Best in Class: Arizona Autism Charter Schools

Autism affects one in 59 children, according to the National Autism Association. Arizona Autism Charter Schools is committed to meeting the needs of those students.  

Arizona Autism Charter Schools (AZACS) is in its fifth year of operation and is the state’s first autism-focused charter school.

It currently has a campus for elementary students and one for middle and upper school students. In 2017 Arizona Autism Charter Schools received approval to open a high school. The school currently offers ninth grade and will expand by one grade level each year.   

Diana Diaz-Harrison, AZACS founder and executive director, struggled to find a school that fully met the needs of her son who has autism.

“I did some research and learned that there were autism-focused charter schools in other states. And with the rising statistics of autism in Arizona, I thought it was time that Arizona also offered this school-choice option for families living with autism here in our state,” Diaz-Harrison said.

In fall 2014, AZACS welcomed students in kindergarten through fifth grade and has since worked to expand and serve more students on the autism spectrum.

“Our mission is based on Applied Behavior Analysis, which is the most empirically supported method for children with autism,” Diaz-Harrison said.

Its Applied Behavior Analysis is data-driven and is geared to help students overcome behavioral and communication deficits while tackling the curriculum.

“Being data-driven means that we’re always showing that our kids are moving forward in their skills,” Diaz-Harrison said. “It’s not enough to say that we think our kids are learning or having qualitative data.”

AZACS focuses on Applied Behavior Analysis programming at both of its campuses and plans to use it as the charter expands.

The charter serves about 200 students and as the high school program grows, it will either add a third campus or consolidate the K12 program onto a larger site.

As it grows, Diaz-Harrison said AZACS plans to offer a variety of services for families with autism and related disorders.

She explained that the goal is to “offer wrap-around services for students and families living with autism that include behavioral health and medical, all of the things that a family living with autism might need for their child in a one-stop-shop.”

The charter school works to provide the students with the tools they need to succeed and grow in the classroom, but it also focuses on helping them create a bright future.

“We are very focused on the next steps in the children’s futures and we are a force to be reckoned with because we are preparing our kids for the jobs of tomorrow in the science fields, computer science, in language arts and in the arts in general,” Diaz-Harrison said. “Our children will show the world what they can do, and we’re excited to be part of the learning that will get them there.”

AZACS aims to meet the needs of children with autism and related disorders and provide them with an education that puts them on the path to success, and it keeps the needs of the family in mind while it carries out its services.

“As we grow the school and as we develop programs I always think, ‘What would I, as a mom, want for my child?’ And, that is how we operate. We’re a nonprofit school so everything that we do is geared toward growing the program to the best quality,” Diaz-Harrison said.

Sierra Ciaramella

Nick Serpa

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