CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — Neveah Wise stopped going to school and only cared about smoking. Warren Weimer was in rehab. Samuel Cottman continuously failed drug tests at school.
When Wise, 16, of Cape May, realized she had a problem, she suggested to her mom that she attend Coastal Prep Recovery High School.
“I told my mom, ‘This school I think is actually going to help me,’” she said. “And it has. I’ve had my ups and downs, but it’s helping me.”
For Weimer, 17, of Mays Landing, Coastal Prep was his only option. Cottman, 16, of Hammonton, said his mom suggested Coastal Prep, but he didn’t want to leave behind his friends.
“I came out here and liked it,” he said. “It was better than I thought.”
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Coastal Prep, which opened in March 2019, helps teens in South Jersey recovering from substance abuse finish their high school career and receive their diploma. This is the third recovery high school in the state — made possible by a $500,000 state grant — with the two others in Central and North Jersey.
The school rents space from the Church of Christ on Pacific Avenue. Instruction is taught in the basement of the church, which has TVs, internet access and multiple rooms for the students. The program is equipped to handle up to 20 students in the space it’s using currently.
There are four students enrolled — Wise, Cottman, Weimer and Emma Rodrigues, 16, of Cape May. Most students who come to the school are referred by schools, counselors or case management organizations. Parents and students can call if they want to enroll as well.
“The church people have been great to the kids,” said Frank Rittitano, interim director for Coastal Prep. “Some of the community members have donated services to some of the kids to help. To have that kind of support for these kids in the program is just outstanding.”
When students attend Coastal Prep, they are still considered a part of their home district (the school from where they came) and must abide by their district’s course guidelines, said Toni Lehman, director of curriculum and instruction for the Middle Township School District.
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If the school doesn’t offer a subject, such as Spanish — which they don’t offer this year due to difficulties filling a teacher position, they offer the subject through an online learning platform.
Lehman said there is no cost to any sending school district. Transportation to and from the school, meals and field trips are covered under the grant.
This past summer, the school celebrated its first graduate, Armani Rodriguez of Pennsauken, Camden County, who commuted more than an hour each way and loaded up on seven classes, including two English courses and extra math.
“I didn’t think I was going to finish school, I fully expected to drop out,” Rodriguez said in July. “It wasn’t until I was in the hospital facing my own mortality that I decided the streets couldn’t take me away.”
The high school has about five part-time teachers covering subjects including English, math, history, science, physical education, computers and art. Students also earning college credits through Atlantic Cape Community College via a financial literacy class.
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To assist in recovery, students participate in group counseling each morning as well as individual therapy sessions once a week with Anna Cannella, transition coordinator for Cape Assist, a substance abuse prevention and treatment agency in Wildwood and partner in the program.
“We talk a lot about their mental health and trauma,” Cannella said. “We also connect them to any resources in the community that they might need, like medication management or if they need to see a psychiatrist.”
Cannella also talks with students’ parents and families about how to address issues at home if they arise.
The students are drug tested twice a week. If they test positive over a period of time, or counselors feel their life may be in danger, they may be transferred to an inpatient facility or an intensive outpatient program.
If they choose to do so, the student can go back to his or her sending district with the help and guidance of those at Coastal Prep.
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“It’s collaborative,” Cannella said. “We make a plan to get them back safely and make sure they’re going to be as successful as possible. Ultimately it’s their decision, if the sending district will allow them.”
If the student wants to finish high school at Coastal Prep, they may do that as well.
And as they near gradation, Cannella will assist them out of the program and guide them along with any plans after high school, such as going to college or getting a job.
Staff also make a lifelong connection with the students, which is Kathy Gibson’s favorite part. Gibson is the director of recovery services for Cape Assist.
“They live in a world outside of here where people want stuff from them … money, drugs, whatever they need from them,” Gibson said. “We can be the people in their lives that can give them unconditional love so they are able to know that there’s people out here that actually care what happens to them, genuinely, and don’t need anything in return.”
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Rittitano’s favorite part is knowing when they say “thank you,” they mean it.
“These children don’t know how to say ‘thank you,’ and not because they don’t want to, they just never had to say it to anybody,” he said. “When that young man turns around or young woman turns around and says ‘thank you,’ it’s really coming from the heart.”
The students have found that connection as well, even this school year with all the COVID-19 challenges as they have remote learning one day a week and are in-person the rest.
“It’s comforting,” Wise said. “I always know that I have someone to talk to. Something that I’ve learned is that we’re not alone and a lot of people in this world really aren’t different from us.”
Cottman found the support he didn’t have before.
“I feel welcomed here,” he said. “It’s like a second home. It’s easier for me to open up now than it was before. I was never that person to communicate with other people, because of my trust issues, but now I trust people.”
And the students didn’t just connect with their counselors and teachers, they connected with each other.
“We’re all here to support each other. If you’re feeling down, at least somebody is going to be here to talk to,” Cottman said. “We’re like a family.”