WORDS: Kara Chalmers
PICTURES: Whitney Patton
When Ashley Santana-Morales was only eight, her art teacher knew she had a gift.
“She was very artistic,” said Alex Miranda, who then taught at Palmetto Elementary School. “She had her own style already.”
Having your own style at age eight is rare, Miranda said, adding she usually only recognizes personal style in a handful of students in an entire K-5 elementary school.
“Some students have a natural talent, they’re born with it,” Miranda said. For such kids, drawing, painting and other art forms come easy, and every sketch and brush stroke come out exactly the way they want it, she said.
“I did not draw nearly half as great as Ashley did,” said Miranda, who has a studio art degree. “She’s next level amazing. If she wants to work in any kind of artistic field, I think she has the potential to do so. She really is special.”
Actually, Ashley, now 12, is extra special, as she has been deaf since birth. Ashley communicates via American Sign Language, but she also speaks English and Spanish – the language that her parents, originally from Mexico, speak at home. Since she was three years old, Ashley has used a cochlear implant to help her hear.
In October, soon after starting her fifth-grade year at Palmetto Elementary, Ashley was accepted at the Florida School for the Deaf & the Blind in St. Augustine (FSDB) – one of the top such schools in the nation. Tuition-free, this Florida public school serves eligible Pre-K and K-12 students who are deaf/hard of hearing, blind/visually impaired, or deafblind. By all accounts, Ashley is thriving at her new school.
Opportunity and Sacrifice
“I knew Ashley would be a star in St. Augustine,” said Margaret Cornell, Teacher of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Manatee County. “She’s a rock star.”
Cornell has known Ashley for eight years. She’s worked with her off and on, including in Pre-K. It was Cornell who made Ashley and her parents aware of the Florida School for the Deaf & the Blind (FSDB) and helped the family through the application process last summer.
At Palmetto Elementary, Ashley had an interpreter in all her classes, but Cornell knew Ashley would blossom at FSDB.
“I thought it would be a better match for Ashley and her personality,” Cornell said. “She was the only deaf child here. There was a language delay and so school was very hard. I knew Ashley was so smart. Going to school with just an interpreter was not enough.”
Ashley loves that at her new school, all the teachers and the deaf students use sign language. The first thing she noticed when she visited FSDB was that the counselor giving the tour had the same cochlear implant she has.
So now, Ashley attends school as a boarder on weekdays, sleeping in a dorm with girls her age and eating meals in a dining hall. Her classes are small – six to eight students in each – and they include American Sign Language, English, and physical education every day. She swims, runs, plays games, and in her free time, she draws. She takes the school’s free bus to and from home in Bradenton on Fridays and Sundays.
Switching to a school in St. Augustine was a difficult choice – not so much for Ashley – but for her parents. Cornell noted that, while it was difficult to let go of their 12-year-old daughter, Ashley’s parents ultimately want what’s best for her. “It was a real act of love and sacrifice to allow Ashley to go to St. Augustine,” Cornell said.
Ashley’s mother, Antonia, recalls crying as she packed Ashley’s school things in October. “I wanted to hold on to my baby, but I had to let her go,” Antonia said, via Spanish translator, Alicia Vargas- Perez, parent liaison for Palmetto Elementary School. “The first time we went, we saw Ashley was so happy, I resolved not to cry in front of her.”
So, Ashley’s parents and her brothers Roman, 15, and Kevin, 8, make the most of their weekends with Ashley. They enjoy home-cooked meals together, go to church, and the siblings play soccer and video games. They have movie nights with popcorn and home-made chicharrones. “I look forward to Fridays,” Antonia said. “I make it special.”
Ashley’s father Roman, who works in Sarasota and takes the bus, goes out of his way to get home in time for the entire family to pick up Ashley each Friday. “For me and my husband, Ashley is our princess,” Antonia said. “Roman takes care that everything is special for our children, and at the same time we teach them the importance of being united to say goodbye and pick up Ashley from the bus.”
Still, as much fun as the weekends are, Sundays are difficult. “Mom cries,” Ashley said, smiling and looking at her mother with love.
According to Antonia, there were times Ashley would come home from Palmetto Elementary sad, saying that some students excluded her and didn’t accept her. In her current school, Antonia said, it’s different. The students and teachers understand each other, she said, and they share, and they talk. “This world is difficult for her,” Antonia said, referring to Palmetto Elementary. “Where she is right now is where she is supposed to be.”
Sketching as Expression
For Ashley, drawing is a way to communicate, Antonia said. “Ashley knows how to show what she feels in drawings,” Antonia said, adding that Ashley’s done so since she was a toddler.
Many of Ashley’s drawings depict her and her mom, sometimes with the slogan, “I Love You, Mom.”
Cherelyn Bolt, a third-grade teacher at Palmetto Elementary School, taught Ashley for one-and-a-half years. Like many of the school’s teachers and administrators, Bolt adores Ashley.
“I watched Ashley’s oral language blossom in my class,” Bolt said. She said she also witnessed Ashley develop special friendships with students who wanted to learn sign language. “She became a social butterfly,” Bolt said. “She’s quite a character. At times, she has a very lively personality.”
The year Ashley was in Bolt’s class, the students wrote and illustrated “autobiographies.” The booklets would include their future lives, including high schools, colleges, and careers. For example, in Ashley’s book, she wrote, “I graduated from Manatee School for the Arts” (which is her older brother’s school).
The illustration on that page is one of Bolt’s favorites. It shows Ashley in a graduation gown and hat, embracing her mother, and both of them are crying, but smiling.
It was in Ashley’s autobiography that she revealed she wants to be an art teacher. “It would be a natural fit for her,” Bolt said, describing Ashley’s artistic ability as “off the scale.” She said she thinks Ashley’s art teacher, Alex Miranda, may have been the inspiration behind Ashley’s career choice. “I think she’s going to pursue her goals; I could absolutely see her becoming an art teacher,” Bolt said. “I can see Ashley doing anything.”