When I first visited the Emerald School of Excellence in summer 2019, founder Mary Ferreri was puttering around the hallways of the building, located on the campus of Memorial United Methodist Church on Central Avenue, doing some last-minute cleaning in the lead-up to a ribbon-cutting event she had planned for the following week.
There was a nervous energy in Ferreri, who was preparing to jump into the great unknown with Emerald School, a “recovery school” for teens who are struggling with substance abuse issues. Emerald School would be the first recovery school opened in the Carolinas, and at the time of my visit a month before its opening, Ferrari was expecting between five and 10 kids to enroll. During that first year, she taught two kids as part of Emerald School’s inaugural class. She was the only teacher at the school that year.
Upon my return visit in September 2022, it was clear that Ferreri’s vision was panning out, as the school is now serving nearly 30 students and she has a full staff of teachers to carry out in-person learning as opposed to the online curriculum she began with in 2019.
In the first three years of its existence, Emerald School of Excellence has graduated 11 students who have gone on to community colleges, four-year universities or working full-time. Ferreri now oversees a staff of 15 people, nine of which are full-time.
Since the school’s 2019 launch, a wide range of donors have allowed Ferreri to offer scholarships to students who can’t afford to attend the private school. She currently offers financial assistance that covers between 25%-35% of each student’s tuition.
This year, the growth in staff has allowed Ferreri to step back from her role as a teacher to be out in the community advocating for recovery schools and raising funds.
“My goal as part of getting out in the community … is to continue asking how I can build that scholarship base so that we can continue to say, ‘I’m not turning any families away because of financial strain.’ We know quality care is so expensive.”
Emerald School’s policy states that students must be working on their recovery outside of the school through some sort of 12-step program or the like, though working one-on-one with a counselor is an option as well.
Most recently, the school has expanded whom it accepts as students, focusing not only on substance abuse but also teens who are struggling with mental health, a change inspired by a similar policy transition at Archway Recovery School in Houston, Texas, which has served as a model for Emerald School.
“That was their approach and, while we’re just making sure we address the needs of youth, period, we’re understanding that [mental health and addiction issues] go hand-in-hand, so if I have certain requirements and expectations of someone who’s struggling with substance use, those can absolutely carry over and make tons of sense for someone with mental health struggles.”
Ferreri has cultivated a familial atmosphere among staff and students at the school, which was readily apparent during my visit, the result of which is a strong focus on peer support, which helps when a student is struggling to stay sober or with their mental health.
“This is a special place where, if you’re willing to work the principles of recovery, just as a person, you’ll thrive here,” she said. “But if your ego is in the way, if you’re not willing to have personal growth, this place will almost crumble you. That goes for everybody walking in this door, staff or student.”
The growth that Ferreri is most proud of at Emerald is not measurable by numbers. Her vision of success at Emerald School is a constantly evolving one.
“The growth within myself and my team has come from understanding what success will actually take or look like in a space like this, because it’s so different and it’s shaking up so many things that I believe in my core,” Ferreri told me.
“As much as I preach and want for these kids to understand what I believe to be helpful, it has been equally helpful for me [to evolve] and I think required; if I didn’t have to be very uncomfortable, have to keep learning, have to be open and honest constantly, then I don’t think that we’d be where we are today.”