Arizona Autism Charter School

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Arizona Autism Charter School (AZACS) is the first state approved charter school focused on the educational needs of children with autism. Diana Diaz-Harrison, lead founder and executive director for the Arizona Autism Charter School talks about the school and its curriculum.

Jose Cardenas: Arizona's first state approved charter school for autistic kids opened in August. The school serves grades kindergarten to fifth grade. Joining me to talk about the school is Diana Diaz Harrison, lead founder and executive director. Welcome to Horizonte.

Diana Diaz Harrison: Thank you for having me, Jose.

Jose Cardenas: You were inspired to get involved because of your own personal experiences with your son.

Diana Diaz Harrison: That's right. I had a little boy, my first child, at about age 2.5 he was officially diagnosed with autism. Many parents who go through this process know that there's at first a lot of grieving, a lot of outreach for resources and a lot of researching on the internet for answers and solutions. It's a very hard diagnosis to accept because there's no cure. But what I did learn by going to some of the most well-known resource centers here in Arizona is that there is hope, and one of the ways that you can help kids with autism best is by giving them intensive early intervention instruction in technique called applied behavior analysis. That is the world that I dive into head on and worked with my son since he was diagnosed.

Jose Cardenas: One of your concerns was he was in a good program but you were afraid he would age out. Then what would he do. Tell us about what the options are for parents of autistic children in terms of schooling. As I understand they are basically four and you came out with a fifth.

Diana Diaz Harrison: Parents can go to their nearest public school, and if the child is at a level on the autism spectrum where they need intensive special education services, many of the school districts now have autism programs at least one of the district schools. Parents can also seek out a private school, and now with our option there are a couple of charter schools.

Jose Cardenas: Yours was the first.

Diana Diaz Harrison: yes.

Jose Cardenas: That struck me as a bit of a surprise because given the prevalence or at least a lot of attention these days on autism, that yours would be the first charter school to focus on that. Why is that?

Diana Diaz Harrison: I'm not sure. Other states in our country had charter schools already in place and Arizona has a higher prevalence of autism than many other states with currently one in 64 children affected, one in 40 boys affected with autism. It was about time that somebody came forward with this proposal to the state charter board. I think that because of the higher incidence and how people are becoming more informed about the condition, the charter board was very, very open to our proposal.

Jose Cardenas: In terms of students that you admit, do they have to be autistic or are you also expected to admit other children and deal with them?

Diana Diaz Harrison: We aren't bound by the same rules as any other charter school. We can be very targeted in our outreach but as a public school we would have to take any student with either another diagnosis or even a typically developing student into our acceptance pool. If they submitted a timely application and we had space in the grade level.

Jose Cardenas: Let's talk about the school itself. What is it that you do that's different for autistic children than what they might get in a special school district school.

Diana Diaz Harrison: We have very small class sizes with only nine students per class max. We also have at least a 3-1 student to staff ratio, and there's a lead certified teacher and two highly trained paraprofessionals. So all of the staff at our school has either really great experience, credential or is highly trained to work with children with autism. Many times the school districts don't have that same level of expertise as what we are hiring and then continuing to develop at our school. As a matter of fact, we're going to be practicum site for ASU students going into autism education and becoming board certified behavior specialists. Not only is our mission to help students on the autism spectrum but also develop the pool of professionals helping these students.

Jose Cardenas: While you were talking we ran pictures of some of the kids. How many do you have now?

Diana Diaz Harrison: We're capped at 90 students. We have started our open enrollment period for the next school year, and as it happens with many well-known charter schools, we have received more applications than we have spaces. So we'll have to go into a lottery for the next school year.

Jose Cardenas: One of the things we focused on was the playground. I have seen the video and some of the things that make it special, of particular relevance to autistic children.

Diana Diaz Harrison: We got to build a playground and pick the equipment. A lot of our kids with autism have sensory needs and needs to have facilitated play where they can work together. So we picked sensory equipment that stimulates their vision and their different parts of their system that need to be worked by physical therapists or occupational therapists. We also have a modern day merry-go-round where the kids can sit together and we have them request to be pushed or spun faster or slower and elicit language while meeting their sensory needs.

Jose Cardenas: As we mentioned, yours was the first in the state of Arizona. Any surprises as you went through this process? Either of creating it or once you got started issues that came up that you are not -- had not expected?

Diana Diaz Harrison: I had a lot of support. I formerly worked at the southwest autism center so had a lot of contacts that could give me the information that I needed to submit to prove that we were the right team to be allowed to have the school. The charter applications process is very, very rigorous, typically companies that have started schools will apply for charters. But I was a mom, so I got a lot of support from the Arizona charter schools association, who have a charter starter program that helps developing teams get through that very rigorous state application process. So it was challenging, and it took a few years to develop. I also applied for a lot of start-up grants that are typically not open for schools that are considered alternative schools, but my applications were accepted because of the high need in the community for a school like this.

Jose Cardenas: Thank you so much for joining us to talk about this most important topic. Good luck in the future.

Diana Diaz Harrison: Thank you very much.

Diana Diaz-Harrison:Lead Founder and Executive Director, Arizona Autism Charter School;

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