Ashley the Artist

Ashley Santana-Morales stands in front of wall with vines growing up it.
Ashley Santana-Morales. Photo courtesy of 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.