MIDDLETOWN — Never in “a million years” did the mother and former teacher of a city middle school graduate with two learning disabilities expect him to be recognized as tops in the United States with a prestigious national math award.

Lucas Rivera, 15, now a Xavier High School freshman, has struggled with academics his entire life, according to his mother Annamaria Dacosta. His difficulties are the result of being born prematurely — at 2 pounds, 7 ounces.

“I called him my miracle baby,” said Dacosta, a local nurse. “I used to put him, after I breastfed him, in my scrubs pocket in intensive care,” she said of her “Little Peanut.”

In second grade, Lucas was diagnosed with ADHD. Five years later, as a seventh-grader at Woodrow Wilson Middle School, intensive testing showed he also had dyslexia. School staff worked out a learning plan for him, and now he has an individualized education program.

Lucas and his mother learned Monday he took first place in the 14th annual Houghton Mifflin Harcourt student awards in Math 180, an intervention program for young people who have trouble grasping some concepts of arithmetic.

HMH selected 15 student winners from a “strong” pool of finalists.

Lucas was nominated by Wilson math teacher Jodi DiMauro, who said the quiet young man, transformed into an outstanding student last year. “He would focus, get down to business and do what he needed to do.” Soon, she learned, his scores began skyrocketing.

The self-confidence Lucas derived from the experience opened up a world of possibilities for the teen. “If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” he said of DiMauro.

HMH seeks students who have overcome considerable challenges to succeed in school. The program uses a blend of teacher-led instruction and adaptive technology to personalize student instruction and accelerate growth.

Award recipients are evaluated on several factors, including personal recommendations and statements, as well as data demonstrating growth in reading or math.

“When I found out he was in the top 10, and I found out he came in first place in the nation, I said, ‘What?!’ I was dumbfounded. In nine months, he overcame a lot,” DaCosta said.

The grand prize is a $500 Amazon gift card.

Lucas always had a tough time with fractions, multiplication and division, he said. “That was my weakness, so I would ask for help and stay after to get extra work in.”

DiMauro taught him new and different methods of mathematics, which soon helped him tackle issues he couldn’t before — so much so, he now helps classmates stymied with coursework.

“We always talked about options for high school, and some kids would say they would never get in,” DiMauro said. “I told them never assume or doubt yourself. Always aim high and go for what you want. I don’t think he believed it was an option for him, both academically and financially, but he did it.”

Originally, the family planned for Lucas to attend Middletown High School, but he changed course after receiving encouragement from DiMauro to go to a private institution.

“He was one who would come into class on any given day” determined to achieve, she said. “It was one of my hardest classes — it was in the afternoon, so the kids were all fired up,” said DiMauro, making it a challenge to keep them on task.

Lucas turned out to be an exception. “They come in low, they come in not motivated, with no confidence, and years behind where they should be. Implementing the program is supposed to change that around for them,” DiMauro said.

Dacosta has learned dyslexia makes it difficult for people to decode words. With DiMauro’s alternative teaching styles, Lucas has surpassed her expectations.

“I love her to death,” Dacosta said. “There will be times — even on vacation — when he would try to read or do an assignment. She is the type of person that on any given time, you can call and she will be there.”

“She is a phenomenal, phenomenal teacher. I could not do it without her,” DaCosta said.

When she learned Lucas had made it to the contest’s first round, “I was so excited. I thought, ‘This could be real!’”

The mom said she was surprised and pleased to hear he had entered, but realized right away the cost would be significant. “I’m a single mom, but I’m making it happen. I don’t know how I’m doing it. So I worked my butt off to pay for his school,” said Dacosta.

Lucas earned a partial scholarship, and she’s paying the remainder — as well as unexpected expenditures, such as books, a gym outfit, jacket and dress clothes. “God has blessed me. He’s content and this is a huge stepping stone for him,” DaCosta said.

When he encounters a roadblock in his schoolwork, Lucas goes through a range of emotions.

“When he gets really frustrated, he’ll just ball up. When he couldn’t do something, he didn’t know how to express it, which is part of the decoding aspect of it. But he wouldn’t act out,” Dacosta said.

“If you come to middle school, and you don’t know math, in your mind you’re saying, ‘I’m stupid, I can’t do this. I’m not even going to try. That’s where that fixed mindset is. This program really working on turning that to a growth mindset,” DiMauro said.

Lucas is also a talented athlete. He took first place in states last year in wrestling in his weight category: earning him an undefeated record, DaCosta said. In track last year, there were only two seventh-graders nominated to go to states to compete. His team took third place.

Her son is very determined, DaCosta said. “He’s going to fight for anything he wants. He’s amazing all the way around.”

Recently, she was touched to hear Lucas echo a saying her father passed along to her: “Making my dreams become reality.”

Xavier’s curriculum is demanding, although, Lucas is finding Algebra I and College Prep much easier than he had expected.

He’s pleased to say he’s getting all As.

“If it wasn’t for Math 180 and Mrs. DiMauro, I would not be the math student I am today. ... I know that math is all around me and it is important to understand the concepts,” Lucas wrote.

For information, visit hmhco.com.

Connecticut Media Group