CharterFolk Chat with Diana Diaz-Harrison (Full Transcript)

[00:00:00] Jed Wallace: Hello, CharterFolk. I’m delighted to have you here and delighted to have our guest today. We’re very fortunate today to have a chance to talk to Diana Diaz-Harrison, who is the founder of the Arizona Autism Charter Schools, which was the recent winner of the Yass Prize nationally. Diana, let’s bring you on right now.

I amjust delighted to have you here. Welcome to Charter Folk. Congratulations on the Yass Prize. Congratulations on having made a school that is perceived by so many to be making such a great difference and inspiring a lot in our movement to do even more. There’s all sorts of things I’d love to dive into, but just because of your knowledge around autism generally and just the questions that so many people, in our society have about this, I wanted to start focusing on that. I thought that I knew a fair deal about autism myself, but to visit the CDC and see that the incidents of autism identification in 2004 was one in every 55 kids or something, thereabouts, I’m sorry, one in 166 kids. And now we see it’s at one in 50 or one in 54. And some folks are saying maybe even a smaller number than that. So we are seeing a large increase in the identification and most people are celebrating this absolutely as a, as an indicator that we’re doing a far greater job of just finding folks that have autism and being able to respond accordingly.

But others are also identifying, perhaps we’re seeing a higher incidence, that autism is actually happening more in society. Can you tell me how do we parse this information? What’s your per personal opinion on these issues given your expertise?

[00:01:47] Diana Diaz-Harrison: I definitely think that there’s more awareness of autism as a neurodiversity, and as different communities get better access to healthcare and medical diagnoses, as schools become more proficient in their school evaluation, in identifying autism, that has contributed to a higher incidence of autism. In particular, for example, here in Arizona, we have a large Hispanic community. And I think eliminating or reducing the stigma associated with autism has helped many kids and families seek diagnosis sooner than later. And that is what we want because early intervention is very important in serving children with autism. So I think eliminating the stigma has contributed to teasing out autism from other developmental conditions. And having more awareness has also led to higher rates of diagnosis.

[00:02:57] Jed Wallace: Yeah, I was fascinated to see that the delta between autism identification rates in Caucasian students and in black students has basically evaporated over the 20 years that I was previously referencing, although it looks as though black students are identified with autism later than white students are.

And when you’re talking about early intervention being so important, we can see how that disparity could have profound consequences. And I still see that. Tell me, can you just explain what the consequences are for identifying later and why we should be so in focused on, on getting even better at this?

[00:03:35] Diana Diaz-Harrison: Yeah. So early intervention for kids on the spectrum, on the autism spectrum, is all about your learning to learn skills, right? How to attend to a person or a task, or acquiring functional communication, because a lot of kids on the spectrum have communication gaps. That’s one of the core symptoms of autism.

So they have a lot of catching up to do. That doesn’t happen through the natural environment. There are specific therapeutic interventions that are evidence-based that need to be worked on intensively during the early years. That’s pre five years old. That’s, from when, as early as two years old to when a child becomes school age at five years old.

So that’s why early intervention really makes a difference. When children are young, their brains are more moldable as well, they’re making more neurological connections that can really make or break, really, a student’s successful start in school. Of course, some of our students have never had access to this through early intervention or official diagnoses, but their parents know they need a specialty program because what they were doing through typical school wasn’t working out. And we do everything that we can to catch them up in terms of their basic learning to learn skills, shape behavior so that they’re able to access learning through a school environment. And that’s a huge part of what we do.

[00:05:13] Jed Wallace: My experience is primarily anecdotal here and having a couple teenagers in the household with a lot of friends, several of whom have been identified, but to be able to see the difference between those that were identified earlier in their lives versus some of our friends that have been identified just in the last year or two. It’s a very different overall profile for that kids’ experience in school, that kids’ experience growing up. Early identification is obviously very important. And it’s something that also relates to how our overall public education world is doing relative to identification and support.

I wonder, so we see that the identification rates have increased over time. How would you assess like our K-12 readiness? Are we doing a decent job? Are we getting better at this? Where are the very big problems that still remain? And maybe where do you see opportunities for the charter world to provide some critically needed leadership in terms of improving autism support across the entire K-12 establishment?

[00:06:14] Diana Diaz-Harrison: I would say I’m super grateful that here in Arizona we were able to start a charter school using best practices that are typically only seen in clinical settings or private schools. Schools like mine do exist, but they’re 40 to $50,000 a year. And that’s just not accessible for most families.

