Empowering ExtraOrdinary Minds

The remarkable journey of Ashley’s Learning Centre.

By Abigail Parnell ~ Images Courtesy Ashley’s Learning Centre

The Ashley’s Learning Centre is dedicated to trying to help as many special needs children as it can.

Education is the cornerstone of our lives, opening doors to opportunities and a brighter future. Yet, for those with special educational needs, this path is often riddled with challenges due to limited resources. Ashley’s Learning Centre strives to bridge this gap and empower students with special educational needs.

For eight years, the centre has stood as a symbol of hope and transformation, dedicated to nurturing and educating children with special educational needs. As the school faces uncertain times, it’s important to shed light on the invaluable service it has provided and highlight the urgent need for support.

The Ashley’s Learning Centre’s story began in 2015, when Ashley, a non-verbal five year-old Turks & Caicos Islander was diagnosed with autism. Ashley’s mother had to pivot from her initial hopes for her daughter of a “normal life” to ensuring that her daughter could have a voice and hold onto hope. Upon realising other parents faced similar challenges, she united their resources to provide a place of support for children with, and parents of, special needs.

This was the birth of the Ashley’s Learning Centre (ALC). It began with just one student and a Special Needs teacher from abroad. One student became two; two students became five; and today, in its eighth year, the ALC has 20 full-time students and six dedicated faculty members. In total, the ALC has impacted the lives of more than 75 special needs children. 

Graceway Communities works closely with ALC. Here they brought together the community to help refurbish the playground.

Nurturing extraordinary minds

The passion of the teachers at ALC is what drives the understanding that special needs students all have extraordinary minds. From learning how to handle a spoon for themselves to developing the ability to speak, teachers work closely with students to instill confidence and belief in their capabilities. Every student has their own personalised education plan, known as an Individualised Education Plan (IEP). These IEPs are tailored to their specific needs and regularly reviewed. Teachers work as a dedicated team, collaborating with different specialists as well as with parents to create an effective learning environment.

Their investment in students’ progress extends year-round, as the ALC offers a robust summer program. This program is designed so students have continued support and structure during the summer break. Parents are also encouraged to support and reach out for support within the community which has been created and fostered around the centre. 

Community impact

The annual Sports Day lets ALC students show off their individual talents.

Beyond academics, the centre has hosted a Sports Day, Achievement Day, and an annual Music Concert where the children can shine, as well as garner support for their cause. Through their network, the ALC has endeavored to provide an understanding of special needs and inclusive education by educating teachers throughout the TCI. Other efforts have manifested through conferences, workshops, and events that cultivate understanding and empathy throughout the community. 

The cost of compassion

The cost of providing specialised education is significantly greater than mainstream education due to low teacher/pupil ratios, individualised therapies, and technological and specialized interventions. Despite its past accomplishments, the ALC’s future can only be visualised through eyes of faith. In fact, the centre operates on a month-to-month basis.   

The cost to educate one child with special needs in TCI is roughly $21,000 per year ($1,750 per month). Comparatively, it costs $27,000 per year in the US. The ALC operates as a non-profit and has set its tuition fees at a level that is accessible for parents from varying economic backgrounds. In doing so, the centre aims to create an environment where financial obstacles do not hinder a child’s access to quality education. The ALC strongly advocates that every child has the right to access the services they need. Every child.

However, tuition from parents as well as direct government support provides for less than 30% of what is required to operate the centre. The remainder of the approximately $430,000 annual operating cost depends on philanthropic support, aggressive fundraising, and the kindness of strangers.

The annual Music Concert let ALC students show off their talents and serves as a fundraiser.

Past philanthropic support from RUBiS in 2021 made way for a technology room to be implemented—a great addition as many special needs students are technologically inclined. The ALC’s multi-sensory room was established through the generous donations of many people, organised via a Go Fund Me campaign created by Mark Parrish and his wife Kim Mortimer. Other generous donations resulted in the refurbishing of the school’s playground. 

Any extra funds would allow for the centre to grow further and touch the lives of a larger number of children, to address the need. “We should not focus on the cost but rather the value of educating and bringing someone into society, who should be included,” the ALC’s Chairperson Ben Avenant explains. 

Upholding the right to inclusion 

Unfortunately, the right to be included cannot be granted to every special needs child in TCI. The centre is at full capacity with 20 full-time students. The seriousness of the issue becomes stark when considering insights gleaned from the Special Needs Educational Policy (2015), which indicates that 5% of the TCI’s school population, which translates to around 300 or more individuals, have a special educational need. 

Mr. Avenant stresses the importance of meeting the needs of these children, as he explains that they come in varying degrees. He points out that some children’s challenges are easy to overlook, so they blend into mainstream education, which may lead to them being branded as “naughty” or “mischievous.” Consequently, they accept and internalise these labels and, at worst, turn towards delinquency as “they would never be able to be educated, or assessed as special needs.” 

He also addressed the struggles parents may face, “We have parents asking daily if we can accept their child. We can’t do it, so what is their alternative? They have nowhere to go.  And time is of the essence when children are in their formative years. A term without proper education can lead to a lifetime of struggle.” 

A plea for support

It is the ALC Board of Directors’ aim to elevate the centre as a beacon of hope in Turks & Caicos and to create lasting awareness and acceptance of persons who are differently able. Future aspirations of the ALC include launching life skills and music therapy programs in their new purpose-built classrooms, educating the public about hidden disabilities, and hosting performances by the New World Symphony to raise funds and awareness. However, to bring these plans to fruition depends completely on sustained community support. 

The ALC’s strategic plans build a clear vision for the future of the school. However, in order to transform these goals into reality, the school relies on community, stakeholder, and collaborator support. These contributions provide the necessary tools that enable the ALC to provide outstanding education and assistance to students with special needs, creating a bright and inclusive future. 

The ALC has always advocated for their cause, but now they need your support. Your contribution, regardless of size, can help secure the future of the centre.

For more information and to support the Ashley’s Learning Centre, visit:

W: www.ashleyslearningcenter.org

FB: Ashley’s Learning Center

IG: ashleyslearningcenter

E: Chairman@ashleyslearningcenter.org—Ben Avenant

To donate please visit: https://m.islehelp.net/ 

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