NC’s first recovery high school opens in Charlotte - North Carolina Health News
By Yen Duong
Under a hot August sun, around 120 supporters, volunteers and well-wishers sweated several Saturdays ago through the ribbon-cutting of a unique North Carolina high school, the Emerald School of Excellence in Charlotte.
Housed on the second floor of an auxiliary building of Memorial United Methodist Church, the year-round recovery high school opened its doors to students with substance use disorders on Aug. 26.
“We realized that there is a much-needed service in Charlotte: taking care of teens who are struggling with substance use disorder,” said ESE substance abuse counselor Chris Love. “Nine out of 10 people who do struggle with substance use started in their adolescence, so it’s like if we can tackle that at a young age, we can absolutely be able to put a dent in problems down the road.”
What is a recovery high school?
Recovery high schools first began in the late 1980s, and today the Association of Recovery Schools lists 40 high schools in 15 states as members. The schools, which support teenagers who have undergone treatment for substance use disorders, prevent teens from falling back into their old habits while staying with their families. The nation’s recovery high schools Recovery high schools listed on Association of Recovery Schools site as of August 2019. Map credit: Yen Duong.
The nation’s recovery high schools
Recovery high schools listed on Association of Recovery Schools site as of August 2019. Map credit: Yen Duong.
Within the first year after receiving treatment, between 60 and 70 percent of adolescents go back to using a substance. But for students who attend a recovery high school, a 2018 study showed that the relapse rate shrinks to just 30 percent.
“These kids can’t go back to their school; their friends don’t get it,” said ESE supporter Caroline, who asked to not use her last name to protect her teenage son’s privacy. “Recovery coaches and counselors, they get it. They know what these kids are going through, and they know they need … a strong support network. That’s like one of the most important things in order to continue to grow and go through your journey.”
Treadmills and workout equipment dot most of ESE’S five rooms, each of which features a huge mural by local street artist Abstract Dissent. Students will break up their day of online academics with exercise breaks, group therapy and experiences such as equine therapy, culinary classes, meditation, art and yoga, said Love, the counselor.
Once a month, families will meet with the recovery high school’s staff to discuss their children’s progress as well as receive support themselves.
“When we first started with all this, people [said:] ‘You need to be in therapy.’ I’m like, ‘Why do I need that? I’m not the one with the problem.’ Boy, was I wrong,” Caroline said, of the six years since learning of her son’s addiction when he was 13.
“As the parent, it’s so hard to try to draw those boundaries. You want to love them but you have to not enable the continued behavior. It’s tough.”
Research has shown that students at recovery high schools are disproportionately white and higher-income, which may reflect access to treatment in general. Cherene Allen-Caraco, CEO of Charlotte recovery nonprofit Promise Resource Network which assists ESE with administrative tasks, hopes that grant funding, community initiatives and scholarships will help ESE eventually reflect the demographic makeup of its home city.
“The people that have the least amount of assets are people experiencing poverty, and that is very racially connected in our city,” Allen-Caraco said. “We have to have that accessibility for the people who are the most underserved.”
Many recovery high schools receive public funding, according to the Association of Recovery Schools. Emerald will be a private school. Students will pay $1,000 a month to attend the year-round school, though Love said they will offer need-based scholarships from private fundraising and donors. Love, the only employee besides founder and teacher Mary Ferreri, hopes for one to 10 students in the first year, growing to more students and staff in the future.
Currently, students with substance use disorders often end up outside the school system, Allen-Caraco said. Such students often become involved with juvenile justice systems or attend residential treatment facilities. Both options mean leaving their homes.
“We have kids who are not being educated, they’re being pulled out of the school system, pulled out of their homes,” Allen-Caraco said. “These kids are really quite vulnerable, and being removed from your family is a re-traumatization that we could prevent.”
“To have something that is more specialized [and] really designed around recovery fills such a gap for young people and families who really could benefit from that type of alternative.”
With no programs aimed specifically at adolescents with substance use disorders, such teens may find themselves in inappropriate settings such as 12-step recovery meetings full of adults, Allen-Caraco said.
“The language is not necessarily contemporary to meet the needs, the culture of our young people today,” Allen-Caraco said. “They’re often looking at these older folks … and they’re going ‘Holy shit, I don’t want to be sober if it means being miserable the rest of my life. Is this what I have to look forward to?’ It’s just not a good fit.”
According to the latest National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 1.1 million 12- to 17-year-old Americans needed treatment for substance use disorders in 2016. But only 180,000 of them received that treatment, which left 84 percent of adolescents who might need treatment going without it.
Using alcohol and drugs earlier in life increases the chances that someone will develop substance use disorder, said recovery activist Donald McDonald at the ribbon-cutting. Other factors include genetic influences, depressive or bipolar disorders, and adverse childhood experiences.
“Ninety percent of those who have a substance use disorder started using before the age of 18,” McDonald said. “There’s a one in four chance that if we use alcohol and drugs before 18, that we’re going to live with addiction; there is a one in 25 chance if we wait until after we’re 21 years old.”
Kurtis Taylor, director of the Alcohol and Drug Council of North Carolina, said he hopes Emerald is the first of many recovery schools in North Carolina. Such schools combat the idea that people should “hit rock bottom” before seeking help and treatment.
“We wouldn’t tolerate that mindset for any other disease,” Taylor said. “If one of us went to the doctor today and got diagnosed with cancer, … that doctor wouldn’t look at us and say, ‘Well, I see you got a little cancer going on. But I tell you what, we can’t do anything for you right now; we gotta wait till it’s stage four.’”