YES School: Home to teens committed to sobriety

By Molly Lautamo

In a beautiful old Victorian near downtown Santa Cruz sits a school unlike any other in the country. On any given day you can find its students in class or seeking guidance from counselors, watching movies, studying in the garden or playing games with their friends. Encompass’ YES School (Youth Experiencing Success) is both a youth recovery program and an alternative high school. It is a safe and supportive environment for Santa Cruz teens who are overcoming addiction. 

A fully accredited alternative high school, YES provides tailored learning and counseling for up to 16 teens at a time free of cost -- thanks to a partnership between Encompass and the County Office of Education. This is just one of the many factors setting this alternative high school apart from other recovery programs in the country. 

For many, the small school is like a second family where they feel accepted for who they are, rebuilding their confidence and giving them the courage to stay sober.  It’s the support amongst the students that is the key, said Sarah Tisdale, Program Manager at YES.

“This is one of the most loving and supportive groups I’ve ever seen,” said Tisdale. “Even if they don’t like each other, they still help each other out.”

Making the choice to be sober

There are only two requirements to be a YES School student: you must be a resident of Santa Cruz County and you must show a commitment to staying clean and sober. To show this commitment, all students need to take part in a recovery program on their own time while attending YES. 

Students are given time to relax and bond with their peers, but they also work hard. Regular class is from 8:30-12:30 five days a week. Most students are behind in their school credits and all of them need to learn the life skills necessary to prepare for college or a job and to maintain their sobriety. 

Four days a week students attend group counseling. Once a week they attend early recovery group where they learn skills to avoid triggers that could cause a relapse. During community group, students express concerns they have for their fellow classmates as well as congratulate each other on recent achievements. Each week students must also complete a self-assessment, encouraging the teens to set goals and continually work towards self-improvement.  Students also receive individual counseling on a weekly basis. 

Practicing acceptance

Family counseling and support is also a big part of helping the students succeed. It’s difficult for parents to accept that they don’t have control over their child’s life, but learning to let go is an important step in their child’s recovery. 

Tisdale explains that forcing someone to stop using can have negative consequences in the long-run.  

“If you push someone into recovery before they’re ready,” said Tisdale, “They’ll have a negative experience with a rehab program and may not enter one later down the road when they are ready to get clean.”

The YES School accepts students for who they are today and the team tries to teach parents to do the same.   

The roots of YES

Founded in the 80s, the YES School began with outreach to local youth on Pacific Avenue who were struggling with drug addiction and alcohol abuse. The youth responded positively, and a counseling group was formed to provide a nonjudgmental space for the teens to talk about their addictions. After taking part in counseling, some of the teens decided to get clean and sober. Unfortunately, their school attendance then dropped as they tried to avoid the dealers and other students who might trigger a relapse. There was an obvious need for an alternative recovery high school and the idea for YES School was born. 

The YES Program currently

Today, the school has one teacher certified and funded by the County Office of Education and 4  counselors -- all successful graduates of the program. As a collaboration between the County Office of Education and Encompass, the program is funded with Medical and ADP (Alcohol Drug Program) dollars in addition to individual donations, keeping this school free to students who are committed to maintaining their sobriety. 

Professional counseling, self empowerment, a supportive education curriculum, evidence-based practices and peer relationships are all pillars in the program at YES. Yet it’s this unwavering loyalty and camaraderie amongst the students that truly sets the YES School apart. 

“They’re there for each other no matter what,” said Tisdale.

If you or someone you know is interested in attending the YES school, contact Meg Focha-Smart at 831.429.8350 Ext 3491.

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