By ROGER MOONEY
DAVIE, Fla. – Josh Carlson pulled up a chair inside the office of the school guidance counselor one February morning and greeted a visitor.
“Salve,” he said.
It was the summer after his senior year, the summer he should have spent preparing for his freshman year of college.
Josh, a senior at American Preparatory Academy, a private K-12 school in Davie, Florida, taught himself Latin last summer.
That’s Latin for “hello.”
was a summer spent reflecting on what went wrong during that senior year, and
why he was required to repeat it.
“Just a lack of motivation on my part,” said Josh, 17.
This lack of motivation was a never-ending source of frustration for Josh’s mother, Kadirah Abdel, his guidance counselor, Norman Levitan, and American Prep principal, Soraya Matos.
They each sensed a serious student inside Josh yearning for an opportunity to be set free. He could be engaging with his teachers, capable of leading the class in a deep discussion on the topic for that day. He could also be disruptive and unmotivated, unwilling to complete his assignments on time.
Matos said she would have allowed Josh to participate last May in the graduation ceremony and make up the work during summer school, but he failed too many classes to make that possible. She hoped having Josh repeat his senior year would be a wake-up call.
“I wanted to give him another chance,” Matos said. “I believed it was a maturity issue and eventually he would understand that this was his last chance.”
“I pondered the way I was doing things over the summer,” Josh said. “I thought, ‘Man, I got really step up, because I’m repeating.’ It was sort of the cataclysmic moment for me. I knew I had to do something to improve my study ethic.”
That he taught himself to speak Latin by using the Duolingo app proved what Levitan always believed about Josh.
“He’s very bright,” Levitan said.
“A different kid”
Josh never fit in at his neighborhood schools.
“He was very to himself, very shy,” Abdel said. “The other kids were into stuff he wasn’t interested in.”
The other kids were into pop culture. Josh was into Julius Cesar.
The other kids read Facebook posts. Josh read the dictionary.
“He was bullied and picked on,” Abdel said. “That was my main concern. That’s when I knew I had to take action here, do something. I heard about alternative schools. I did my research, looked up different kinds of schools. There are alternative schools for kids who have had issues in public schools, because they didn’t fit in.”
Plus, Abdel said, administrators at Josh’s neighborhood school wanted to place him in classes for emotionally challenged students.
“He didn’t have a disability,” Abdel said. “They’re quick to label kids in public school. They couldn’t put him in special ed, so he was put in this class called ‘EH,’ emotionally handicapped children, basically kids who acted up.”
Abdel said her son did act up in class, and it was because he was bored.
She learned about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students. This allowed her to move Josh to the Sunset Sadbury School, a K-12 private school in Fort Lauderdale, when Josh was in the seventh grade.
He moved to AEF (Alternative Education Foundation) School, a nonprofit private school in Fort Lauderdale, the following year and stayed through his sophomore year in high school.
“Once he got to private school, he did a lot better,” Abdel said.
But there were still issues.
“I didn’t behave so well at (AEF),” Josh said. “I didn’t get along with the students and the teachers.”
Abdel finally turned to American Prep, a private school with 150 students with no more than 12 to a class. Matos said her school is designed for students who don’t fit in at neighborhood schools. Kids, she said, who “fall through the cracks.”
Josh fit right in.
“He’s a different kid,” Matos said. “He likes history. He likes to read, and that is not very common.”
Josh passed his classes as a junior. Senior year was a struggle with most of the struggles self-inflicted.
“Just a lack of motivation on my part,” Josh said.
Josh loves to learn … just on his terms.
“He enjoys reading and studying on his own,” Abdel said. “Not necessarily being told, ‘OK, you have to study for his test.’ He enjoys studying, but when he wants.”
The proof is found in Josh’s interests.
He speaks Spanish, Latin and Italian. He writes poetry and enjoys the works of Emily Dickinson, E.E. Cummings, Edgar Allen Poe and Walt Whitman. He is well-versed in Greek and Roman history and is fascinated with Julius Cesar.
