Arts Learning Academy shuts down due to funding shortage, leaving a gap for students with special needs

Parents and guardians of children who have special learning and developmental needs will have one less local education option with the closing of Chipley’s Arts Learning Center.

Certified Behavioral Specialist Trina Hill opened the Arts Academy Learning School for Autism in 2016 to serve the needs of children with Autism and related disabilities.

Hill was forced to close the school in recent weeks amid funding and staff shortages. 

Hill says grants she depended on didn’t come through leaving staffing difficult to fill. 

“I don’t want too insult anyone who applies by low-balling them when it comes to pay,” she said. “I just don’t have the funding to pay what is deserved. Grants that I depend on didn’t come through since funding sources have shifted during the pandemic.”

The pandemic caused some of the staff to leave because of health and safety reasons and not wanting to get any of their students sick. 

Hill says she had students who were out a month at a time because of contracting COVID or a caregiver or family member becoming sick. “There were times when I didn’t have students here for an extended period due to quarantining or them having COVID,” she said. “The pandemic has been hard on everyone.”

When the school opened six years ago, one of Hill’s first students was Edward Works. Hill says when Works came to school, he was completely non-verbal and “didn’t listen to anyone.”

“Edward is my project child, meaning he has been a work in progress,” she said. “When he came to me, he didn’t have any communication skills and now he is saying words and even gave a speech on Easter Sunday at my church. He didn’t have any listening skills to speak of and now he easily follows direction and has learned many important skills.”

Susie Stubbs-Lawrence’s son, 14-year-old Malachi Lawrence, has attended the school for the past five years after previously driving an hour each way to Panama City to attend Gulf Coast School for Autism where Hill had served as a teacher before bringing the services to Chipley. 

Lawrence says Hill and Malachi have a strong bond. 

“From the beginning, Malachi took to Miss Trina,” she said. “Even at his old school, he wanted to go be in her classroom. She loves her babies and will do anything she can for them. We are sad to see the school close, but we know that we will always have Miss Trina in our lives.”

With the closing of the Arts Learning Academy, many parents like Lawrence will face the decision of whether to make the drive for the specialized education services.

In addition to tailored lesson plans and other projects, Hill say the children looked forward to the supervised socialization found in field trips.

Hill took students on field trips to places where they could learn real life skills, such as Walmart or Dollar Tree.

Trips also included going to lunch or to water parks to work on socialization skills. Hill says these trips are important not just for her students but also for the community. 

“I want the community to know these kids,” she said. “This is where they live, these are the people they live around. Not only are they learning how to do simple tasks and how to do things themselves, but they are also teaching the community that every child is capable of learning.”

Each of the five students at the school will be moved to a school of the parent’s choice or will be homeschooled. 

Two of those students reside in Washington County and are eligible to attend the Washington Academy of Varying Exceptionalities (WAVE) should the parents so choose according to Superintendent Joe Taylor. 

“If a student lives in Washington County, we are required to provide a place of education,” he said. “We have the capacity to take students at WAVE that are leaving the Arts Academy of Learning should the parents desire them to do so.”

Hill says she isn’t sure where all her students will go but that most will likely be homeschooled due to the anxiety of crowded places many of her students face. 

As for Hill, she will continue to work with her clients in the behavior field while she waits for as she says, “the Lord to find her spot.”

Lawrence says Hill has an effect on those who meet her and that is something she is grateful for. “Miss Trina has a way about her,” she said. “It doesn’t matter where she is, when she meets someone she makes a huge impact on them. She did that with Malachi, I am forever grateful that he has her.”