Seven-year-old Gabriel Perez bounces down a makeshift runway on the basketball court, smiling and waving energetically. His classmate, Amanda Fuentes, walks more cautiously, holding her instructor’s hand. She stops under the basket and blows a kiss to a make-believe audience.
But the crowd will soon be real. The students of The Learning Experience School, which serves children and adults with developmental disabilities, will be performing at its 23rd Annual Fashion Show fundraiser on Feb. 6. More than 800 community members are expected to attend the event, which will also include an auction and a raffle.
“This is a day where they really shine,” said Terry Alvarez-Arango, a parent organizer. “All the sensory issues that these kids have … yet, that day, they can do it. I think the energy of the crowd pulls them.”
Established in 1977, the private school at 5651 SW 82nd Ave. in Miami-Dade spans from nursery to a program for graduated adults. Sixty percent of its 112 students have Down syndrome, while 30 percent have autism. A personalized learning program tailors instruction to students, and vocational training prepares them to live independently.
But the school has reached its student capacity, an issue the fundraiser is intended to address.
“We have to expand. We need the support so that more kids can be serviced here,” said Vickie Burley, head of the school. “Our families choose us because of our long history of providing programs for individuals with disabilities. It’s that personal touch that we have here. They are here from when they are itty-bitty to when they grow up.”
Throughout elementary and middle school, individualized curriculum allows students to learn at their own pace. Classes are capped at 10 students with a special education-certified teacher and an assistant.
“Some can be counting to 10 and some can be doing two-digit division,” said Alexandria Salas, the lead high school teacher. “Everything has to be prepared for each student. You might have a learner who can’t read. So I have to think, let me get the iPad, [use] sign language. The standard is to make them as independent as possible, meet their individual needs and make sure they are happy and healthy.”
High school students are taught practical skills and volunteer weekly at venues including the Hilton, Embassy Suites and Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in hopes of permanent employment after graduation.
“Let’s make sure they can do money management, that we can get them into a store, buy something and pay for it,” Salas said. “The goal is to get them into the community — that is the real classroom.”
Besides vocational training, a room in the school furnished with a bed, washing machine, dryer and a phone lets students practice household chores. A cooking class sharpens their culinary skills, and the menu can be gourmet.
“Today they made steak, onions, rice, black beans and sweet plantains. For desert — rice pudding, flan and a chocolate cake,” said Vivian Ramirez, a parent who runs the class. “Some of these young adults are going out on their own. They want to learn. They don’t want to be dependent.”
Around the corner from the kitchen, adult students stretch in a yoga class, folding their legs into a pretzel. The school partners with organizations including Best Buddies, the Friendship Circle and the Special Olympics, and prom, formals and extra-curriculars supplement academics.
“I play the drums. I practice on the stage with Best Buddies,” said John Keeler, 20, who introduces himself as “D.J.”
Douglas Campbell, who was married to the late founding executive director, attributes his son Andrew’s achievement in karate to the program. Andrew, who is 39 and has Down syndrome, has been in the school since it began in his own home and is now a second-degree black belt in Shogun karate.
“For him to flourish in a karate dojo in which he is the only special needs person there — and he’s not given any special attention whatsoever,” Campbell said. “There’s the usual academics that you would find in any other school, but then there are social skills that he is taught and there are living skills that he is taught.”
Other students have their own projects, too. On Jan. 13, Chris Trujillo spoke in front of the state Legislature in Tallahassee about the hurtful use of the word “retarded.”
“Spread the word to end the word ... the R word,” he said, sitting next to his girlfriend, who wore a wristband with the same message.
This Saturday’s fashion show is intended to put more students in the spotlight.
“We want them to be involved in the community and for people not to be afraid and for people to see them as they are,” Burley said. “We’re just the stepping stone.”
If you go
WHAT: The Learning Experience School’s 23rd Annual Fashion Show Luncheon & Auction
WHEN: Feb. 6 at 11:30 a.m.
WHERE: The DoubleTree Miami Airport & Convention Center, East Hall
Event is sold out.