The breaking point for Nick Montolio came one day in gym class at his old school.
It was the fall of 2017 — six months before he would enroll at Miami-Dade Acceleration Academies and find the supportive environment he had been looking for — and Nick was chatting with friends, admittedly, he says, while their gym instructor was speaking.
“I love talking, and in gym class, I talked a lot,” said Nick, who is transgender. “And there was one time, in front of the entire class he was like, ‘If you don’t stop talking, I’ll call you by [your dead name].’ ”
A “dead name” is the name a trans person is given at birth but no longer coincides with the identity they know to be true. LGBTQ advocates say that referring to a trans person by their so-called dead name is regarded as an act that both invalidates their identity and strips them of agency. Nick was 17 at the time and had started coming out as trans just one year before.
“It wasn’t until high school where I was just really struggling with who I was as a person,” he said. “I was just at a point where I couldn’t listen to other people. I kind of just went into a deep depression where I had no motivation for basically anything.”
For Nick, the most persistent struggle at his previous school was a lack of support and affirmation from teachers and administrators. When Nick started coming out at school, “it was hard for some of the teachers to accept that,” he said. It was wrenching “to go through it alone and not have counselors understand my struggle.”
At a certain point, he recalled, Nick began to withdraw. As the sense of isolation compounded his anxiety, Nick no longer felt school was a safe space where he could learn.
Nick said he felt constrained by educators around him asserting he needed to do things a certain way. “It was more of, like, ultimatums,” he said. “My identity is not an ultimatum. It’s who I am.”
Gradually, he withdrew — not completing assignments, skipping class. Finally, in his junior year, he dropped out.
Then a friend familiar with Nick’s circumstances suggested looking into Miami-Dade Acceleration Academy, which works in partnership with Miami-Dade Public Schools to provide a nontraditional path for students who don’t find success in traditional schools.
MDAA’s approach sounded promising: flexible scheduling for courses he could complete at his own pace, a diverse staff of instructors and mentors ready to embrace him for the person and learner he was, and an environment that affirms the value of each individual.
By the spring of 2018, Nick had enrolled at the academy’. The flexible course schedule was ideal, he said, allowing him to find his rhythm and to ponder what he would do once he earned his diploma.
“I think it was just the fact that I had space to grow — not only, like, academically, but I had space to figure out what I wanted and who I wanted to be,” Nick said. “And I think that’s why it worked so well, because I’m one who takes my time thinking about what I want.”
On the day Nick arrived for a tour and orientation, the first person to greet him was Aida Briceno, an Acceleration Academy career and life coach. From inside, Briceno recalled, she spotted Nick, who appeared shy and hadn’t yet walked through the door. Sensing he was nervous, Briceno greeted him and walked with him inside before offering a tour.
She couldn’t know it then, but Briceno would become one of Nick’s most trusted mentors throughout his two years with Acceleration Academy.
“I think that it was just important for him to be in a place where nobody judged him and where people just accepted him for who he was,” Briceno said. “I think that Acceleration Academy does a really great job in hiring a diverse group of people” who can empathize with a broad group of students.
After a year, Nick completed his coursework and celebrated his diploma. Now, he is working to hone his civics chops and find work among local LGBTQ advocacy groups in his native Miami Beach, he said. In the meantime, he’s found work painting apartments and has started a community garden in his neighborhood.
“For young adults … that are in the LGBTQ community, trans folks especially, there is a safe place to go to school,” the graduate said, “and it’s at Acceleration Academy.”
“You don’t have to put up with what you don’t want.”