from a local stream on a guided tour with a Mayo ecologist. She says the real-world application of classroom lessons has been critical.
Mayo's Joanna Yang says individualized, responsive curriculum is being developed right now to create "one-on-one Mayo mentor support for student-driven research projects fulfilling science credits."
"The overarching topic of the cross-curricular curriculum will be mental health and addiction to allow students to more deeply explore health issues of personal relevance," Yang said.
Added Stite: "It's removing barriers. The whole idea of it is to get these kids to see themselves as a scientist."
Social barriers also have come tumbling down for the suddenly tight-knit group of APEX students. Carpooling has become frequent as they jointly seek out sober activities, including attending AA meetings. Many have started attending Autumn Ridge Church together on Friday nights to celebrate recovery. Bufford even helped two classmates become co-workers at a local eatery.
She credits the APEX staff for fostering that camaraderie.
"I really like Marian and Amy because they push us to succeed and see potential in us," Bufford said. "They know about our addiction and try to get us out in the community in ways that are educational but could also be used as a sober activity, like hiking or meeting with Mayo people.
"We're all like a little family. It's cool to be part of something that's brand new but running so well."
Bufford and her mother, Angela Burt, hope to share their message of hope and recovery at treatment centers across the state. Burt is three years sober, which makes the duo a compelling success story for those still struggling with addiction.
But Bufford is dreaming even bigger. She says APEX and the new Mayo connection sparked her interest in becoming a neonatal nurse focused on helping mothers who are addicts and their new babies.
Stites got goosebumps describing how quickly APEX has impacted at-risk students such as Bufford. She and Holtorf hope to grow the current class to 15 by the end of the year, then double it for 2017-18.
"One of the thing we celebrate, after just a number of weeks, is we started seeing them come together," Stites said. "We heard them telling each other to 'Be strong' or 'You know you aren't going to be happy if you use.' Suddenly we weren't the ones saying it anymore because the kids were saying it to each other. We just keep encouraging them to stay strong in their walk when they leave our walls."