Cristina Cartaya doesnt like limitations.
As principal of Our Pride Academy, a special-needs school in Kendall she established in 2011, she believes in setting high standards for her students. Most of the children and adults are developmentally disabled, having autism, Down syndrome or cerebral palsy.
When you set the bar here, she said, motioning with her hand, thats as far as theyre going to go. If you set the bar here, theyre going to rise to that. When you have the people around you that set those bars so high up, the kids respond.
Cartaya, 57, knows her field; she has been working in special education for nearly 30 years. She and a group of teachers and families started Our Pride after leaving The Learning Experience in Miami, where she worked for 15 years, six of which she was executive director.
Shes very important to us, said student Maxwell Max Mogul, 25. [She] makes our school a better place.
OPA teacher Nicole Perez embraces student Brandon Vega during class on Tuesday, Oct. 29, in Miami, Fla.
The school, a private, nonprofit, teaches the usual academic courses but goes beyond with its rigorous sports program, visual and performing arts productions and life-skills training.
And unlike public-funded, special-needs programs, where students are required to graduate at age 22, the school doesnt have an age limit. Our Pride has 72 students ranging from 5 to 35.
Students with special needs have a tendency to regress as they get older, said Alexandra Alex Amoedo, the schools life-skills teacher. When theyre learning information, their ability to retain the information isnt like somebody whos typically developed. So were constantly giving them something so that its something to keep them stimulated.
Southwest Miami High in Kendall has a strong special-needs program as well. Of the 3,149 students, 477 participate in its Exceptional Student Education program. Last month, the student body elected two ESE students as king and queen of the homecoming court.
Suzy Alvarez, chair of Southwests ESE department, said she wishes there were more options for their special-needs students once they graduate at 22. Carlos Diaz, Southwest principal, said their students often become stagnant and unproductive after they leave the school. Its why he is so supportive of Our Pride.
Its a Godsend, Diaz said.
From left: Albert "AJ" Johnson III, Emel Walker and Head Coach Daniel "Danny" Cartaya start another practice play on Wednesday, Nov. 6, in Miami, Fla. They practiced flag football.
Our Prides most extensive program revolves around sports. In addition to taking daily PE classes, students train for the Special Olympics, competing in track and field, basketball, flag football, soccer, softball and weight lifting.
In the 2013 statewide summer Special Olympics, Our Pride students took home nine gold, 10 silver and five bronze medals, said Daniel Danny Cartaya, head coach of the schools athletic program and Special Olympics Team Florida track and field coach.
Were like the United States when we go to the Olympics, said Cartaya, son of the schools founder. We just rack em up. Thats Our Pride Academy.
One of the schools students, David Rams, won the Miami-Dade County Special Olympics Athlete of the Year award in 2011. Although Rams was an independent athlete at the time, Cartaya coached him. OPAs Special Olympics involvement wasnt officially established yet.
Cartaya said he keeps Rams award in his home.
It was a win for him, but it was a win for me as well, he said. We have a lot of love for each other so, for me, it was kind of like seeing my little brother getting the most prestigious award in Miami.
Cartaya received a coaching excellence award of his own this year from the Special Olympics Miami-Dade County organization. He keeps it next to Rams trophy.
Cartaya and Assistant Coach Daniel Danny Larosa are training five athletes for the 2014 summer national Special Olympics. They will compete in track and field events, including the 100- and 200-yard dash. Rams will compete in the pentathlon; he won a gold in the statewide Special Olympics in 2011.
Im really looking forward to seeing these guys compete after training for a full year, coach Cartaya said. I cant wait to see their faces when they realize the magnitude of what theyre doing.
The sports field is not the only venue where the students shine; the stage plays a big role.
One student wasnt able to remember a single line in Romeo and Juliet when he first started performing about four years ago, said Rebecca Cartaya, director of OPAs visual and performing arts department.
In September, the student was the servant, a lead role, in the schools production of Shakespeares A Servant of Two Masters, said Rebecca Cartaya, whos married to the founders son Pablo.
So many people have said to me after the shows, We didnt know they could do that, she said. It really gives a different perspective on what individuals with disabilities, or that we look at as differently abled, can actually accomplish. You know, yes, they can do The Nutcracker. Yes, they can do a Shakespeare play. And people really dont understand that until they see it happen.
The school works with the Belen Jesuit Preparatory School chapter of Best Buddies, a nonprofit group. About 50 Belen students participate; a small group visits Our Pride about one to two times a month, where they play kickball and basketball, said Julian Esain, 17, president of the Belen chapter.
Theyre making friends while being selfless at the same time, Julian said. They establish friendships that are based on true innocence.
Like the Best Buddies program, the schools life-skills classes help integrate the students into society and establish independence.
Amoedo, the life-skills teacher, teaches the students how to order from a restaurant menu, how to buy groceries and how to make a bed. The students go on outings to Publix, restaurants, and shopping forays to the dollar store. The school has a mock bedroom where the kids practice their domestic skills.
Vocational training also includes job training. OPA matches students with job coaches based on the students interests. Currently, Publix and The Palace, an assisted-living facility in Kendall, participate. At The Palace, the students volunteer, at Publix, they are employed.
Student Joseph Paz, 27, works at Publix Sabor in the Coral Way Shopping Center in Westchester. The Our Pride students go through the same training as Publixs other employees.
Theyre very appreciative of the job and opportunity, said Nicole Krauss, media and community relations manager for the Miami division of Publix. They are some of our best associates.
Teachers at Our Pride also encourage students to become unofficial teaching assistants, helping in the younger classrooms. Fernando Fern Barroso, 23, assists the elementary Advanced Behavioral Analysis, ABA, class for autistic children. Outbursts and the unexpected are the norm. Yet, its not unusual to see Barroso sitting off to the side with a calm child in his lap.
Sophie Cordoba, the ABA teacher, said Barroso is able to calm some students down better than she can.
I feel proud because they look up to me, Barroso said. Im their role model.
Barroso reads to the students, helps them navigate the computer and plays with them. He is taking childcare classes at Miami-Dade College; he plans to be a teaching assistant.
His self-esteem has really shot up, said Maria Barroso, his mother. I am so proud of him, so proud. These kids come here, and they believe they can do anything because the teachers tell them that they can. They believe it and they actually go do it.
BIG PLANS AHEAD
Carlo Medrano, 7, talks to and interacts with Kevin Quiñones, 8, toward the end of the schoolday in te Applied Behavior Analysis classroom at OPA on Wednesday, Nov. 20, in Miami, Fla.
Cristina Cartaya has big plans for the future. She wants to build an adult living facility that would have a college-dorm atmosphere, where the students would have a sense of independence but still attend Our Pride.
But this takes money, lots of it.
The school charges $15,000 in annual tuition from kindergarten to age 22. The adult program costs $7,980 per year. OPA has a 12-month payment plan and offers partial scholarships to those who need them.
But tuition doesnt cover the cost of operating the school, which relies heavily on grants and private donations, Cartaya said.
The school fundraises to provide full scholarships; this year, Our Pride gave a $15,000 scholarship to the 2013 Florida Special Olympics Athlete of the Year, Kevin Roundtree.
The next fundraiser will take place this weekend with the students production of The Nutcracker at the Dave and Mary Alper Jewish Community Center in Kendall. Cartaya will be in the audience, front and center.
She knows there are challenges ahead, but says they are worth the effort the rewards she gets from the students far outweigh the cost.
Theyve impacted my life, she said. Its not the other way around. I havent impacted theirs as much as theyve impacted mine.
Brandon Vega ,8, walks about during OPA's Halloween event dressed as Superman on Thursday, Oct. 31, in Miami, Fla.