Arizona Autism Charter School uses behavior therapy techniques to help children communicate their needs. (Courtesy of Arizona Autism Charter Schools)

Arizona Mom Creates Charter School Network to Help Students with Autism Thrive

When Diana Diaz-Harrison strolls the halls of her schools, she is reminded on a daily basis why she loves education. She has always loved kids. It’s what drew her into the education field in the first place. Her earlier self as a bilingual teacher in California could not have imagined her present self as an innovative leader in education. Today, she is the founder of a specialized public charter school system—the first of its kind: the Arizona Autism Charter School (AZACS).

AZACS is unlike the typical public school institution. It is a tuition-free charter school based on a nonprofit educational model for Arizona’s non-neurotypical students who have been diagnosed with learning differences. These children are thriving in a non-traditional classroom setting within her network of charter schools geared toward children with autism in Arizona. According to Harrison, about 25 percent of students are not autistic; however, they might have a speech delay or cerebral palsy, or they are wheelchair-bound students.

(Courtesy of Arizona Autism Charter Schools)

“It is hard to convince others about the growing trend of diverse student populations,” she stated. “These students need personalized learning, therapeutic services, and a small class model. And because there are so many diverse students, they need the services of AZACS.”

Harris first established a campus in 2014 for students in grades K to 5. Today, Harrison’s schools serve 725 students online and at three campuses in central Phoenix in grades K to 12. For post-secondary education, AZACS added a transition academy to assist students between 18 and 22 years old. Here, students can earn career and tech credits (CTE) while learning essential life skills and getting vocational training. And yet, spaces are continually being added to accommodate enrollment needs.

The work of AZACS attracted national recognition with Harrison winning the Yass Prize, an award established in 2021 to honor and support innovative alternatives in education. As the winner, AZACS will receive $1 million in prize money. Dubbed an education changemaker, Harrison has committed her passions, expertise, and tenacity in ways that improve the quality of life for many neurodiverse students in Arizona. “My goal is to help change the narrative, celebrate these students for what they can contribute to society. They are not a burden. We have to find the best ways to reach them,” she said.

The school is a tuition free charter school that aims to help children with autism explore their unique gifts. Below, Harrison at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the school’s post-secondary program focused on workforce training. (Courtesy of Arizona Autism Charter Schools)

Fighting for Those Like Her Son

And reach them she does. Harrison’s own son, Sammy, was diagnosed with autism when he was only 2 years old. She found it difficult to access personalized quality education at traditional public school institutions. Like many parents, she struggled to find an affordable private school that would work for her son. Soon after, Sammy had a transformative intervention through Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC), renowned for providing the best behavior therapy for autism. It was a game changer. “Sammy started verbalizing and engaging with people other than me and attended other activities in a group setting. I was excited about school, and then when all of those strategies were not available in public school, I was baffled as to why there was hesitation to implement therapies that work.”

Harrison realized what was possible and decided to do something about it: start her own school for autistic children. With an emphasis on behavior modeling, Harrison’s schools depend on a robust team of dedicated personnel and behavior analysts. “Sometimes autistic kids are defined by challenging behaviors, but they are so much more than that. There are therapies that can help them overcome. These students are so brilliant in terms of their ability to connect with others, their desire to do productive things in their community, and they love people,” Harrison said.

She explained that with a 3:1 student-to-faculty ratio, they are able to master foundational skills in reading and mathematics. Shaping behavior is also essential, such as learning how to sit in a chair, make a proper request, or raise a hand to ask for help. Identifying communication deficits or behavioral challenges using applied behavior analysis (ABA) teaches students to better understand themselves; and, according to Harrison, these techniques are drilled into children early so that they learn how to deal with self behaviors properly—which reinforces desirable behavior in the classroom. Instead of screaming in a group environment, students are given token cards that help them communicate their needs.

(Courtesy of Arizona Autism Charter Schools)

“These kids need reinforcement with meaningful rewards to shape behavior. … Social emotional learning is what we do all along because kids need to feel comfortable and regulated,” Harrison said. The school’s next goal is to foster an environment for students to collaborate on projects. “They can tap into their interests to help them go into a deep dive,” she said. One such project was building a self-sustaining turtle habitat. Students researched what kind of tortoises would thrive in ideal conditions in their school environment, incorporating a variety of academic lessons. Not only is this way of learning meaningful and creative, but it’s also applicable to real-life passions on topics of interest to them.

Set Up for Success

Harrison endeavored to start a specialty school based on other schools in existence already: South Florida Autism Charter School helped her pilot the way, using a similar instructional model based on behavior therapy and a nonprofit structure. It proved successful. “It seems like we always outgrow ourselves due to need. We use a lottery process because we are the only charter in the state. We feel a huge responsibility to grow and keep up with demand and to help others start a similar school in their state,” Harrison said.

(Courtesy of Arizona Autism Charter Schools)

Her winning pitch for the national prize means additional funding to continue AZACS’s innovative mission. Middle and high school students will have greater access to project-based learning modules through Woz ED. Apple’s co-founder started the company to partner with schools around the country, with the goal of providing cutting-edge STEM curriculum. Whether it is to learn coding, understand computers, or fly drones, the science program equips students with training to get them into the workforce quickly after graduation. “The kids are flourishing. We are preparing them for highly sought after tech careers which they are uniquely suited to work in these fields,” Harrison said.

Winning the Yass Prize means that planned expansion in other Arizonan communities can now take place. Additionally, Harrison is eager to help build similar autism charters in other cities around the country. She intends to create a type of playbook, partnering with South Florida Autism Charter School, to offer specialized training and access to a toolbox of materials to create specialty schools in communities all over America.

AZACS’s learning opportunities will be able to offer their students better earning power after they graduate and become productive members of society. “We are changing the narrative to see themselves as problem-solvers who contribute instead of seeing themselves as special education kids who are disabled. It is fascinating to see them flourish with their unique thinking patterns—to see what they can do.”

(Courtesy of Arizona Autism Charter Schools)

From March Issue, Volume 3