Apr 26 • 24M

Arizona Autism Charter School's Path to the $1M Yass Prize

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Michael B. Horn
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When Diana Diaz-Harrison was looking for good secondary schooling options for her son who is autistic, she wasn't finding great options. She advocated and fought, but eventually decided to take matters into her own hands and started the Arizona Autism Charter School, which is now expanding. And it won this year's Yass Prize, which awards the country's education provider that best demonstrates the STOP principles—Sustainable, Transformational, Outstanding, Permissionless education. In this conversation I asked about the path to the prize and the journey to better serve students with autism. We delved into all sorts of topics, from how she is able to sustain such a small student-teacher ratio to the personalization and project-based learning she provides for students. As always, subscribers can listen to the conversation, watch it below, or read the transcript.

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Michael Horn:               Diana, first, welcome. Congratulations on winning the Yass Prize. There were, I mean frankly, many inspirational and incredible educators competing this year. Many of them won awards. You won the top prize. I happened to be a judge actually in one of the rounds and got to read your application and I was just blown away and so excited by what you have created and the vision. And we'll get to the prize and more toward the end of our conversation, but I just want to start with grounding our audience at a high level with what are the Arizona Autism Charter Schools?

Diana Diaz-Harrison:     So we are an autism focused charter school. So we implement best practices for children with autism and we are the first and only autism focused charter network in the state and in the southwest. So we feel that what we do is very unique in kind of marrying best clinical practices for kids with autism, along with best instructional and educational practices. So the best of both worlds in a school setting for kids with autism.

Horn:                            Very neat. So tell us, we're going to get more into the instructional model and unpack all that, but go back a little bit, tell us the founding story. What was that problem that you experienced that led you to say, "We need to create something that does not exist."

Diaz-Harrison:               Yes. So I am an autism mom. I have my son Sammy, who is 20 years old and in our Transition Academy now. But when he was little and we found out that he had an autism diagnosis, we immersed ourselves in best clinical practices to get him up to speed on all of those foundational skills like communication, shaping behavior, and just more social interaction, tolerating sensory differences, and the like. And luckily here in Phoenix there are wonderful early intervention programs that are a model for other states. But sadly when he became school age, all of the work that we had done in early intervention wasn't available, or to be continued when… the next chapter came to be, kindergarten, and then K-12 school. All of the great work that I learned about in clinical practice was just not a part of his schooling. So it became very challenging to watch him regress and just go through school and go to school but not becoming his best self during school, which is what school is supposed to do.

                                    So I was one of those moms that advocated heavily for bringing the embedded supports that's needed. But I quickly realized that I just didn't want to be that mom that was fighting all the time and then have these forced situations and then feeling like people were doing me a favor when there were more and more kids with autism coming up in school, and we parents just had to settle, or pay 40 to 50,000 a year for private schools. So I knew there had to be a better way, and luckily I did learn about other autism charters in the country. Florida was a wonderful state to look at as a model, and I pitched the idea to people in Arizona, but special education comes with a lot of litigiousness around it and there were no takers. So after a while of knocking on doors, I realized that if I really wanted this to happen I would have to be the one to do it.


Horn:                            Wow. And so all of a sudden you're an education entrepreneur. I think, I mean it makes sense. We had a former school head for our kids who used to say, "We get the best and you get the rest." It sounds like that was the opposite of what you were having for your son, Sammy. I'm curious, you build this model and as I understand you've used applied behavioral analysis on the clinical side, and then you're really deeply personalizing the learning itself. What does that look like for students in your schools?

Diaz-Harrison:               What's really great about our school is that when people come and tour and see what we're doing with the kids, they'll tell me, "This looks more like a program for gifted kids." There's so much seeing, project-based learning. We've adopted the WozED curriculum, which is developed by Steve Wozniak, which is typically those kinds of innovative programs are reserved for the highly gifted kids, but at our school we really see all the kids as gifted in their own way. We really celebrate their neurodiversity. Obviously autism and other special needs come with challenges of course, but the neurodiversity is also very much celebrated here in that we allow kids to engage their foundational skills into projects that are of high interest to them.

                                    So we developed a model that really addresses the needs of the entire spectrum because it is a spectrum condition that manifests in many different ways. You could have kids that have intensive needs and need a functional form of communication because they're nonverbal, to very verbal kids who have peak skills, say in tech or math, but need more support with language. So the class sizes are very small. We have an average three to one student to staff ratio across the board, and that really helps make the program more personalized for each student that is a part of our community.

Horn:                            That's amazing. So the three to one student to staff ratio, how do you afford that? Because Arizona's not known for high per pupil funding, per se. What goes into supporting a model like that so you can provide that kind of personalization?


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Diaz-Harrison:               Well, I think the main thing that happens is that the resources that do come from the state and federal funding go into the classroom versus top heavy special ed departments that hire a lot of extraneous legal staff or others. Our executive team is super small and all of the funding goes into the classroom. Then I think that that's a choice. Anybody can make that choice, but very few schools do. I think the other area is all of the private grants and fundraising that are a core part of my job, telling our story and convincing grant funders to invest in our kids, because they can do great things if given the opportunity in our model. So both of those things I think make a huge difference in putting the resources where the kids are.

