MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — South Jersey’s first recovery high school is looking for a new home after being ousted from the Cape Assist building in Wildwood by the city’s zoning official earlier this month.
Coastal Preparatory High School, a school to help recovering addicts in the southern part of the state earn a high school diploma, opened March 1 at the Cape Assist building in the 3800 block of New Jersey Avenue, but days later Wildwood’s zoning officials said it cannot operate because it would be a change in use of the building and that the area was not zoned for a school.
“Our zoning officer said if it’s a school, that’s not zoned for that,” said Mayor Ernie Troiano.
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The Middle Township School District, which is facilitating the program, received a $100,000 planning grant in 2017 to develop the high school that helps recovering addicts finish their high school career. This year, the district received an additional $500,000 from the state to implement the program with Cape Assist, an addiction counseling service in Wildwood.
Middle Township Superintendent David Salvo said he is disappointed in Wildwood’s decision, which he called “arbitrary and capricious.” He said Cape Assist has filed an appeal.
“Our mission for developing such a program was to help students in our communities who are struggling with mental health and drug addiction. It is hard to imagine that some people would be opposed to such a program, especially when the data clearly indicates that many of our residents in Cape May County need this type of intervention,” said Salvo.
He said they hope to have a new location in the next few days and were looking at a site in Cape May Court House on Friday.
The recovery high school is the state’s third and serves students from Burlington County to Cape May County and parts of Ocean County. Cape Assist Executive Director Katie Faldetta said four students are currently enrolled, but the program can grow to about 10.
State data show recovery high schools are needed. New Jersey’s drug addiction problem is especially prevalent in the southern counties, with Atlantic, Cape May, Camden, Cumberland, Ocean, Gloucester and Salem counties among the top eight for highest rates of admission for substance-abuse treatment.
According to Troiano, concerns extend beyond the zoning of the block.
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“My concern is it’s a Middle Township program. It’s a Middle Township grant. Why is it not in Middle Township? They said they couldn’t find a building in Middle Township, which is amazing. It’s 78 square miles,” Troiano said. “There was concerns that if this was a school for savants for the gifted and talented, would they choose Wildwood? I don’t think so.”
He said neither he nor his secretary could recall receiving calls from Cape Assist about the program, although Faldetta said she had met with city officials last March to discuss it.
Faldetta said that after the March 4 Zoning Board hearing, Cape Assist was still operating the high school out of the Wildwood building, but a fire broke out two days later, damaging the area where the classroom was located and displacing the students. They are currently attending class at a church in Middle Township. The cause of the fire is under investigation, but it reportedly began outside the building.
Faldetta said the move hasn’t phased the students, who she said are doing very well. She said she doesn’t know why people are against the idea of a recovery school.
“I think people confuse recovery with active addiction,” she said.
The students who attend Coastal Prep have to be clean from drugs and are tested weekly. The students attend voluntarily. Faldetta said having the school at the Cape Assist building was convenient because the staff and services were already there to start the program. She said they always intended to have a new location by next September.
“We’re doing this because we’re Cape Assist and this is our mission and Wildwood is our home,” Faldetta said. “We want nothing but the best for Wildwood. We think that taking these kids and supporting them in any way we can betters every community. We’re in the middle of an opioid epidemic, and this is a way to take kids who are statistically more likely to engage in risky behavior and change the way they’re living.”
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Troiano said he understands the convenience for Cape Assist to have the school inside their offices, but it is inconvenient and costly for the students and the program to transport students to the island.
“The sad thing of this whole thing is it’s good people trying to do a good job. The neighborhood is just tired of having stuff dumped into Wildwood,” Troiano said.