After more than a year of drive-through graduations required by the Covid pandemic, the educators, graduates and family members of Miami-Dade Acceleration Academies were able to gather in an auditorium and celebrate in person.
And what a celebration it was.
The event was held to fete 81 Class of 2021 grads and another 15 from the Class of 2020 who were invited to join the first in-person commencement in more than a year. The grads streamed in wearing cap and gown as their family, friends, teachers and mentors cheered.
“Yes, baby!” shouted Erica McDaniel, big sister of grad Precious Lemorin.
“Here’s to new beginnings!” Precious said into the microphone after receiving her diploma on stage. She raised her diploma high, looked at her classmates and said, “Let’s go!”
Commencement marked the end of a long journey for the grads, many of whom had struggled in traditional school settings and were able to take advantage of MDAA’s flexible schedule and ample personal support to reach their goal.
“As I look at the class of 2021, I am in complete awe,” said MDAA Director Gina Montagnino-Fiske. “The class of 2021 earned over 1500 credits at MDAA and devoted hundreds of service hours to our community. And all of this was accomplished in the midst of a global pandemic. No one could have predicted world events over the last 16 months, but rather than be defeated, the MDAA team and the class of 2021 demonstrated remarkable resilience and flexibility.
“Each of you have sacrificed in many ways,” she continued “You have looked adversity in the face and turned it into success. Each of you have worked tirelessly and some of you have overcome great obstacles to be here right now in this auditorium … The entire staff of MDAA is so moved by your commitment to succeed, and I know I speak for the entire team when I say it has truly been our privilege to be a small part of your journey.”
Meet some of the grads. Photos by Abby Ballin:
Maria José Paz: ‘They Never Give Up on You. Never.’
When Maria Jose Paz’s mother died, she left behind a fervent wish: that her daughter complete her high school education and take the first step toward a better tomorrow.
“She wanted me to have a better life,” Maria said of her mother, whose education in Honduras stopped at 6th grade and who died in January 2020 after a struggle with lung cancer. “She really wanted me to graduate.”
With help from the educators at Miami-Dade Acceleration Academies, Maria recently did just that. Not only did she graduate, she also was one of three grads who won a 2021 Academic Excellence Award.
“Once she sets a goal for herself, she expects nothing but the best,” said Nadi Sambrana, Maria’s graduation candidate advocate. “If she got an 80 on her test, she said, ‘I want to get a 100.’ ”
Maria’s mother raised her as a single parent, bringing her daughter to the United States at a young age in hopes of her getting a good education and enjoying solid prospects for work as an adult. When her mom died shortly after New Year’s Day last year, Maria was devastated.
A friend of her mother, Evelyn Concepcion, took Maria in and, with help from Maria’s cousin, Juan Carlos Paz, supported the young woman. Concepcion found out about MDAA, whose personalized and flexible study plan would be a good fit for Maria.
At first, Maria acknowledges, she was withdrawn and lacked motivation. But that didn’t deter Sambrana and her colleagues at Acceleration Academies.
“They made me feel so welcome. They said, ‘Hey we’ve heard about you. We want to help you,’ ” recalled Maria, now 18. “They gave me motivation to keep moving forward.”
While many students would be happy with an 80 on tests, Maria always wanted to have another try in pursuit of greater mastery in the subject and a stronger grade on her transcript.
“I had always doubted myself in the past,” she said. “After my mom’s passing, I said I need to shine for her — and also for myself.”
At a recent career fair organized by MDAA Director Gina Montagnino-Fiske and her team, Maria learned about a career in phlebotomy and decided to pursue it in college. When her mother was in and out of the hospital during cancer treatment, she appreciated the kindness and skill of health care providers. She would like to make that same difference in the lives of her future patients.
She said Sambrana and her colleagues showed her a like dedication, working with her after hours and on weekends to complete her coursework and reach her goal.
“No matter the time or day, there was constant support,” Maria said. “That’s why I love the program. They never give up on you. Never.”
