Southwest Miami High’s annual homecoming was held last Saturday night in the ballroom of The Hilton near Miami International Airport. Ladies donned feathery boas and sequenced dresses and young men wore black tilted top-hats, pin-striped vests and skinny ties, keeping up with the dance’s “Great Gatsby” theme.
Lil’ Jon’s Get Low had the sea of students on the dance floor waving their hands wildly as the teachers and staff were nodding their heads to the beat.
“Look at Howard,” said Jorge Diaz, the school’s athletic director, “he loves music and everyone loves him.”
Howard Rouse, the only one to jump on stage, riled up the crowd with his shakes and steps to Wobble, a popular hip-hop song. The collective echo of students chanted his name: “Howard! Howard! Howard!”
Howard is one of 35 special-needs students at Southwest Miami Senior High. At 10 p.m., Principal Carlos Diaz announced the Homecoming Court, made up of six female and five male nominees. Howard was one of them. Two other special-needs students, Isis Chirino and Jacqueline Rose, were also vying for the coveted homecoming crown.
A roar of screams, sharp whistles, and applause erupted when Diaz announced that Howard and Isis were voted Homecoming King and Queen. “I’m a winner!” exclaimed Howard. “Awesome!” said Isis.
“Landslide” was the word of the night. “Out of 339 students who voted, 73 percent chose Howard as homecoming king and 160 voted for Isis as queen,” said Diaz.
“Everyone from the teachers to the students to the custodians love these kids,” Diaz remarked. Southwest High is a magnet school, and is well-regarded for its banking and finance program as well as its special education program.
Special-needs students, who range from hearing impaired, to having different levels of intellectual disabilities, like Howard and Isis, “are treated like family,’’ said senior Matthew Fernandez, who mentors Howard through the school’s Best Buddies program.
“When we see them in the hallways we run up to them and give them hugs,” said Rachel Mesa, one of the homecoming nominees.
Matthew and Howard went to Tallahassee earlier this year and spoke with Gov. Rick Scott to heighten awareness for Best Buddies and to lobby money for it.
“People may assume that those with special needs are lucky to have mentors in their lives – but it’s the other way around: Howard has changed my life,” Matthew said.
Matthew hopes to attend Florida State University next year where he plans to continue mentoring others through the university’s Best Buddies program.
“It can be scary to step through the doors of a giant school like Southwest High, especially for someone with special needs, but through our Best Buddies program, we’re able to help others come out of their shells,” he said.
“This story is really about these kids who embrace those with special needs. It says a lot about them and the culture they’ve created,” said Diaz, the school’s athletic director.
Howard, 21, and Isis, 22, are completing their seventh, and final year at the school. Their favorite subject is dance. Howard’s hope for the future is to one day get married. His favorite song is I Will Always Love You by Whitney Houston.