Savannah Ackles is an aspiring photographer preparing to graduate Coral Shores High School in June. Her shaggy red hair is in no way indicative of her temperament.
“I just like being different,” she said quietly over her meal on the deck of Lorelei.
Ackles moved to the Keys three years ago with her parents, Craig and Kim. She quickly secured an internship with renowned South Florida photographer Luis Melendi assisting with student portraits all the while maintaining good grades and participating in extra curricular activities like Be the Change, Keys to Peace and Marr-velous Pet Rescue. She even assisted sculptor Kim Brandell with the concrete artwork at the recently renovated Mrs. Mac’s II in Key Largo.
Behind her 3.4 GPA and regular presence at community functions, Savannah struggles with learning disabilities that may jeopardize her ability to gradate in June.
That’s been a tough pill for her parents to swallow.
Savannah began exhibiting some learning challenges as early as kindergarten. Shortly thereafter, according to Kim, she was diagnosed with central auditory processing disorder, and eventually anxiety and depression.
She began working with an occupational therapist to help combat the complex problem affecting about five percent of school-aged children according to kidshealth.org. Kids with CAPD often do not recognize subtle differences between sounds in words and thus have trouble processing information they hear.
Around the age of 10, Savannah was diagnosed with dyscalculia, a lesser-known learning disability that affects one’s ability to process mathematical calculations.
When the Ackles moved to Key Largo a year and a half ago, they brought ample documentation of their daughter’s learning disabilities to school administrators. They contend that it’s not been until this Spring, just months before graduation, have their concerns been heard.
“Her disability didn’t go away her senior year,” Kim insisted.
During a recent community health fair at Mariner’s Hospital, Kim met school board candidate Michael Cunningham, and the two soon learned they shared common concerns regarding their children’s learning disabilities.
Ackles invited Cunningham as well as The Weekly Newspapers to attend a staffing on Tuesday, March 6 with counselors and academic advisors at Coral Shores High School. The group was convening to discuss Savannah’s academic needs and her parents’ request to change the learning plan guidelines for their daughter.
Savannah is currently on a 504 plan that grants her the ability to have additional time for standardized testing, large print size copies of her tests and even an isolated, quiet environment in which she would be permitted to take tests outside the standard facility.
The Ackles would prefer that their daughter be placed on an Individualized Educational Program, or IEP, that would provide her the opportunity to work with specialized instructors. Not only would it give her the individualized attention they feel she needs to address her barely passing Algebra 2 grades, but it would also afford her the option of a waiver for her to pass the mathematics portion of the FCAT in order to receive her standard diploma.
Though The Weekly Newspapers was invited and had received prior permission to attend the meeting, district ESE administrator Catherine Kanagy asked the staff writer to leave the meeting due to the sensitive subject matter.
In the end, administrators denied the Ackles request to change their daughter’s learning plan, and her hopes for graduating hinge on her passing her senior math class.
“They committed to giving her as much assistance as possible to help her pass,” Cunningham reported following the meeting. “I’m sure this has happened in the past where we have a child enter our district with learning disabilities, and it’s going to happen in the future.”
Though a glimmer of hope seems to lie in the fact that Savannah’s SAT and ACT scores are just high enough to waive the requirement that she pass the math FCAT in order to graduate, Cunningham continued that such knowledge is not readily available for parents.
“If our kids can’t pass the FCAT, what are their options?” he questioned. “They may be struggling with individual components, but scores at a certain level on the SAT or ACT could be waived. We could be doing better as a school district in communicating the options available.”
Coral Shores High School College and Career counselor Chris Harris said Savannah’s emphasis on art had only recently narrowed to photography as a possible future career.
“She may actually end up qualifying for a Bright Futures scholarship,” Harris reported. “She would be eligible to attend any community colleges or universities within the state of Florida, but she’s not applied anywhere at this point. Now, it sounds like she may want to take some time off and work under Luis Melendi to continue her internship.”