MCPS Closes In on Partnership for Academic Program for Students Emerging from Addiction

School system works to cement agreement with The Landing, a Gaithersburg organization

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Updated 2:30 p.m. Friday: Local public school officials seem close to realizing their vision of offering Montgomery County students a sheltered environment to learn while they’re in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction.

Montgomery County Public Schools is forging a partnership with The Landing, a Gaithersburg-based group that supports young people as they recover from substance abuse addiction. Both sides say they’re eager to begin expanding educational options for these students.

“The youth that we serve, currently they’re going to their home schools, and they’re struggling in their schools because a lot of times, that’s where they can get drugs and alcohol,” said Evelyn Saim-Lobos, director of The Landing. “It’s a constant reminder and a constant trigger and a constant danger for them to relapse.”

Though the new academic program’s structure hasn’t been finalized, the partners say MCPS will provide the teachers and The Landing will contribute recovery services and instructional space inside its buildings on East Diamond Avenue.

Jonathan Brice, associate superintendent of student and family support and engagement for MCPS, said the program could eventually grow to accommodate 80 students. 

“It is our hope that the incidence of drug abuse decreases, and we don’t have a need for it. But at the same time, we recognize that we have to prepare because there may be young people making bad choices … who may need a program like this,” Brice said.

The state is pitching in with a $200,000 grant for the new program, hoping that it will help in fighting the opioid epidemic.

Brice said the grant should cover a majority of the initial expenses for staffing and equipment, but the school system is willing to pay for additional costs. The program’s teachers will be drawn from the school system’s interim instructional services, which meets the needs of students who are unable to attend school because of emotional or physical conditions.

However, the school system likely will have to hire someone as a liaison between The Landing and MCPS, he added. MCPS is also looking to invest in creating an online component to the educational program, according to Brice.

The Landing now serves more than 37 young people from ages 12 to 17, Saim-Lobos said. The children and teens in recovery can go there for afterschool programs and an afterschool clubhouse and to make friends who share similar goals.

“We want to make sure they have something fun to do in a sober environment,” Saim-Lobos said.

Brice said The Landing likely will expand its hours of operation under the new educational program, so students could learn in the mornings and take advantage of recovery services in the afternoons.

The program can’t begin until the program partners finalize a memorandum of understanding, but Brice said he expects the pilot will be operating before the current school year ends. The agreement will be between MCPS and Family Services, Inc., a nonprofit that runs The Landing and about 30 other programs in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

Last year, the Montgomery County Board of Education expressed an interest in teaming up with other jurisdictions in an academic program for students in recovery. That idea didn’t pan out, Brice said, but the state is looking at the county initiative as a possible model for other school districts in Maryland.

School board member Rebecca Smondrowski has been a leading proponent of creating academic options for students coming out of addiction.

“It’s for them to have a new start in a different and sober environment, where the kids are there to support each other and break the previous routine of making bad choices,” Smondrowski said.

This isn’t the county’s first attempt at the recovery model. MCPS established the nation’s first recovery school, called the Phoenix School, in 1979, but the school closed in 2013 after its enrollment dwindled to about three students.

Officials say they hope to avoid a similar problem through the partnership with The Landing, which already serves dozens of students.

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