Gateway Academy to provide more scholarships to students with autism

Gateway Academy, a private school in Phoenix serving students with high-functioning autism and Asperger’s syndrome, will provide scholarships to families thanks to its new School Tuition Organization (STO).

“It’s a lovely opportunity to help families that could not afford a private specialized education obtain that for their child who needs a specialized program,” said O. Robin Sweet, Director & CEO of Gateway Academy.

According to the Arizona Department of Revenue, STOs are able to “receive income tax credit contributions that fund scholarships for students to attend qualified private schools located in Arizona.”

That tax credit means individuals and corporations can donate to Gateway Academy each year to fund student scholarships, and then have the amount donated deducted from their state tax filings for that year.

Private schools can establish a certified STO if they are 501(c)(3) nonprofits and agree to follow rules regarding scholarship disbursement. According to state law, at least 90% of STO funds a private school receives must be used for scholarship funding.

Gateway Academy, which currently has about 110 students in its 3rd to 12th grade program, already provides scholarships to roughly 93 percent of its students – something which isn’t common among private schools, Sweet said.

That’s because almost all of those existing scholarship funds come out of the state’s, Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program, which provides state-funded scholarships to students who attend private schools.  Over half of the students participating in the ESA program are students with disabilities. All students receiving ESAs have to have a diagnosis, are in foster care, have a parent actively serving in the military or are Native American.

“I think the general public, when they think of private school, they think… only the wealthy can participate,” Sweet said. “And the beauty of the Empowerment Scholarship allows parents from any socioeconomic group to participate in a private education.”

But even families who have a child with a disability may have challenges being eligible for ESA funds, she said.

“Whether they don’t have the autism diagnosis, or they haven’t been a resident… there are a lot of different factors that disqualify them from ESA,” Sweet said.

One hundred percent of ESA recipients need a diagnosis to receive a scholarship except for the three other qualifiers. To receive full tuition at Gateway, a student needs to have an Autism diagnosis.

Through the new Gateway Academy STO, the school will be able to offer scholarship assistance to the students who aren’t eligible for ESA funding and otherwise may not be able to afford tuition costs.

Because families of students with autism typically spend significant money on various health-related programs for their children, Sweet says that Gateway’s scholarship opportunities can help reduce the overall burden of those costs for families.

“We’re very fortunate to be able to offer all of those services under one roof,” she said. “That was the reason that we started Gateway, is to take some slack off and give it to the parents so that they can have a typical family life and not always be carting their kids to all these different therapists.”

Sweet said that Gateway’s private school status allows it to provide a more flexible curriculum she feels is crucial for students with autism.

“Intellectually [students with autism] are very bright, but they need lots of different pieces to help them find balance and move forward and be contributing members of society,” she said. “We’re able to offer really out-of-the-box programming for our students, because they require that in order to learn and be successful.”

Nick Serpa

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