I paid that for a couple of years and couldn’t keep going in that trajectory. So I learned that in other states like Florida, there was a successful tuition free autism charter, and I thought, our state with the high incidence of autism and parents seeking solutions that were just not being listened to in typical mainstream district schools.

It was about time that Arizona had a model that was best practice and tuition free and completely prioritizing the smaller, more personalized learning environments that are needed by children with autism. So I think we are really blazing the trail to show what school for kids with autism should look like to help the students become as fulfilled, independent, and creative and, community contributors post-secondary.

So I think most districts do have a SPED program, but these programs, as a mom I experienced, they were all about what the kid couldn’t do and what the school was not going to do. And it was all about what is free and appropriate, because that’s the law, to have a free and appropriate public education. But what’s appropriate to an education bureaucrat is completely different than what’s appropriate for an autism mom.

There were many directions that I could have gone. Like many parents, I hired advocates, attorneys, and all of these things, and at the end of the day I realized that even if I win, this program is gonna be forced. It’s not going to be a program that’s done with the intentionality and love that I want for my kids. Like a parent paying 50 to a hundred thousand dollars a year at the most prestigious, autism private programs.

So I researched, what a charter school could look like, what the fund funding formula was. And it, it became very, very feasible. That if our state approved our charter, that we could make better use of the funds by having it in a charter model that was driven by parents than by bureaucrats who were just about telling us what our kids couldn’t do and what they were not going to do.

[00:09:17] Jed Wallace: So this is reminding me I’m just coming back from a visit with my parents and they have a group of friends that know that their son is obsessed with charter schools. And so those friends will send articles to them. And so when I got to see mom this weekend, she had these articles there.

The top article was about how well charter schools are doing with foster youth, and it was a story of a particular school and a particular leader. I happened to know that school and leader very well, but I also know the background of that school, which was the entry point, was we don’t wanna do this in the context of a charter. We’re gonna do it within the broader system and just spinning wheels for eight, ten –I think it was longer than 10 years before this incredible school got started. But once people realized that running at the problems they’re most passionate with about, within the charter school context was what they were focused on, wow, are you may be able to make, more progress! So I see you in a very comparable situation, right? There’s a clear problem in the world. There’s a clear problem in our education world to, to respond to that broader silo problem. And now we need to unleash people to come up with the solutions that are desperately needed, right?

It sounds to me that is, like, very similar to what you had. Tell me a little bit about what was it like to become a charter folk? Did you resist it in the beginning? Did you have other ways you wanted to do it? Or did it, was it natural for you to think about it really early in the process?

[00:10:43] Diana Diaz-Harrison: No, it wasn’t my first thought. I was, basically, just a mom needing a better education solution for my kid who, was highly impacted by autism. But I was a little bit spoiled because I did get him into early intervention of the best type early on. And, while I saw, how he was in a typical preschool, which was a disaster — just sensory overload, large class size, teacher who had no idea what to do with him. He was very bouncy, more so than typical preschool. Then, he went into small group and one-on-one early intervention that was based on applied behavior analysis, which is backed by more than 50 years of research to produce best outcomes for kids like my son with autism. And I thought, bingo, we’re gonna keep doing that. We’re going to, do that until he doesn’t need as much deliberate support. And so we did, a few years of early intervention then when he became school age, they weren’t doing that even though the district had an autism program. They said that, all of the therapeutic practices were above and beyond, free, inappropriate.

And I’m like, well, that’s silly. We know this is what works for kids like my son. There’s a class full of kids that learn the same way he does. And so it was, then it all became, it’s that horrible feeling of becoming adverse. You’ve become that mom that is a nag and, not not settling.

Again, I did the drill: hired advocates, and attorney, he got put in a private placement. And that also just wasn’t the way I wanted school to go for myself as a mom and for my son. So it was actually very refreshing to learn that other states had gone on a path to open charter schools that were based on applied behavior analysis and had all of the curriculum and instruction, the small groupings, the embedded therapies that were needed.

And I pitched it to a lot of seasoned educators or clinical people that worked with kids with autism, but nobody wanted to touch how litigious special education can be. And so after a lot of going around and, closed doors, I decided if I really care about this, which I do, I’m gonna have to form a team myself. And I did.

[00:13:39] Jed Wallace: That is the CharterFolk story. And it’s also, it’s something that I think it’s frustrating for our world to have to remember. But when we’re sometimes accosted in the supermarket, “you’re a charter school supporter and I hear all this stuff, right?” When you’re able to go back and say what the problem was and, your willingness to try to make it work in so many other different ways and it not working and then coming to this way, and it’s, in fact working, is a really great entry point for a redefined discussion with whomever it is that you’re talking about.

