‘Without Horizon they wouldn’t be alive’: Madison high school caters to students in recovery

MADISON, Wis. – Dozens of photos line the cabinets in Traci Goll’s office, decorating the room with the faces of the young students whose lives she has helped shape over the last 17 years.

Goll is the director of Horizon High School, the only school in Wisconsin that caters to students with substance use disorders in recovery.

“I’ve had kids report back that without Horizon they wouldn’t be alive,” Goll said. “To some of our kids who have suffered trauma or don’t have family members, we are their family.”

Most of the school’s participants are referred to them through the Madison Metropolitan School District, but the students also have to want to be there; family, court or other guardians can’t make that decision for them.

Horizon can only take 15 students at a time, but for those who do get admitted, the non-profit sober high school offers, in addition to typical academic courses, weekly field trips, life skills and therapy all built into the curriculum.

Substance abuse counselor Madeline Brown just joined Horizon as the new full-time therapist. She said most teenagers would benefit from extra support but the needs of those suffering from substance abuse can’t be met at a traditional larger high school.

“It’s easy for kids to get lost in those numbers where maybe they’re not going to be as apt to reach out if they feel kind of unseen and unheard,” Brown said.

According to Goll, many of the kids in their program have experience with hospitalizations, rehab, truancy and homelessness and some have even attempted suicide — often they’re in need of even the basics.

To help meet those needs, the school also offers students access to crucial necessities: a food pantry, kitchen and laundry are all available on site.

Goll added part of meeting their needs is also about building them up, which means exposing them to music, art, cooking and the outdoors. For many of their teens, those experiences are a first.

“They have no idea what they like because they’ve been drunk or stoned or so depressed,” She said.

However, paying for all of those services can be a challenge. Goll said it’s one of the reasons they’re the only school of their kind left standing in the state.

She said similar schools in Janesville, Waukesha, Rockford and the Milwaukee area have all closed due to funding issues. It’s a fact she finds difficult to deal with as drug overdose increase, and the fentanyl crisis grows.

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She said for Horizon it has been a constant struggle to keep the lights on, still for her in some ways they’re lucky. MMSD pays about one-third of its costs to educate, monitor, and provide therapy to its participants.

The rest of their operating cost is all tied to fundraising and a lot of it. Annually it costs about $490,000 to keep the school going.

Students at Horizon do agree to weekly random drug testing and staff said relapses are not uncommon but are a part of the process.

“I’ve always found that the kids that struggle more in life are the kids that I like to help,” Goll said.

The school began in a church basement in 2005 helping just five teens. In the decades since, Horizon High moved into its own building and has helped hundreds of young men and women along the way.

Horizon will host its 18th-anniversary fall festival and fundraiser on Sept. 21 at the Goodman Center from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.