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Academic Excellence: Meet Derren

There’s a proverb that says, “It takes a village to raise a child.” For Derren Josiah Burse, his village — composed of his friends, family and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools staff — helped him accomplish his one goal, to earn a diploma.

A goal that at one point in his life, doctors deemed impossible. When Josiah was two and a half years old, his mom Alissa Burse noticed he stopped talking. By the time he was three he could not hear or walk.

Josiah’s parents took him to the Marcus Autism Center in Atlanta, Georgia where doctor’s gave him a devastating diagnosis.

“They said he was severely autistic, mentally retarded and that he would not have a very good prognosis,” she said. “I wanted him to have a life.”

The Burse family moved to Charlotte and enrolled Josiah in CMS. During Josiah’s individualized educational program (IEP) meetings, Alissa expressed to teachers that she wanted Josiah to graduate with a diploma.

“His middle school teachers at Mint Hill Middle were like, ‘let’s do it,’” Alissa recalled. “By the time I got to North Carolina, I was used to hearing no, but that wouldn’t be accepted. We were his voice.”

At Rocky River High, she expressed to the administrators that she wanted Josiah in the Occupational Course of Study (OCS), a program for students with disabilities whose primary goal is to go directly into employment or attend a post-secondary education program resulting in a licensure or credential upon graduation from high school.

“Mrs. Burse definitely advocated for him,” said Hollie Price, exceptional children teacher at Rocky River.

Both Price and Donald Smith, exceptional children teacher, worked with Josiah during his four years in the OCS program, preparing him with job skills to enter the workforce. Price and Smith collaborated to provide Josiah with the tools he needed to be successful in his classes.

“Even though we work with all different types of students, I never had a student like Josiah,” said Smith. “Ms. Price gave me a lot of strategies that helped me be able to communicate with him which made for a phenomenal experience. Josiah went from having to work with us one-on-one initially to being independent. It was an extraordinary transformation.”

“Josiah has made us better teachers,” added Price. “We would always try to figure out different ways if we could to tap into him because we know he’s trying to express what he knows.”

During Josiah’s final IEP meeting, Alissa learned he was not only going to graduate from Rocky River with his diploma, but that he was going to graduate at the top 15% of his class. Because of his love for cooking, Josiah will attend a culinary camp in Charlotte over the summer before taking online courses for culinary school.

All in all, Josiah’s walk across the stage demonstrates the power of teamwork, or as Josiah sums it up, “Do your best, love to learn, work first and make it the best day ever.”

“He has a village,” said Price. “Everybody coming together made it happen.”