And it seems… and it seems to me like coming to see your school is probably a very important thing too. I know you know, when the Governor of Arizona comes and many others come. But for those that haven’t been able to make a personal visit to your school, and by the way, I’m coming to Arizona shortly and your school is absolutely the top of the list. I can’t wait to get there. But just to acquaint our listeners, are our viewers, with what, how would you give the backstage pass to how Arizona Autism really works — given that some of our folks are really educators and really understand how a lot of these kinds of programs are put together.

[00:14:53] Diana Diaz-Harrison: Yeah. So I think the tricky thing with autism is that it is a spectrum, right? There are some folks who have very intensive behavioral and communication challenge, and and then there are kids who are on the autism spectrum, who are highly verbal and have scattered skills. They might be very gifted in math, for example, but still struggle with language and communication and understanding social nuances, which become very important in middle and high school.

So because we serve the whole spectrum, the way we group kids by ability and needs helps us be successful. We have programs for very intensive needs for high functioning students, and we have special programs for students falling somewhere in between. And we can only do that because our whole school serves kids with autism.

In a typical district school, for example, you might have, five kids on the spectrum. One of them is a high functioning math genius, another is still needing toilet training and is very impacted, but they may be placed in the same autism classroom. It’s almost not fair. It’s it’s very, it’s very feasible for us to group students abilities and needs and staff accordingly.

Students that have a lot of needs, you’ll see a two to one or even a one-on-one ratio because you’re working on communication and functional skills. For our classes of kids who are higher functioning, it might look more like a typical classroom, but you really won’t see more than 12 to 13 kids, a lead teacher, and two behavior support staff. In some cases you might see therapists pushing in as well.

And then every kid has a personalized learning program because there are a range of strengths and challenges that need to be worked on very deliberately with kids with autism. So in addition to obviously tracking how they’re doing in language arts, math, science, we’re also tracking their behavior, social skills, and their ability to navigate a group environment, which is a little harder for our kids. And so that all needs to be taught very deliberately.

[00:17:33] Jed Wallace: So that’s a great backstage pass to the program. I would love to go further into this. Just being an old teacher myself and the only pushback I ever got from my parents was my father saying to me, “I hear the charter schools don’t serve special ed kids.”

And I was just assuring him, “are you kidding me, dad?” No. Every kid and every problem we think that we can run at, with greater effectiveness. So I’d love to dive further into the details, but I’ve gotta recognize we only have so much time with you and there’s so many other backstage passes you can acquaint our listeners with.

Tell me, give me the backstage pass for the Yass Prize. Congratulations again. All the applicants across the entire country and Arizona Autism is supported. Can you tell us, what was the most exciting moment and and what has the experience been generally to have been recognized like this?

[00:18:23] Diana Diaz-Harrison: Oh, it’s been amazing and I’m so grateful. I really love that the YA Prize and other private fund as well are starting to recognize that there are various paths to success. While some students may go to college, other students may be entrepreneurial, we could equip them with the ability to start a business which is better suited to their personality and trait. And then other kids that we serve might be in a facilitated working environment because that’s the support they need to be productive. And so just because a child is highly impacted or has different social skill doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be invested in. And so I was so grateful to be able to tell the stories of how our kids go from feeling defeated — and the parents as well — because the whole education previous to us was all about their challenges than what they couldn’t do, whereas here we build up from their strengths and help them catch up on all tho se gap skills to be feel like fulfilled, productive students that leads to fulfilled, productive citizens.

We really, even though autism does have real challenges, we like to think of it as a neurodiversity. Over time there were likely a lot of people miss autism, but they were just seen as eccentric or. if you think about it in a scary way, they were in institutions if they had a lot of needs. Nevertheless, it is an out-of-the-box way of learning and seeing the world that, if funneled appropriately, can help us solve a lot of challenges.

And I think our kids can be amazing contributors at our school. We also have adopted the ___ curriculum from the ___ learning project, and our kids, once, they have those learning to learn skills and are engaged in hands-on projects with very interesting tech materials, they thrive and sometimes they surprise their teachers because they come up with things that a typical brain would have a hard time doing.

So I think when you see the kids that are neurodiverse, even gifted, they change the narrative about how they feel about themselves, how their families see them, how the community sees them. Then it’s a whole different ballgame in terms of the possibilities.

[00:21:06] Jed Wallace: So then tell me about next chapters. So we have this exciting prize and I’ve heard a little bit, but I don’t know too much about your vision for the future, how you might use these new resources to catalyze even more impact in Arizona and across the country.