Joseph Bigot: ‘I Came For a Better Education’
When Joseph Bigot arrived from his native Haiti in 2017, he spoke mostly Creole and had to adjust to a very different education system. But he knew what he wanted, and he wasn’t afraid to do the work needed to get it.
At Miami-Dade Acceleration Academies, he had all the support he needed to learn English and power through to his diploma. Recently, at age 17, he walked across the stage to claim it.
He was also one of three grads to earn a 2021 Academic Excellence Award.
“This graduate did not back down and did not lose focus. Instead, this graduate was resilient and committed,” Graduation candidate advocate Erick Velis said in awarding Joseph the honor. “It was a wonderful experience to work with you. You are what you repeatedly do.”
Joseph began at a traditional high school in Georgia, but he found the personalized approach of Acceleration Academies to be a better fit. Working at his own pace, he made steady progress through his coursework and knew that help was only a few steps — or, during the Covid pandemic, a Zoom call — away.
Math, for instance, was a challenge. But math coach Eliane Hernandez was always ready to help walk him through the equations. “If I would have questions, I would just text her,” he said. “She would say, ‘Meet me on Zoom and I can help you.’ ”
Whenever MDAA hosted a presentation on career and educational opportunities, Stanley made sure to attend. And over time, his skills and confidence grew.
“He was always asking, ‘Do you think I can do it?’ ” recalled Indira Mardis academy coordinator and career/life coach. Her response: “You know you can do it, and I’m here to help you.”
Joseph plans to study real estate and business in college, and perhaps to own his own firm some day. He’s working hard not just for himself, but for his family — including his mother, who remains in Haiti and to whom Joseph sends financial support.
Joseph is a humble young man with a brilliant smile. At graduation recently, he took pains to praise the MDAA team members who had helped him realize his goal.
“They are the best people,” he said. “They make sure you get the work done.”
Gabriel Savaria Santos: ‘They Were Not Just My Teachers. They were my friends.’
A year ago, Gabriel Saravia Santos despaired that he might never earn his high school diploma. But for his determination and the help of Miami-Dade Acceleration Academies, he might not have.
“I was close to being in jail,” he said. Living in an unhealthy home in Las Vegas, he had fallen in with a bad crowd in a neighborhood riven by drugs and gangs. “I thought, ‘What am I doing? Is this leading to a good place or a bad place?’ ”
Gabriel knew the answer. He left Nevada and came to live with a cousin in Florida. After learning that MDAA offered a flexible, personalized path to graduation, he enrolled — and became a model student. Even a bout with Covid-19 and the need to temporarily quarantine didn’t slow him down.
“The moment he got a negative test for Covid, he came back to the site,” said registrar Francesca Mardis. “Some mornings, he beat me here.” Arriving at 8 each morning and working late into the afternoon, “He did exactly what he said he was going to do.”
Gabriel recently joined fellow members of the Class of 2021 to claim his diploma. Along with two classmates, he was also chosen for the Academic Excellence Award.
“As a result of his commitment and dedication to his education, this graduation candidate completed courses in days rather than weeks,” Mardis said in giving Gabriel the award. “He was an inspiration to us all and we are so happy and privileged to have been a small part of his journey.”
Gabriel is a tall young man, soft-spoken and respectful. His mother lives in Spain and his father in Honduras. “It’s very hard for a 17-year-old kid to live in this country and not have his parents,” said graduation candidate advocate Erick Velis. “He wanted to graduate and obtain a high school diploma to make his parents proud.”
Because he lives so far from the academy, Gabriel had to take three buses to school and back, a roundtrip journey of six hours. Until shortly before his final push to graduation, he was also working full-time at a fast food restaurant. He arrived on campus with exhausted eyes, but never complained.
He recalled Velis telling him, ‘You’re going to get this done. We believe in you.’” At one point, Velis pulled out a blank diploma and told the young man, “This can have your name on it.”
And now a diploma does carry his name, and something more — evidence of the dedication it took by him and by his teachers to realize his dream. After he finished, math coach Hernandez wrapped him in a hug.
