Meagan Maly first began drinking alcohol when she was 11 years old. Four years later, she found herself skipping school to drink at home alone. She speaks haltingly about her history of alcohol abuse, reluctant to blame anyone but herself.
"I pretty much went downhill my eighth-grade summer," says Maly, now 16. "I drank a lot before that, but that's when it really hit the fan."
Maly has been sober for more than a year, thanks largely to Horizon High, the only school in Madison specifically designed to deal with alcohol and drug abuse.
The idea for the private, nonprofit school came from Shelly Dutch, a counselor at the Madison-based Connections Counseling Clinic, and a group of parents and educators whose children were struggling with substance abuse. It was modeled on similar recovery schools around the U.S.
Horizon opened in January 2005 in the basement of Madison Christian Community Church on Old Sauk Road. It moved to its current location at Neighborhood House on Mills Street in September 2006.
John Fournelle, a founding member and president of Horizon's board of directors, says the school's goal is "to keep our kids alive during a critical period of adolescence." That means keeping them grounded and clean.
Horizon High opened with six students. Today, it has eight. Yet despite its small size, the school seems to be doing well; it could serve as a model for a Madison charter school, or for County Executive Kathleen Falk's upcoming slate of initiatives to combat alcohol abuse.
If Horizon were a charter school, it would have greater access to resources and funding - but Fournelle says that was not an option.
Opening a charter school can take years, and Horizon's founders didn't want to wait. Madison has been lukewarm toward other charter schools, and Fournelle believes some district officials feel there's no need for a school like Horizon "because they have Shabazz." Malcolm Shabazz is a great school, Fournelle says, but it can't enforce a drug-free environment the way Horizon can.
And if Horizon were chartered under the Madison school district, it would have difficulty taking students from surrounding areas like DeForest and Oregon. Says Fournelle, "It's important that Horizon and schools like it are here for the community."
Ketrick Lehmann, Horizon's only educator, is a towering and jovial man. He jokingly describes the school as "an island of misfit toys," noting that most of its students have at some point felt like outcasts.
Not all Horizon students have drug and alcohol issues. Some simply seek a smaller environment. The students range in age from 14 to 17, and vary in learning levels. Having only one teacher in this setting presents challenges and raises concerns.
Lehmann says 80% of what he teaches in class is the same regardless of age or grade. He differentiates through his assignments and expectations, and assesses students on an individual level - something hard to do in a traditional setting.
"In classes of 30," Lehmann says, "if they don't understand something on a consistent basis, they'll never understand it because eventually they stop asking questions for fear of looking stupid or of the teacher just shutting them out."
Wisconsin law doesn't mandate that teachers at private schools be licensed, but Lehmann is certified to teach social studies and psychology. He's also taught English, science and math in the Milwaukee public schools. Lehmann was hired in part because of this broad experience.
Horizon uses a credit system similar to and compatible with regular public schools. Graduates receive a normal diploma, not an equivalency.
The school is not yet accredited by any outside institution, but plans to seek accreditation when it can afford the process, which is done by private organizations. Horizon says it meets all of the state Department of Public Instruction's general guidelines for what constitutes a legal private school.
Besides Lehmann, the team at Horizon includes director Traci Goll, and Jen Linderud, a counselor from the state-certified Connections clinic.
Goll admits she spends much of her time "asking people for money" - writing grants, organizing fund-raisers and the like. Horizon's tuition is $6,000 per semester, but only one current student is paying the full amount; most of the school's funding comes from private donors.
Last December, Horizon raised over $20,000 at an event attended by more than 100 people. Goll says no student has ever been turned away because of money, but adds that the school's scholarship funds are "quickly and surely running out."
Horizon admits only students who have 30 days of sobriety and are committed to staying sober. Once at the school, they are randomly drug-tested. (Students suspected of using alcohol may be required to get their blood analyzed.)
Goll and Lehmann say some students have relapsed, but most confessed before the test revealed it. The students are given 48 hours to tell their parents; otherwise Linderud makes the call. The staff, student and parents then meet to discuss what happened and what to do next.
Generally, students are given a second chance, but not always. Goll remembers one student who was admitted and then failed his first drug test. "And that was it, he was gone," she says. "He wasn't ready to be here."
Though Horizon maintains the same standards as regular high schools, the curriculum is unorthodox. Lehmann teaches students the essentials, like geometry and English, while Linderud talks with them about addiction, recovery and coping. Goll focuses on keeping students healthy (she takes them to a local health club every Thursday) and teaching basic life skills - things like budgeting, shopping, even job- and apartment-hunting.
Every Thursday, the students plan a meal and buy what they need within a budget; on Friday, they cook lunch. On a recent Friday afternoon, they baked chicken and made lefse, a kind of Norwegian pancake.
Lehmann underscores the value of education by bringing in local professionals, including zoologists, astronomers and photojournalists. "We're continually trying to show them that line in America between doing something you enjoy, and slaving for a living," he says.
For many students, this approach pays off. "For the first time," says Goll, "these guys actually have plans for the future." Many of the students from Horizon's first two years have gone on to college.
Maly now aspires to become a drug and alcohol counselor. Senior Trisha Magel - who a year ago was out of school and using drugs like cocaine, ecstasy and OxyContin - hopes to open a tattoo and piercing parlor. Zach Dachman, a freshman who languished in the public schools before he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, is now on an even keel and talks about someday becoming a marine biologist.
Horizon's impact on its students is also apparent in more subtle ways. Dachman describes the school as "a little family." On that recent Friday, as other students laughed and pounded lefse dough, Maly sat chatting with Linderud off to the side about teen drinking.
"I'm never going let my kids drink," she said sternly.
"Why is that?" Linderud asked.
"Because of what I've been through - what I've seen."
Neighborhood House, 29 S. Mills St., Madison, WI 53715, 608-442-0935