“One day at a time” is the motto at K.E.Y.S. Academy. The Knowledge Empowers Youth and Sobriety (K.E.Y.S.) Academy is a Recovery High School on the Lincroft campus of Brookdale Community College. This free program provides an academically innovative and supportive environment to serve high school students with substance use disorders that seek a way to graduate high school and live a healthy and sober life. The funding is provided by the New Jersey Department of Education under the Recovery Access Grant.

“Working on recovery while attending High School is a challenge, but we take it one day at a time,” said Assistant Director and Co-Founder Jennise Nieves. “Recovery and achieving graduation are possible. We have many photos of our graduates. I like to say, just focus on today, June will come.”

A typical day starts with a morning meeting or meditation in a comfortable space with the students. There are discussions about their evening or weekend. Did you go to work? How are you feeling today? How was your job? And they talk about the 12 steps of helping one another achieve and support abstinence from the substances or behaviors to which they are addicted. Then they begin their classes.

Students men and women at a table stuffing bags.
K.E.Y.S. Academy students volunteering for Blessing Bag Brigade

K.E.Y.S. is an extension of the Matawan Aberdeen Regional School District. The district provides the instructional curriculum, teaching staff, academic support, transportation, and coordination of supportive counseling services. The Academy works with the students sending home school districts to develop an individualized academic schedule required to meet state and school district graduation requirements. Additionally, K.E.Y.S. provides students with a comprehensive wellness program that integrates a holistic perspective in which academics, recovery, and wellness work hand-in-hand. Wellness programs include boxing, yoga and mindfulness, equestrian therapy, community service, nutrition, NA/AA self-help groups, CPR, and prevention-related health services. Students can participate in field trips that include visits to exhibitions or events on the Brookdale campus, local orchards, or the Sandy Hook peninsula to study Marine Science. The Academy’s faculty are experienced and knowledgeable in their academic fields. This includes a science teacher who teaches Marine Science, Anatomy, and Physiology and a school social worker with experience in mental health, the college process, and vocational opportunities.  In addition, K.E.Y.S. has teachers that come directly from Matawan Aberdeen to offer in-person instruction in English, Social Studies, Creative Arts, Physical Education and Health.

There is rolling admission. Students can enter the program any time, no matter where they are in their education process. For example, one student may need to take Algebra I, and another needs to take Algebra II or different science classes. The Academy can provide all the levels to support them, and Brookdale Community College can assist with some of the required programs.

There are many advantages to being on the Brookdale campus. The students may take additional art programs that the college offers and use the Fitness Center and all the recreational amenities, including the use of the basketball or tennis courts. In addition, they have partnerships with Chhange and the library. The students can take college courses through the dual enrollment program with Brookdale as they finish high school. And some take advantage of easily transferring to Brookdale after graduation. Nieves states, “Brookdale is of great support to our students, families, and school districts throughout the state. Brookdale is offering an attainable opportunity to continue their post-secondary education in a safe, supportive, and welcoming community.”

“When I first thought about opening a Recovery High School I thought, how awesome would it be to be on a college campus,” said Nieves. “How great it would be that there was no embarrassment. Everything is where it needs to be. It is not a traditional alternative. School is uplifting and safe. It is welcoming and opens the door to college for the students.”

The population at K.E.Y.S. Academy is diverse, all with different socioeconomic statuses, backgrounds, and cultures. The high school students currently enrolled are from Rumson-Fair Haven, Holmdel, Monmouth Regional, Sayreville, Jackson, Keyport, Red Bank Regional, and Rahway. Students can be referred to the Academy by their school, parents, school counselor, or treatment facility.

The Academy gives a struggling student a future and hope. Holidays can be difficult, and programs like this are important to save lives. This is the time of year when referrals come up. School districts notice absenteeism is up, or if a teen is in the hospital, K.E.Y.S. Academy can offer a safe place to finish their education. K.E.Y.S. is about progression and not perfection; they provide students with a unique pathway to take ownership of their education and recovery.

“Sometimes the students go back to their school district to finish, which is a great thing when they are sober, healthy and well, we want them to go back,” said Nieves. “Sometimes they come back the following year, realizing that they really want to stay here. They come because they want to come. There is no suspension. You don’t get kicked out. The journey is not easy, it is not going to be easy. We drug test them every single week. If they relapse, we will talk about it.”

In its sixth year, K.E.Y.S. Academy is only one of three Recovery High Schools in New Jersey. The convenience of having the Academy located close to home in Monmouth County is an excellent opportunity for a student suffering from addiction to stay on their educational path in an atmosphere that enhances and strengthens coping skills and resilience. In addition, the staff understands addiction and mental health illness disease and can integrate health and wellness and create a spiritual connection for healing.

To enroll a student or for more information, contact Jennise Nieves email, jnieves@marsd.org, phone number 732-224-2645 or the Matawan Aberdeen Regional School District MARSD 732-705-4023.

Featured Photo left to right: Mr. Graber, Math Teacher; Mr. Coppola, Science Teacher; Mr. Stevens, Art Teacher; Mrs. Nieves, KEYS School Assistant Director and Co Founder; Mr. Cordasco, Social Studies Teacher; Mrs. Ruscavage, District Administrator;  Mrs. Zehnder, Therapist; Mrs. Perez, District Assistant Superintendent and Co Founder