Tell me what you’re thinking about for next chapters for Arizona Autism.

[00:21:27] Diana Diaz-Harrison: Yes. So we do have a few more campuses planned for Arizona, our home state, and part of the Yass Prize is going to help us launch the National Accelerator of Autism Charter Schools because we believe this should be a choice no matter where you live or what state you’re in. Parents shouldn’t be subjected to just mediocre to low performing programs because that’s the only choice at their district. Or, paying 50 to 60 to more thousands a year to go to private school. Not sustainable for a lot of families or most families.

So having a school choice charter solution that is focused on best practices for autism is in demand. We have students move from out of state to access our school. Last count, we had students from more than 30 states that had relocated to be able to attend our school. We’ve had parents accept jobs or decline jobs based on whether their child could attend our school. And we really feel that families shouldn’t have to uproot and move to get a high quality specialty program for their children. In many cases, families have more than one child on the spectrum. We have families with three and four kids that are at different levels of the spectrum, and we’re grateful and blessed that we can serve them all.

This is something that the charter school movement can help us fast track and make available so that no family gets left behind just having to accept subpar programming for their kids.

[00:23:20] Jed Wallace: So I would imagine you’re being somewhat selective about what states you want to go to first, and it seems as though this effort, its success will hinge on whether or not the advocacy conditions permitted to happen.

And I’m sure there are many states where the existing status quo wouldn’t make it work. Have you already been able to identify your subset of states that you would be prioritized for building the National Accelerator of Autism Charter Schools?

[00:23:54] Diana Diaz-Harrison: Yes. Arizona and Florida have done this successfully because the funding formula for autism is pretty favorable. But we have had partners in other states who are working with less funding and adding funding through Medicaid billing for schools to make it work. Of course, we’re going to go into charter friendly states first. We’ve identified Nevada and Texas. We know what it takes to educate these kids successfully. So there could be a number of funding streams, from federal IDEA,using title funds trategically, using interns from universities to help elevate the staffing ratio. We parents will do whatever it takes and then, slowly but surely work on getting the funding formula where it needs to be by serving as a proof point for what’s possible when the right funding is in place.

And also by, oh, when we have longer term data showing that our kids can be more self-sufficient when they’ve been through our educational program, and they won’t have to rely on the state for their entire adult life. They could also be contributing members to society. So yes, we will definitely go after states that are more favorable funding-wise, but we’re not gonna give up there because students with autism, family with autism, are every where and it would be amazing for families to have this option no matter where they live.

[00:25:45] Jed Wallace: A lot of the advocacy challenge would pertain to any kind of school. What is the funding mechanism for autism and special needs kids generally that we have in the uniqueness of charter schools. What would be your message be? What would your message be to the charter school advocates? X state, just greenfield. We don’t know all of the rules yet. What are the things that the advocates should be thinking about to make sure that organizations like yours can thrive there? Obviously getting a generally favorable environment such that charters can get approved and we have a facility to be able to operate the program in something that all charter schools have to look at.

Then there are the specifics around funding mechanisms, and it sounds to me as though in Arizona and in Florida, there are funding mechanisms specific to children identified with autism. That seems to be a key enabler. And I know that there are many other states that don’t have such funding specific to autism or anything like that.

But where there’s just like general funding that’s available and somehow or another you’re supposed to make it work with whomever the kids are that show up at your front door. Tell me: what’s the right way for our advocates, from a charter school perspective, to be thinking about this so that we can make sure schools like yours can grow in many other states?

[00:27:02] Diana Diaz-Harrison: I think there’s a case to be made for special population school for sure, because when you know we are serving, for example, in our case, most of our population is on the autism spectrum, the economies of scale that can happen and the two things that are specific to children’s abilities and needs are more successful and therefore more cost effective.

While some of our detractors may say, “oh, students on the spectrum would be better off in a typical mainstream environment, isn’t that what you want?” Most parents like me have tried that, and our kids, even though they may be in a class of 25 typical kids, they’re more isolated than ever, and in some cases even unsafe.

So having these smaller specialty environments is more successful, more cost effective, in terms of what it costs the state for a person with autism across their lifespan. Doing this investment during K-12 can be key to less reliance on the state in the future. I think that definitely getting more of our kids on the spectrum in the workforce is part of the biggest driver.

Again, whether it’s independent employment, facilitative employment, no matter what it is, we are all working towards having our kids not be relying on state services for the rest of their lives. And I think that cost analysis — investment and cost analysis — should be a driver for making a case for specialty charters like ours that are going to prioritize best practices for a very high needs population.

