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Arizona: First state public autism charter school; 'school reinvented'

NOV 22, 2022, ABC15, PHOENIX, AZ: Arizona Autism Charter Schools use hands-on approach to helping kids on the spectrum thrive

It's part science lab and part classroom, but really, just another day at school for Joseph Gurrola, or "JoJo" as his friends call him!

"We learn about liquids, solids, and gasses," JoJo says.

"So you're learning a lot of big stuff here?" ABC15's Nick Ciletti asked. "Yes," JoJo replies.

But the learning certainly doesn't stop there at the Arizona Autism Charter Schools (AZACS), the first tuition-free public charter school in Arizona that caters to students with autism.

Inside one of the many hands-on labs in the school, ABC15 was able to see students building and creating, and applying new concepts they've learned.

"Before, we didn't know what to do, but then we started learning how to tighten the screws and now we have this," explains JoJo as he demonstrates the creation his class just finished.

It's a hands-on approach to teaching kids who the rest of the world may see as different - but here at AZACS, they're all seen as gifted and special in their own way.

"It's like school, reinvented," explains founder Diana Diaz-Harrison, who says the idea for the school came from parenting her own son who is also on the spectrum. "I always thought my son could do more than what he was exposed to at school and I didn't feel that typical special ed programs saw him as a gifted learner and even though he's impacted by his autism and he's impacted by his differences, I knew he could do better."

Diaz-Harrison says that she and her staff have the same belief for all of their students.

"If they get a chance to do hands-on, they are the best learners," explains teacher Supreet Kaur. We spoke with her as she was assisting students in a lab where they were learning about coding, animation, and even 3D printing. "This is a place where they get a chance to discover themselves...This is a place where they can explore more and we try to get the best out of the best."

Sure, there are still tests and studying and more traditional homework assignments, but at this school, the motto is to roll up your sleeves and just do it.

"Students on the spectrum learn by doing," says Diaz-Harrison. "By experiencing problem-solving by creating a project with peers. We also don't take for granted the soft skills that are developed by working on projects...We really challenge the kids and give them the support they need to overcome the challenges and flourish by being creative thinkers."

It also helps these students change the way they feel about themselves, says Diaz-Harrison. "It gives us more confidence," says JoJo.


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