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Carolinas’ First Recovery School Pulls Kids from Path of Addiction

Mary Ferreri outside of the Emerald School of Excellence. (Photo by Jayme Johnson)

“Every now and then a city will have this experience — it all sort of feels like an epidemic or a tidal wave come through your city — that can get the city’s attention,” Sasha McLean says in the 2016 documentary Generation Found. “Unfortunately that normally looks like a lot of young people dying, and all of the sudden the community kind of wakes up. Instead of ignoring the problem, we really start looking at it, and it’s painful to see.”

McLean is explaining the experience she and city leaders in Houston went through that led to her co-founding Archway Academy, one of eight recovery schools in Texas that serve students struggling with substance use disorder.

In the Carolinas, it appears the community is still sleeping. Despite the fact that overdose numbers among youth continue to rise in both states — there were 759 reported drug overdoses among people younger than 25 years old between May 1, 2017, and April 30, 2018 in Mecklenburg County alone — neither North nor South Carolina is home to a recovery school.

At a ribbon cutting for the new Emerald School of Excellence in east Charlotte on August 17, Mary Ferreri will change that.

A former health and fitness teacher and coach in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Ferreri became burnt out by what she saw every day among students. At Butler High School, she led the school’s D.R.E.A.M. Team, a group of student athletes that commit to being drug-, alcohol-, tobacco- and violence-free, and while that experience inspired her, she couldn’t turn away from the rampant drug use that other students boasted about.

“I just really started to see how big the problem was, how things were getting covered up, and nobody was talking about it,” Ferreri said. “I was sending kids to the nurse that I knew [were high], because I pride myself on knowing my kids, and I’m like, ‘I’m sorry, you’re just not right today. What’s going on?’ And then they’d joke with me months later because they didn’t get caught but they told me they were on so many pills.”

In 2016, Ferreri had been meeting regularly with a small group of concerned parents and teachers to discuss the substance abuse issues they knew to be plaguing their schools. They eventually began to get disgruntled with the lack of action.

“We had many conversations there, getting to know some parents that had lost their kids, and we were kind of frustrated,” Ferreri recalled. “We were invited constantly to all these conference roundtable discussions of coalition meetings about what should we do and whatever. We were just like, ‘We’ve been talking about the same things for months. Nobody’s doing anything. So what can we do?’”

That’s when a trailer for Generation Found came across one of Ferreri’s social media feeds. The trailer was so powerful that she set up a screening at a local theater without having seen the film in its entirety.

She cried through the whole film. She knew before she walked out of the theater what her new mission would be: open a recovery school in Charlotte.

According to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, nine out of 10 adults struggling with substance abuse started using before the age of 18.

Some in the recovery community have complained for decades about the lack of intensive treatment services for youth in the Charlotte area, and although those options have increased in recent years, attention is now shifting to what options those young people have when they leave treatment.

According to a study by the Peabody Journal of Education, nearly 70% of students who attend recovery and then return to their school relapse in less than six months.

When Betsy Ragone learned that her son Michael was smoking marijuana at age 13, she checked him into the now-closed Amethyst substance abuse treatment center. Ragone said many of her friends and fellow parents told her she was overreacting.

“It scared me, and I put him in an outpatient rehab treatment and people laughed at me,” she said. “They said, ‘Well, it’s just pot,’ and I said, ‘No, he’s 13 years old.’”

After leaving Amethyst, Michael went back to the same school he attended and the same friends he had always hung out with. On the outside, he was a normal kid, active on the wrestling and football teams. But he and his friends were regularly abusing pain pills like Vicodin and Xanax.

Betsy Ragone (center) with her son Michael and daughter Michelle.

Once he graduated high school, Michael quickly moved out from under Betsy’s roof and things worsened. Though he admitted his Xanax use to her, she didn’t know that he had become addicted to heroin following a knee surgery around the age of 19.

He secretly struggled with his heroin addiction for more than a decade before admitting it to his mother in late 2015. She was blindsided. Three months later, in January 2016, he died of a heroin overdose.

In June 2016, Betsy launched Michael’s Voice, an advocacy and support organization for families who have lost loved ones to addiction.

She has also served on boards for the Emerald School, helping Ferreri with documents and filings.

While Betsy admits that there are no guarantees with substance use disorder, she knows that if Michael had options like Emerald School when he left Amethyst, there is a better chance that he could still be alive today.

“The statistics around kids going back to the same people, places or things are horrific,” Ragone said. “They go back to the place where they got their drugs or they were trying to be part of a peer group where this is the cool thing. That stuff’s around in our high schools, the districts where we live … and they don’t want to own it, that it’s a big deal. It’s a problem. So parents will have a choice with Mary’s school, and it’s going to save lives, period.”

The first recovery schools opened in the late 1970s and mid ’80s, though the concept didn’t become popular until the 2000s. In 2001, there were only five recovery schools in the United States. Today there are more than 40. Studies put the relapse rate for students who go into recovery schools at around 30% compared to the 70% rate faced by students returning to their original schools.

A map showing the locations of United States recovery schools earlier this year. (Courtesy of Emerald School)

Emerald School, like many recovery schools, will serve students between the ages of 13-20. The school will use Edgenuity, a customizable online curriculum for students ranging from 6th through 12th grade. Located in a side building at Memorial United Methodist Church on Central Avenue, the school will open its doors for the first day of the 2019-20 school year on Aug. 26 with a small first class — Ferreri expects between five and 10 students to enroll. She’ll host an open house at the school on Aug. 24 that’s open to the public.

The school serves students with at least 30 days of sobriety and will run on a foundation of three principles: faith, fellowship and fitness. As with many 12-step programs, the “faith” factor is not rooted in any specific religion, but in the belief in something bigger and more powerful than one’s self, Ferreri said.