“Interesting man,” Josh said. “All the conquests. His abilities as a leader was unrivaled.”
He wants to be a linguist. He would like to have a career that allows him to write and speak Latin and Italian.
“I’d like to write books about this stuff,” he said. “Phonology. Nerdy things.”
But, first Josh had to graduate high school.
The wake-up call
At one point last year, Matos said she thought her school wasn’t the right fit for Josh. But where would he go? What school would make room for a senior who couldn’t graduate?
Matos believes her role as an educator is to keep her students in school. Plus, she knew Josh could complete the work. He just needed motivation. Because he was still eligible to receive a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, Matos and Abdel felt it best for Josh to repeat his senior year.
“I think it was the kick he needed, the wake-up call,” Abdel said. “When he saw his friends graduate but he didn’t, that’s when he stepped up his game.”
Josh’s grades this year were the highest they’ve been during his high school career.
“I’ve just been studying more, focusing on studying, reviewing,” he said. “I wasn’t studying last year, and that’s why I was failing tests.”
While his friends made plans for their freshman years at college, Josh wrapped his mind around another senior year of high school. He didn’t have a job, so he had plenty of time on his hands.
What to do?
He reached for a copy of Wheelock’s Latin, which he received a few years ago, and started teaching himself Latin.
“One day I was looking at it, staring at it, and I thought, ‘I’ve had this for so long I should just learn it already,’” he said. “I wasn’t doing anything during the summer. I was using the internet and stuff. I said let me do something productive. I just opened up the book.”
The productivity not only carried into the classroom this year, but to other parts of the school.
Josh spent time this past year mentoring younger students at American Prep, sharing his experience as a cautionary tale.
In February, he received the Turnaround Student Award during Step Up’s annual Rising Stars Award event. He was nominated by Matos.
“I’m very proud of him,” she said.
Early this month, he graduated.
Josh plans to attend Broward College this fall. He is formulating plans for his future. He wants work with words, foreign words. He wants to visit Italy and Greece. Walk where Julius Cesar walked.
He wants to converse with the locals in their native tongue. He can get by with his Latin and Italian and Spanish.
But Greek? He doesn’t speak Greek.
“No,” he said. “Not yet.”
About American Preparatory Academy
The K-12 private school has 150 students. More than half are on scholarships from Step Up For Students with the majority on the Gardiner Scholarship. Tuition ranges from $10,500 to $16,000 based on the student’s needs. The school has a comprehensive Exceptional Student Education program focused on the individual needs of each student. It also offers dual enrollment, summer classes, summer camps, athletics and extracurricular activities.
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at email@example.com.
By ROGER MOONEY
Nicolas Ratliff-Batista is a senior at Monsignor Pace High School in Miami Gardens with a 4.5 GPA and an armful of academic awards. He’s a member of the National Honor Society and is headed to Broward College to study environmental science.
He recently played Sigmund Freud in the school’s production of “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.” He has participated in other plays and also dressed as a cheerleader for the Girls Powder Puff football game during Homecoming week. You will find him at all the school dances.
“I (am) part of all sorts of things,” Nicolas said. “It’s a great high school experience.”
A parent’s dream, right?
“Exactly,” said Phyllis Ratliff, Nicolas’ mom. “The same as every parent would want for their child whether they have learning differences or not, and we are blessed to have found it at Pace and to be a recipient of the Gardiner Scholarship.”
Four years ago, thoughts of Nicolas attending high school was a nightmare for Phyllis.
Diagnosed as high-functioning autism at age 3, Nicolas was able to navigate his way from kindergarten through eighth grade in a familiar setting. Same school. Same classmates. Same teachers. Same administrators.
Because the school near their Miami Lakes home was only K-8, Phyllis had to find a high school for her son.
“I stressed more that year than I ever had,” Phyllis said. “Trying to find a high school for him that we could afford and offered academic options. A high school that would tell a child with learning differences that we can work with you.”
