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.
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