When I first visited the Emerald School of Excellence in the summer of 2019, founder Mary Ferreri was tinkering around the hallways of the building, located on the Central Avenue campus of Memorial United Methodist Church, leading up to a final clean through a ribbon-cutting event she had planned for the following week.
There was a nervous energy in Ferreri as he prepared to jump into the great unknown with The Emerald School, a “recovery school” for teens struggling with substance abuse problems. The Emerald School was to be the first convalescent school to open in the Carolinas, and at the time of my visit, a month before it opened, Ferrari expected between five and 10 children to enroll. During that first year she tutored two children as part of the Emerald School’s inaugural class. She was the only teacher at the school that year.
On my return visit in September 2022, it was clear that Ferreri’s vision was working as the school now serves nearly 30 students and she has a full staff of teachers to deliver the in-person tuition as opposed to the online curriculum she started with in 2019.
In its first three years of existence, the Emerald School of Excellence has graduated 11 students who have progressed to community colleges, four-year universities or full-time employment. Ferreri now oversees 15 employees, nine of whom are full-time employees.
Since the school’s founding in 2019, a multitude of donors has enabled Ferreri to offer scholarships to students who cannot afford to attend the private school. It currently offers financial aid that covers between 25% and 35% of each student’s tuition.
This year, staff growth has allowed Ferreri to step down from her role as a teacher to advocate for convalescence schools and fundraising in the community.
“My goal for coming out in the fellowship…is to keep asking myself how to build that grant base so we can keep saying, ‘I don’t turn families away because of financial burdens.’ We know that quality care is so expensive.”
Emerald School policy states that students must work on their recovery outside of school through some sort of 12-step program or similar, although individual work with a counselor is also an option.
Recently, the school has expanded the number of students it accepts as students, focusing not only on substance abuse but also on teens struggling with mental health, a change prompted by a similar policy transition at the Archway Recovery School in Houston, Texas, which served as a model for Emerald School.
“That was their approach and while we’re just making sure we’re addressing the needs of the youth, we understand that [mental health and addiction issues] go hand in hand. So if I have certain needs and expectations for someone struggling with drug use, those can absolutely carry over and make a lot of sense for someone with mental health issues.”
Ferreri has cultivated a family atmosphere among the school’s staff and students, which was evident during my visit. The result of this is a strong focus on peer support to help when a student is struggling to stay sober or is struggling with their mental health.
“This is a special place where if you are willing to work as a person according to the principles of recovery, you will thrive here,” she said. “But if your ego gets in the way, if you’re not willing to grow personally, this place will almost break you down. That applies to everyone who comes through this door, whether employee or student.”
The growth that Ferreri is most proud of at Emerald cannot be measured in numbers. Her vision for success at the Emerald School is constantly evolving.
“The growth in me and my team has come from understanding what success actually looks like or will look like in a space like this because it’s so different and shakes up so many things that I believe in at my core,” said Ferreri.
“As much as I preach and want these kids to understand what I think is helpful, it has been helpful to me as well [to evolve] and I think required; If I didn’t have to feel very uncomfortable, if I had to keep learning, if I had to be open and honest all the time, I don’t think we would be where we are today.”
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