A parent’s story: Arizona’s education savings account opens doors for all children

Gateway Academy is an accredited private day school for grades 6-12 that supports students with high functioning autism. Established in 2005, the school operates in an engaging, motivating, and personalized way that helps students build confidence and prepare for the future.

Editor’s note: This first-person essay from Arizona mother Shana Lockhart was adapted from the American Federation for Children’s Voices for Choice website.

When my son was in kindergarten, we were told he was one of many individuals born with high functioning autism. While not an official medical term or diagnosis, high functioning autism is an informal term used to talk about those on an autism spectrum disorder who can speak, read, write, and handle basic life skills.

Like all people on the autism spectrum, those who are high functioning have a hard time with social interaction and communication. They don’t naturally read social cues and might find it difficult to make friends. They don’t make much eye contact or small talk. They can get so stressed by a social situation that they shut down.

My son started school in a self-contained public school classroom for children with communication disorders. When he reached third grade, he was mainstreamed into a general education class. We had our challenges in those years, but I know that my son’s teachers did the best they could.

Things changed when he hit middle school. Like many pre-teens, he was plagued by those raging middle school hormones. Students like my son tend to react differently than other students when they hit puberty.

His social interactions, already somewhat strained, became more difficult as he entered high school, where the campus was large and crowded. He became overwhelmed. It wasn’t long before he began refusing to go to school.

We were at a loss to know what to do. His school wasn’t working for him, but we didn’t know if there was an alternative. Then I heard about Gateway Academy, a private school in Scottsdale for students with high functioning autism. We went on a tour and loved everything we saw and heard.

The only problem was a big one: We couldn’t afford the tuition.

I will be forever grateful that we learned at that point about Arizona’s education choice scholarship program, specifically, the Empowerment Scholarship Account program. It allows parents to opt their children out of public district or charter schools and receive a portion of their public funding deposited into an account for defined uses, such as private school tuition, online education, education therapies and private tutoring.

We filled out the paperwork and were so happy to learn we were eligible. I enrolled my son in Gateway Academy, which he would not have been able to attend otherwise. He is so happy there. The setting allows him to be as independent as he can be, which is so important for his self-esteem.

Gateway sees challenges as learning opportunities. Unfortunately, some schools see students with autism and other disorders as lost causes. But these children are bright, and they have beautiful souls. They may learn differently, but they are capable of learning. They have as much potential as any other child.

Sadly, a lot of these kids fall through the cracks in public schools. My other two children found our zoned public school a good fit, but that was not the case for my youngest. His needs were different, but he had just as much right to a great education as the children who thrive in public schools.

I’ve learned since receiving the Empowerment Scholarship Account that Arizona’s education savings account program was the first of its kind in the nation. As of Sept. 24, student eligibility is expanded to universal, meaning all families in the state can utilize this amazing resource.

I believe that all parents should be able to provide the right educational fit for their children, despite their financial situation. I’m grateful to live in a state that is forward thinking when it comes to education choice.

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