There are two public schools near their home, but Phyllis did not view either as viable options for her son.
She thought he would be overwhelmed by the large class sizes and an easy target for bullies.
Phyllis, a single mother, looked into several private schools. They were either too expensive or she did not see them as a good fit for Nicolas.
Several of her friends mentioned Monsignor Edward Pace High School (Pace) which is located less than 10 miles away in Miami Gardens. At first, Phyllis was not interested, because she and Nicolas are not Catholic. She was told that would not be an issue.
So, Phyllis met with Pace administrators and that is where she learned about the Gardiner Scholarship provided by Step Up For Students for children with certain special needs.
She liked everything about the school and it’s a 1-to-14 teacher-student ratio. Nicolas would be placed in mainstream classes and the teachers would work with him as needed to ensure he would not fall behind.
Nicolas qualified for the Gardiner Scholarship and was accepted to Pace.
“That was phenomenal,” Phyllis said. “We were so excited there was something out there for him.”
Phyllis, like most parents, was a little apprehensive about her only child beginning high school.
Nicolas? He strode right in.
“The first time I felt so excited, but also a tiny bit nervous,” Nicolas said. “But after a few days I got used to it.”
It helped, Nicolas said, that he had Dr. Enrique Dominguez for freshman science.
Known as “Poppa D” to his students, Dominguez has a special skill for connecting with students. He and Nicolas connected instantly.
“I saw that beauty inside of him of being absolutely lovable, absolutely showing you that in the face of adversity he was going to do what he needed to do without any complaints,” Dominguez said.
Nicolas aced the class, and Poppa D nominated him for Student of the Year in Science.
“Dr. Dominguez always tells Nicolas how great he can be, and Nicolas comes home every day saying how great he feels,” Phyllis said. “As a mother, you’re grasping at straws to find the right school and then you find one, and we truly are blessed.”
There was never a question Nicolas would excel in the classroom. His grades were always above average. He has an insatiable thirst for knowledge with interests ranging from animals to cars to music and composers to anything to do with history.
His favorite composers are Mozart and Tchaikovsky. His favorite ballet is “The Nutcracker.”
He can play guitar and the keyboard, the banjo and the bongos. He loves to play Elvis Presley songs on the ukulele with “Hound Dog” and “Blue Suede Shoes” among his favorites.
He has a pet parrotlet named Kiwi that likes to sit on his shoulder.
He attends operas with his mom.
On most Saturdays, you can find Nicolas at the local library, where he feeds his curiosities by reading books for as long as six hours.
Whenever English teacher Jorge Rodriguez-Miralles sees Nicolas walking down the hall, he says, “Here comes literature’s greatest fan.”
“Nicolas,” Rodriguez-Miralles said, “is the only student I think I’ve ever had in a class who taught me something about literature, and I have an advanced degree in literature.”
It happened in freshman year when Rodriguez was teaching Greek and Roman mythology. Nicolas knew the backstory to the battle between Poseidon and Athena. Rodriguez-Miralles had not delved that far into the story. Nicolas had.
During Black History Month that same year, Rodriguez-Miralles was showing the movie “Selma” to the class. Music was playing in the background of one scene. Rodriguez-Miralles said it was hardly audible.
Nicolas heard it and said, “Beethoven, 5th Symphony, 3rd movement.”
Rodriguez-Miralles picked up his iPad and searched for Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, 3rd movement. What do you know?
“How many freshmen do you know that can spot correctly the third movement of the fifth symphony of Beethoven? Nic can,” Rodriguez-Miralles said.
The teacher went home, flipped through his music collection and found box set of Beethoven’s symphonies. He gave it to Nicolas the next day.
“Apparently, you’re Beethoven’s greatest fan, so now you can enjoy the symphonies complete,” Rodriguez-Miralles said.
It is easy for someone like Nicolas to remain inside his comfort zone, to save his bold moments for the classroom where learning is what he has mastered.
