Arizona Autism Charter Schools
The first autism-focused charter school in the western United States is on a mission to change the narrative about students with autism.
Arizona Autism Charter Schools is the story of a mom on a mission. When Diana Diaz-Harrison’s son, Sammy, was diagnosed with autism in 2004, she hoped Sammy’s assigned school would meet his unique learning needs. Sadly, it didn’t. And there weren’t any quality traditional public education options for the one in forty students diagnosed with autism. With that statistic as her north star, Diana set out to do something about it. She partnered with other parents, grandparents, and professionals to found the school, with the state’s strong charter school law as a critical element in her ability to do so successfully. The school’s primary tool is use of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) principles to support students’ behavioral needs and help them achieve the state instructional standards using an individualized approach to teaching and learning. ABA is backed by the American Academy of Pediatrics as the gold standard treatment for children with autism and related disorders.
From 90 students in 2014 to more than 700 students this year across four schools, AZACS students are celebrated for their neuro-diversities and have differentiated programs to challenge them to their next level of learning.
“As an Autism Mom, I don’t want my kid to be seen as disabled. I want him to be seen as a doer, intelligent, productive and so these charter schools that we are starting across America will help our children be neurodiverse, be who they are and be fulfilling, productive citizens.”
Why they stand out
Arizona Autism places a unique focus on science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics, and on project-based learning to ensure their students obtain the education and transferable skills necessary for them to succeed later in life. In contrast to compliance-based SPED models, data is collected so that every student at every grade level and ability level is making progress. Because teachers who specialize in teaching neuro-divergent students are so critical to their success, AZACS applied and is the first school approved by the state to offer a Classroom-Based Teacher Certification Program, building a growing, highly-qualified regime of teachers who share their mission. Some families drive over an hour each way for their students to attend.
How they STOP for education
Despite extraordinarily personalized and small classes, with no more than 6 students to a staff member, the leadership delivers excellence on sustainable, public funds and advocates to ensure that funds continue to support families’ choices.
They provide a transformational, fully accredited online school with specialized supports that align with their in-person schools as another option for their students. In 22-23 STEAM and Project-Based Learning will be added along with the implementation of the WozEd curriculum, the only school in the nation offering this cutting edge STEAM curriculum to neuro-diverse students.
Permissionless since its inception, AZACS rejects the standard ways most schools attempt to educate students with autism, providing parents a truly inclusive environment for students.
Winning their award
Expansion beyond metro-Phoenix and into Nevada, California, Texas, Florida, and Louisiana is the focus of this year’s 2022 Yass Prize winner, which will also partner to create a national accelerator of charter schools with the goal of having a school like AZACS in every major American city that is devoted to delivering education with the most up-to-date research and science.
The Yass Prize organization is ecstatic to honor and advance these efforts at normalizing education opportunities for such a special and valuable group of students.