Fellowship refers to peer-led recovery support, which will be the school’s top priority. The first hour of each school day will be dedicated to recovery support, which consists of students simply getting together and discussing what they’ve been going through, celebrating each other’s victories and helping each other through struggles.

Ferreri sits in a classroom at Emerald School. (Photo by Jayme Johnson)

After that, things will function much like a normal school, with a block schedule that covers math, science, arts, social studies, English and the like. As the student population grows, Ferreri plans to separate students between upperclassmen and lowerclassmen, but in the meantime, the online curriculum will allow everyone to learn together at their respective levels.

Covering the fitness aspect of the school’s foundation, the school day will be broken up by workouts and “movement breaks,” during which students will have the freedom to take part in whatever physical activity they are comfortable with. Ferreri was inspired by her experience as a student athlete and years as a health and fitness teacher, but also by a book titled Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, which taught her about the effects of exercise on mental wellness.

The book put into perspective Ferreri’s childhood experience with depression and eating disorders.

As a public school teacher, she had become jaded by the tendency for school systems to cut physical education when funds got low.

“There were a lot of things that just were not making sense, like we don’t need less P.E., we need more P.E.,” she said. “It’s so important for [students] to have some ownership for that component, because otherwise we’re pushing people away from being physically active, but that is a huge component to our mental and overall wellness.”

Emerald is a private school, and though Ferreri plans to pursue grants, the first year will be funded exclusively through private donors and tuition. The annual price to serve one student at a private school is more than double that of a public school student ($8-10,000 compared to $20-24,000, respectively) and Emerald School students will have a $1,000-a-month tuition during the first year.

One of the multiple murals by local artist Abstract Dissent in the school’s “retreat room,” where there’s no cellphones or tech allowed. (Photo by Jayme Johnson)

Ferreri hopes to lessen that in the years to come by offering scholarships. In an ideal future she will have enough funding to offer full scholarships to all of her students, but her short-term goal is to have income-based tuition, with one-third of her students paying full, one-third paying half and one-third paying low-to-no tuition.

Though Ferreri has faced criticism for making Emerald School a private school, she insists that it was the only way to get the school off the ground successfully while also allowing the school to serve students from across the Carolinas. While recovery schools have been popping up across the country, a quick glance at a map of existing schools shows a disparity in the southeast. Ridgecrest Academy in Nashville, Tennessee, and River Oak Center in Jacksonville, Florida, are the only members of the Association of Recovery Schools in the region.

Ferreri, who grew up in New York, said that in her experience, the stigma around substance abuse is stronger in the South than other parts of the country.

When we met at Emerald School in June, Ferreri was visibly affected by her experience since leaving CMS and diving headfirst into the recovery community. Multiple times she paused, then prefaced a statement by saying, “I hate to say this, but it’s true,” before continuing her fulmination against the apathy she’s seen in response to substance abuse among local youth.

Ferreri in Emerald School. (Artwork by Abstract Dissent, Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

“I think that sometimes, we don’t know what to do,” she said. “I think that the crisis is so much bigger than people want to admit it is and how many people are affected. This is to me a complete dedication of your entire life to this work, and I think people are afraid of doing that, committing their whole life, and that’s what it takes to save somebody and to keep them through constant recovery support services.”

In the local recovery community, Ferreri has found a family willing to fight alongside her. Her passion is exceeded only by people like Donald McDonald, a Raleigh-based recovery activist who serves on Emerald School’s board of directors.

At a recent fundraiser luncheon for the school at Ballantyne Hotel, McDonald gave a passionate speech that lasted more than 30 minutes, flipping from humor to a more serious tone. As he wrapped his speech, he yelled into the microphone in frustration at those he felt were still holding back the conversation around treatment for substance use disorder.

Donald McDonald speaks at an Emerald School fundraiser in June. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

“I want you to leave here today and not engage in the conversations: ‘Is addiction an illness or a choice?’ Shut up, flat earther! Not today, Satan! No. We’re beyond that conversation!,” he exclaimed. “Smash the stigma surrounding the illness, end the discrimination against our people, our families. Rally around common sense treatments and support services. This is ground zero for an epidemic of compassion and hope.”

Ragone also hopes that Emerald School can be the beginning of a new awakening around substance abuse and young people. When I asked why she thought North Carolina didn’t yet have a recovery school, Ragone said leaders throughout the state have been keeping their “heads in the sand” when it comes to youth substance abuse.

“Two words: stigma and shame,” she answered me, “and [Ferreri is] busting the ceiling. It’s stigma and shame and not wanting to own that this is a major problem that we could put money into on the preventative side, not just try to fix what’s broken after it’s too late and they’re majorly addicted and the course of their life is dismal. [Emerald School] changes that trajectory.”

Ferreri’s fight is an overwhelming one. She latches on to each story of perseverance, because she knows she can’t save everyone. As much as she’s accomplished by simply opening Emerald School, there’s always the feeling that so many others will fall through the cracks. It’s both the highs and the lows that drive Ferreri on her life’s quest to reach as many people as she can, but she needs more help than she’s currently getting.

“I hate to say this, but the way we operate in our society is X amount of people need to die before real change happens,” she said, echoing McLean’s sentiments in Generation Found. “I think that we’re actually at a point now in North Carolina where enough people are pissed off that too many people have died. What makes me so mad is that it takes X amount of people dying first before we provide resources, instead of learning. If you look at other states, they suffered what we’re heading towards, and this is what they’ve done to fix it, so why on Earth wouldn’t we do it sooner?”

You have to start somewhere, though, and for Ferreri, that starting point comes on Aug. 26 when a small group of kids walks through her doors into a school founded on principles of acceptance, patience and hope.


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