“She gave me her phone number. She said, ‘If you ever need me, call me,’ ” said Gabriel, who plans to join the Army and become an electrician or plumber. “They were not just my teachers. They were my friends. They showed me even when everything is going against you, it is possible.”
Miracle Williams: ‘When I was going through a rough time, they still gave me an opportunity’
Miracle Williams is 18, a young woman with shy eyes and a big smile. In the last three years, she’s seen a lifetime of trouble.
First, her mother died of HIV. Then, she made some bad decisions while running with a rough crowd and spent 8 months in jail. Last fall, she was shot five times in the back and left unable to walk. She’s only just now regaining some feeling in her legs.
Miracle joined MDAA after being dismissed from her previous school due to excessive absences. MDAA’s personalized, flexible schedule and curriculum worked better for her, but she still struggled with motivation at times. After she was shot, she spent three days on life support and another three months recuperating in the hospital.
“I was depressed when I came home, but I needed something to keep my mind going,” she said.
Despairing at times, Miracle let her attention to high school studies wax and wane. But the educators at MDAA did not give up on her — or let her give up on herself.
“When I was going through a rough time, they still gave me an opportunity to go to school,” said Miracle. “They stayed on top of me. They called me every day and said, ‘Are you logged in?’ ”
With time and steady encouragement, Miracle completed her coursework and qualified to graduate. At the recent commencement celebration, she rolled across the stage in her wheelchair and proudly took her diploma.
“Half of my family were like, I’m never going to make it,” said Miracle, who would like to become a nurse and a motivational speaker. “I’m doing it for me, but I also wanted to prove other people wrong.”
“And,” she added, showing a picture of her late mother. “I did it for my mama.”
Rio Jackson: ‘You Are One of the Few People Who Have Believed in Me’
For Rio Jackson, the road to graduation was anything but smooth. He spent far too many of his teenage years in jail. But after enrolling at Miami-Dade Acceleration Academies, he found educators who believed in him — and helped him learn to believe in himself.
“I just wanted to get my education, you know, do something with myself, be a productive citizen,” said Rio. Speaking of his time in the criminal justice system, he said, “When you get laid down, you got to lay down. But at the end of the day, it motivates you to get up out of there and do something with yourself.”
On commencement day, Rio, 20, joined his classmates as a member of the MDAA Class of 2021. Walking slowly across the stage, he took his diploma and flashed a golden smile.
What does earning his high school diploma mean to Rio? “It means elevation, you know what I mean,” he said after the ceremony. “It means more better days, ‘cause I came from nothing. I’m so overwhelmed right now.”
A key figure in Rio’s journey was MDAA graduation candidate advocate Jackson Garcia. Rio began slowly and lacked confidence, Garcia said, but he had dreams — college, a career as a real estate agent and investor.
“He was a hard shell to crack but I stayed on top of him,” said Garcia. “He began slowly to work.”
To meet the deadline for graduating this summer, Rio had to complete three courses in a week. He told Garcia, “I’m going to do it because I really want this.”
After years of criticism from others, and from himself, he found the confidence to see his studies through to successful completion. Garcia recalled, “He said ‘You are one of the few people who have ever believed in me.’ ”
When Rio got discouraged, his mentor reminded him of his career goal, telling him, “You have to care beyond the classroom.” He also helped Rio overcome some practical obstacles, including the lack of a driver’s license.
On graduation day, Rio was bursting with gratitude for MDAA team members, highlighting the help provided not only by Garcia but also by educators Erick Velis, Aida Briceno and MDAA Director Gina Montagnino-Fiske, among others.
After receiving his diploma, Rio stood before the microphone and addressed his fellow graduates, encouraging them to carry the perseverance they had cultivated at MDAA into life.
“The trials and tribulations won’t last forever,” he said later. “Regardless of what you’re going through, there’s always a way out. It’s scientific, for real: It doesn’t rain all day. And if it does rain all day, tomorrow is going to be sunny.”