Horn:                            No, that makes a ton of sense and I think that focus on the classroom spend as opposed to the administration is something other schools would do well to model. Sometimes when you see these big price tags on the east coast where I am, you sort of say, "Where's all the money going?" And it's sadly not into the classroom in many cases. I'm curious, you talk about on the website in the about what you do, that every student at every single grade level and ability level is going to make progress in your model. You're realizing the high state standards, you've talked about it here. It doesn't look like a program for special ed students, it looks like a program for gifted students. This is a school frankly that has high expectations for its students, it's clear. What are the outcomes, what do you see from the students every day?

Diaz-Harrison:               We really measure and celebrate engagement. And so with our students, oftentimes especially highly impacted students, if they're kind of there and not causing any trouble, they can really slide by with doing the minimal, and people that are in charge of the kids can also get by with doing the minimal. But we have high engagement expectations for our students and staff that are measurable. We've got a lot of data driven instruction. We check our data very frequently. We have the kids be the owners of their data as well, so that it's not an external force watching their growth, it's themselves. And then we have a very competitive spirit at our school that is healthy, I think, because our students, if given the opportunity, do love to compete.

                                    One example is our great Special Olympics program and tournaments and our kids are coming back with first place medals. Internally we like to post our data, celebrate our data, and also come together as a community for students who need help in any area. And part of the learning that takes place here is being okay with asking for help, learning how to advocate for yourself if you need support in different areas, and celebrating that as well. So it's all about what the kids can do and kind of reframing how they feel about themselves. Yes, they have learning differences, but that is not what's going to define them. It's their latest research, their latest group based project, or how they help somebody else in the community that really defines them. And so now kids will come and say to me, "Ms. Diana, autism is my superpower. Look at what I figured out." And that's exactly what we want them to feel here.

Horn:                            I love that asset-based framing. I suspect the parents also love that asset-based framing. Dig into the personalization a little bit more, because it sounds like you have a real model of empowerment where the students, as you said, are owning their data. It sounds like they're setting goals. How does technology play into that learning? How does the projects work? What does that look like in the mixing of those different elements?

Diaz-Harrison:               So I think it starts by having a menu of assessments that is developmentally appropriate for each student. So we don't just have one assessment and then everybody has to fit into that. That doesn't work for our kids. We have research based assessments that are proven to deliver best outcomes for autism, and we use those. For students who don't have intellectual disability, we use more standardized assessment. But having just one assessment that is the state safe assessment for all kids is really detrimental for kids who can't access that. And so then you end up measuring nothing because the test is not appropriate for them.

                                    So it starts by really doing a deep evaluation of each child and putting them in the right assessment, evaluating the efficiency of the strategies we use to help them grow, and then helping them own their data. Another exciting thing about our school is that we have student digital portfolios. So parents are seeing the students' data in real time and can see data, work samples, videos of projects, kind of a nice well-rounded portfolio base, which is light years ahead of most SPED programs because of kids that have special needs typically have an IEP that gets reviewed annually.

                                    And oftentimes parents will go to that meeting and find out after a year that their kid made minimal progress. So parents feel like they're in the dark really if there are acquisition issues they should know earlier so that they can help be part of the team that figures out a solution. So we really love the data transparency at our schools for our digital portfolios, and it really is game changing for parents who are often told over and over what their kids can't do. Their kids' disability is this, that and the other. Yes, we address that as well, but from there it's all about what the kids learn and do.

Horn:                            That's awesome. So then it sounded like you all have an online school as well, if I'm not mistaken. So this is not just a brick and mortar school experience. What does that look like?

Diaz-Harrison:               Yes. So we did dive into virtual programming when everybody had to during Covid, and the way we ran our online schools, which was not part of the original plan, but we didn't hesitate to pivot. We really took cues from telehealth, teletherapy, and developed a protocol called tele-lessons where it was still very much small group or even one-on-one, so that we could still run drills and get data on the kids. We still did our project based showcases even though they did work online and in person and there was a variety of modalities. But back to our project based learning, every quarter the kids collaborate to develop a project with peers, which is huge. And they present it either in-person, or virtually if they're in the online school. Our online program had so much success that we decided to keep it as part of the menu of options for families, and more than 100 families have selected that. Now we've spiraled into a hybrid model as well, as one of the menu options. And so it's all about just giving parents choice who typically don't have a lot of choice.

Horn:                            So I mean that's powerful. And so it sounds like, I mean students have a lot of choice at the classroom level. The parents are having choice of different models here. Just take us one more step into the learning experience. Student shows up, it sounds like we're not talking about block periods or a seven period day or something like that. It sounds like they're really deep with a fellow teacher, with fellow peers, figuring out which projects they're working on, which content they're going to learn, and it's much more self-driven. What's the rhythm, if you will, of the day? How do you use time?