But to the surprise and delight of his mom and teachers, Nicolas slowly began to dip his toes in Pace’s social scene.
He joined the drama club and has appeared in a number of productions, including a few musicals that required him to sing in front of an auditorium filled with strangers. Not an easy task for most high school students.
His recent role of Sigmund Freud required him to speak with an Austrian accent, which, he nailed.
Homecoming is a big event at Pace with students coming to school dressed as that year’s theme. One year the theme was board games. Nicolas went to school dressed as the Monopoly Man, a picture of which appeared in the yearbook.
“Popular kids get to do that,” Phyllis said. “(At Pace) you are popular because you are a student.”
Nicolas saved his biggest breakout moment for this year’s Powder Puff game when he joined the fellas on the sidelined dressed as a cheerleader while the girls played football.
“He’s doing things that make him a little uncomfortable,” Principal Ana Garcia said, “but he’s not afraid to try, which is a wonderful thing.”
Nicolas had been asked in past years if he wanted to be a cheerleader. He did not.
“Before I thought I would feel all embarrassed inside,” Nicolas said.
Why this year?
“So, I realized I got to take action,” he said. “It’s now or never. I feel like inside I have to do it.”
And now …?
“It was pretty good, like great,” he said.
Phyllis believes her son’s growth scholastically and socially stems directly from Mrs. Garcia’s leadership.
“It has to be from her,” Phyllis said. “She has to say to her faculty, ‘This is something we believe in. We believe in our students.’ They really do.”
Mrs. Garcia, who said she is “humbled” to hear that, adding, “Here at the school the general population is very acceptant of kids with differences, and so it’s a great environment for kids who are a little bit different. Somehow, they all find a place where they are accepted, where they can excel, where they can grow and develop.”
Each day, after finishing his lunch, Nicolas walks over to the table where the teachers sit and says hello to each.
“Sometimes I feel like it makes them happy,” Nicolas said.
And he writes Christmas cards to his teachers.
Each year, Phyllis writes a letter to Mrs. Garcia thanking her for the work she and her staff do with Nicolas. Mrs. Garcia shares the letters with her staff and faculty at the beginning of each year.
“It’s very inspiring and very inspirational to start the year that way, because you start on a high,” Mrs. Garcia said.
It is Mrs. Garcia’s way of telling everyone that they do make a difference in the lives of each student.
“And we need to continue to do this,” Mrs. Garcia said, “because if we impact one or two kids like this, for heaven sakes, this is what we need to be doing.”
Nicolas had a recent homework assignment where he had to list some of the struggles in his life. He told his mom he could not think of any.
Phyllis reminded him that he falls under the Autism spectrum, that he has trouble making friends, that he was a late talker and that he had difficulty learning to write because he had difficulty learning to hold a pencil.
“He doesn’t see it as a negative or a struggle,” Phyllis said. “He struggled trying to find out what his challenges were.”
Dominguez said he often sees what he called “the courage of a lion” in his students who have Autism.
“He knows what he’s got, but to him, he’s not like, ‘Oh, I’m carrying this cross.’ No, no. he works through it,” Dominguez said. “He’s not oblivious to it, but to him it’s not a reason to stumble and to cry.
“He lives in such a beautiful world. I talk about Nic and I start getting a lump in my throat because I’m going to miss him a lot. He’s that special of a child.”
About Monsignor Edward Pace High
Opened in 1961, Monsignor Pace High or “Pace” is part of the Archdiocese of Miami. It serves 885 students, including more than 500 on Step Up For Student Scholarships. Pace is recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence by the U.S. Department of Education. It was selected by the Catholic High School Honor Roll as one of the top 50 Catholic Schools in the nation. Pace students take the PSAT/ASPIRE in ninth and 10th grade, the PSAT/ACT in 11th and the AP test all four years. Annual tuition and fees for grades nine to 11 is $12,050 and $12,300 for grade 12.
Marketing Communications Manager Roger Mooney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.