CLEARWATER, Florida – Inside the walls of a sky-blue building surrounded with shade trees dwells a story of hope and inspiration and the shared dream of two women determined to help a special population of children.
For Liz Russell and Cher Harris, co-founders of Autism Inspired Academy, the school offers an opportunity to pour out their passionate commitment to helping children cope, grow, and one day make their way in the world. For their students, it’s a chance to face daily challenges and make slow yet measurable progress.
“When we were thinking of a name for the school, we started with Austism Aspiration, and then we changed it to Special Needs for Life,” Russell said. “But as we were going through the process, it dawned on me – the name needed to be Autism Inspired Academy because we are inspired by these kids every single day.”
The story of how she and Harris teamed up is as unique as the school they’ve created.
Harris, who serves as principal, had always loved working with kids and eventually found her calling in the area of exceptional student education at a Tampa Bay area elementary school.
“My first year I worked as one-on-one assistant to a child with many medical needs, but it wasn’t what I was looking for,” she said. “So, my supervisors came to me and said, ‘Why don’t you try working in a classroom for kids with autism?’ I really knew nothing about autism at the time. But after a few weeks in class, I was like, ‘I love this. I need to learn everything and know everything there is about it.’”
Harris delved into this new world, researching and reading books about autism, driven by a desire to become a teacher. She earned a bachelor’s degree at St. Petersburg College, which led to her first full-time teaching job. She quickly developed a natural gift for communicating with children for whom communication can be difficult.
In 2017, the local Council of Exceptional Children named her exceptional student education teacher of the year. She went on to become ESE teacher of the year for the state of Florida. By that time, she had earned a master’s degree in special education with a focus in autism from the University of South Florida.
When she started thinking of opening her own school for children with autism, she went back to college and completed a master’s degree in administrative leadership to learn how to run a school.
“I knew the behavior part and the autism part, but I wanted to learn the budget, the finance and business side of things,” Harris said.
Meanwhile, Russell’s journey was taking shape some 2,500 miles away. After earning a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, she completed a master’s degree in elementary education and another in counseling. She taught writing to eighth graders for five years, then went to work for a national faucet manufacturer, eventually becoming national sales manager.
During that time, her son, Gavin, was diagnosed with autism, and Russell, then a single mom, became his advocate. She attended conferences to learn all she could about the latest therapies and made sure Gavin’s school met his needs, visiting regularly with the principal and teachers.
“He was my ‘why,’” she said.
About a decade ago, Russell relocated to the west coast of Florida, and while searching for the best learning environment for Gavin, heard about an amazing teacher working wonders with children with autism – Cher Harris. Russell attended a few conferences where Harris was leading parent trainings and decided to enroll Gavin at the school where Harris worked.
“My gift is in finding excellence in people and then getting out of the way,” Russell said. “And I saw that excellence in Cher.”
Russell suggested they meet to talk about their shared love for children with autism. The seeds for Autism Inspired Academy were about to be planted.
Harris talked about her grand vision for a school at their first meeting, but Russell, drawing on her business acumen, suggested an interim step – a camp that would empower children with autism and provide summers filled with fun and purpose.
They agreed it was a sensible way to start, and Russell proceeded to visit youth centers throughout the area to find a site. The plan changed when a local youth center official suggested they look at the expansive, kid-friendly acreage of the Florida Sheriff’s Youth Ranch in the city of Safety Harbor, about 20 miles west of Tampa.
Many meetings later, the camp became a reality, with six children attending the first year. Three years later, with support from community partners, that number grew to 25.
“We learned early on that we had complimentary skills,” Harris said. “Liz brings the business and sales knowledge and I have the educational experience. And we are both passionate about helping children with autism.”
As their venture flourished, the idea for a starting a school continued to percolate. Russell had remarried after moving to Florida, and both she and her husband, an attorney, were committed to providing the resources needed to get the project off the ground. They scouted possible locations, fell in love with a property in nearby Clearwater that housed a pre-school and after-care program, and bought the place.
They knew it would take time and effort to transform the buildings into a fully functioning school. Fortunately for Russell and Harris, they crossed paths with the chief executive officer of a private school program specializing in serving the needs of children with various challenges, including autism.
He believed in what Russell and Harris were trying to do and told them about the Drexel Fund, a nonprofit venture philanthropy group based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, that seeds new school models, scales up existing schools, and works to create the market conditions necessary for new private schools serving low-income students to thrive.
Russell and Harris applied for a grant and were awarded $100,000. The money was a godsend, allowing Harris to leave her job and begin planning the new school with Russell full time. It also allowed Harris to visit schools across the country for children with autism to learn what worked well for them.
Construction of Autism Inspired Academy began in 2019. While the work was under way, the CEO who had told Russell and Harris about the Drexel Fund invited them to bring a group of 11 students to his school for a pilot program, so Harris began driving the students and a teacher there every day in a van, two hours roundtrip. Then the pandemic hit in March 2020 and construction came to a screeching halt. The students had to transition to online instruction like students all over the country.
“Basically, in two weeks, Cher developed a program for the kids and involved all their parents,” Russell said. “And two of our teachers, Toni Salvatore and Chloe Hoffman, implemented it beautifully. I was in awe.”
The new school was halfway completed by January 2021 and opened to 29 students as construction continued on the other half. In August, 55 students in kindergarten through eighth grade embarked on a bold new learning experience.
One month into the new school year, Autism Inspired Academy is filled with students, about 40% of whom are from lower-income families. All of those students attend on state scholarships for children with unique abilities administered by Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog. Meanwhile, occupational and language therapists and committed teachers and staff support the mission of the co-founders: to help autistic children lead lives of meaning, purpose and joy.
That’s a formidable task considering autism covers a wide array of issues, which, according to the Centers for Disease Control, affect 1 in 54 children in the United States. Autism impacts social skills, verbal and non-verbal communication and behavior, with functioning ranging from highly skilled to extremely challenged.
The academy customizes instruction and support to meet each child’s needs. Students work on reading, do sensory exercises, and learn to stay in control of their emotions and reactions. Color-coded “zones of regulation” are marked with red and green tape to help students learn how to regulate their actions. Behavior that lands a child in a red zone is addressed so he or she can return to a green zone. Students are taught there are no “bad” zones, just learning opportunities for better choices.
Classrooms feature muted lighting and soothing music. Some areas are sectioned off to allow students to work quietly, reinforcing their ability to work independently. Behavior specialists, hired from among a half-dozen companies that support the school, accompany some students. In one middle school class, a fluffy Bernedoodle support dog named Frankly – a cross between a Bernese mountain dog and a poodle – engages with students. After the children complete their assignments, they are entitled to 15-minute “brain breaks” to give them a chance to play with other kids or by themselves.
A common thread that runs through each day is an emphasis on encouraging social interaction.
“Social skills are taught in every class and at every level,” Harris said. “That’s one of the big things – how to focus, share with a friend, stay seated in a chair.”
Among the children who are finding success at the academy is Jacki Craig’s son, Noah, who was a student of Harris’ at her former school. Craig credits Harris as being the best teacher her son ever had. She and her husband had relocated to Georgia for a job opportunity, but when they heard about Harris’ new school, they decided to move back to Florida.
“We came back so Noah could be here, and he’s thriving,” Craig said. “That’s how much Ms. Harris means to us and so many parents and students.”
It’s all part of the magic that Harris and Russell have created at their growing academy, inspiring students who, in turn, inspire them.