Diaz-Harrison:               So in our K-5 program, the kiddos are in a group of about eight to 10 kids. They have a lead teacher and support staff and then they go through their regular daily schedule that is very much visually driven. There's visual schedules all over and then as they work through their day, students are kind of marking what they have completed and then moving on to a different station. It's a three station rotation model which helps keep the teaching and learning small, three kids to a staff member, and rotations throughout the day. And it really helps students not have to be seated in one spot for several hours a day. They're moving about and navigating an instructional program that in large part is self-driven, so that they can apply their skills into ideas and creativity that is of importance to them. And kids on the spectrum have very defined interests. So this really helps leverage learning foundational skills and then as a reward applying it to their preferred project.

Horn:                            Gotcha. Super interesting. Okay, so let's pivot now. You win the Yass Prize a few months ago, $1 million. What are you going to use the funds for? You already have several schools up and running. I think you're serving something like 700, 800 students at the moment. What's next on the horizon?

Diaz-Harrison:               So we're really excited to be adding a campus in Tucson, Arizona. We're using the Yass Prize funds to continue to have more and more project based learning through WozED. We're thrilled about this partnership because the co-founder of Apple developed these awesome schemes and project based tips that include everything from coding robotic drone flying with the culminating activity of getting an FAA license, for example. Very cool stuff. And so we are going to expand our theme programming across all our sites and including for our online students. And that's a very exciting expansion that we're having internally. And then the other portion of the prize is going to be used to develop a national accelerator of autism charter schools. I know first hand how hard it is not to have a viable school choice for my child with autism. And we know there are only a few autism focused charter school, tuition free, around the nation. So part of the appetite will be to accelerate their creation and the founding of nonprofit, tuition free, autism charters in other states.

Horn:                            That's powerful. And it goes to the next question I want to ask. And I'm curious frankly if you agree with the statement I'm about to make, which is, it feels like right now there's a movement of entrepreneurs in education that feels much bigger than it was when you got started, say, in 2016 I think it was. And I'm curious, quickly I guess, does that feel right to you that we're in this moment of time right now where there's a lot of education entrepreneurship going on?

Diaz-Harrison:               Absolutely. There are charter schools that are more niche specialty charter schools, which we're excited about. And then all of the micro schools that are emerging. And PSA scholarships that are available are great for education options, innovation, and choice. We've seen a little bit of a pendulum swing here in Arizona and we're watching [inaudible 00:19:26] because we think the more choice, the better. It's hard enough to navigate the school setting with a child with special needs. Having limited choices or just one choice is insufficient and outdated, and now that parents have experienced choice, they don't want to give that up. So we're very protective of the ability to start charters if that's what a [inaudible 00:20:00] wants to do, or to start private or micro schools that benefit from PSA funding, because we shouldn't be [inaudible 00:20:12] proscribed by a district program.

Horn:                            That makes sense. And obviously we're all watching Arizona right now to see what happens. But I guess as you turn and you're supporting these entrepreneurs in starting autism based programs specifically, but more generally as well, what are the lessons from your own experience that you would offer or teach these entrepreneurs as they jump into this world?

Diaz-Harrison:               I think it's very important to know that it's very consuming work. Starting a school is not for the faint of heart. So you really have to go into it knowing that you're starting a business, and many businesses don't make it in the first few years because of all of the barriers that come into play. But if you have a committed founding board that's willing to help navigate all kinds of obstacles and a leader with a purpose, first and foremost, and you're doing this because you're going to do it no matter what it takes, then that is the level of commitment that's required for something like this.

                                    But once you get all of those pivotal processes in place, the reward that you get from serving kids who otherwise wouldn't have a quality option is really priceless. And then to see those kids flourish into high school students that are starting entrepreneurial endeavors and making friends for the first time and presenting a project to their parent, who previously they thought they wouldn't be able to present anything, is really game changing. And I think it's really changing the narrative about what it is to be a person with autism and how that that doesn't need to have all the limitations that have been previously associated with it.

Horn:                            It's powerful stuff. So last question as we wrap up here, which is, what are the lessons that maybe your experience holds for us as a nation, not just for the education entrepreneurs, but for educators, parents, policymakers, and society more broadly?

Diaz-Harrison:               I would say we should not lower the bar. We should not just make due because of whatever, the talent pipeline, or resources shift up and down. I think keeping the bar high for our kids, we should be unapologetic about that, because the kids deserve everything that is the most fruitful and exceptional and exciting at school. So we fight hard to keep the bar high and to troubleshoot any barriers that get in the way of that. But I think what's going to bring America back is not lowering the bar for kids and fighting to keep it high no matter what.

Horn:                            Terrific stuff. Diana, congratulations again. More importantly, congrats for what you're doing for students, not just in Arizona, but increasingly across the country. Really appreciate the work you're doing.

Diaz-Harrison:               Thank you so much. Thank you for the support and helping us share our story.

Horn:                            Yeah, you bet. And we'll be back next time on The Future of Education.