[00:28:54] Jed Wallace: I’m not gonna get middle in the middle of this, of the disagreement or the discussion that’s ongoing about whether full inclusion is the right way or whether or not specialty schools are the right way. What I love is charter folk passionate about their issues, being able to pursue their view, with the freedom and the funding necessary to get it done. And it seems to me…

[00:29:19] Diana Diaz-Harrison: And parent choice. Parents being able to pick. If they really wanna make it work in a mainstream environment, go for it.

[00:29:28] Jed Wallace: That’s right.

[00:29:29] Diana Diaz-Harrison: …not work for you, then most parents seek out a private option, but then they realize they can’t afford it. So that’s when we come in, to be that smaller specialty option that is accessible because it’s tuition free.

[00:29:46] Jed Wallace: And so it seems to me as though one of the problems that we have is that we simply don’t identify kids early enough and provide the resources to the parents regardless of where they choose to enroll their kids. And if we would get that done well, then it would enable both those parents that wanna see their kids served within a full inclusion environment, provide the resources to properly test whether it’s the right place, and also if they’d like to have their kids enrolled in a place like Arizona Autism, they would be able to have that choice as well. And we advocates, I think we need to be doing a better job of keeping both front and center for us. We are not gonna put our thumbs on the scale either way. We want parents that were in the situation that you were in not so long ago with your son to be in a fundamentally better place and for schools to have been freed up to do exciting new things.

I’ll end with this one last question for you. Because we can get involved in funding and advocacy and political fights and all that stuff, but in the end it’s just what is the positive difference that we’re making in kids’ lives? Obviously, as a mom, you made a huge difference in the life of your own son, but now you’ve made a difference in the life of so many other children.

And so many different experiences are different. And you’re saying that the autism spectrum is very wide. There’s no one best thing. But is there any general viewpoint, is there any rule of thumb that you would just wish was more understood among the educator world about how we can more effectively serve autism kids and families where autism kids are within it?

[00:31:26] Diana Diaz-Harrison: I think that just the smaller and personalized learning program that are data driven for each students and the project based learning that allows kids to have agency in how they apply their foundational skills, and something that is of high interest to them has been truly magical for us because kids with autism are known to have very fixed interests, right?

We have kids, for example that memorized every license plate in the parking lot. So learning some foundational skills where they can also track data on license plate would be, yes, that would make them wanna go to school every day because they get to have a project that’s based on their interest, but they’re also applying some foundational skills that are critical for navigating the school, growing in their academics, and at some point applying what they know to an employment opportunity or an entrepreneurship opportunity. But I think all of the things that we know are good for people on the spectrum are the smaller sizes, the embedded behavioral support that are all positive behavioral support are things that we’re starting to notice are beneficial for all kids.

A lot of kids now have gaps and learning loss and have trauma of many sorts, and whereas now, social emotional learning is the fad, we’ve been doing behavioral and social emotional learning all along because it’s required for kids on the autism spectrum to work on behavior while you’re also working on academic skill acquisition.

So I, I think, the pendulum is swinging for sure where parents are opting out of big giant programs and doing micro school. Why? Because their kids get more attention if they really get to know their peers and a teacher that’s serving 10 kids versus a teacher serving 28 kids, their emotional needs as well as their learning will be tracked better. And I think there is a lot of value to that personalized support that really all kids are craving. Many of us grew up in big classrooms that didn’t have this available and, we, we tolerated that. Perhaps we tolerated working on projects that were not interesting in or a big group and kind of figuring stuff out on your own. Kids on the spectrum are a little bit more truthful in that if something is not reaching them, they’ll tell you or they’ll let you know with their behavior.

So I think that as educators we should really see that as cues for evolving how we reach students and really giving them foundational skills and then agency and how they apply those skills. That’s really what works well for us and it’s something that we want to replicate so that other kids on the spectrum and families can just feel better about what their kids are doing in schools.

[00:35:00] Jed Wallace: Absolutely. It reminds me of the language we used at High Tech High where we realized that some of the language around special education and other supports for kids with unique needs sometimes focuses on deficit. And we forget that IEP, which can often be def deficit associated, is Individual Education Plan. Are you kidding me? We want every kid to receive an individualized education plan. We want every student to receive special education and there are some leaders, who take advantage of the charter school landscape to help advance an awareness that’s what we want for all kids.

And you’re helping us do that, Diana. So thank you so much for the time you spent with us. Thank you so much for the progress that you’re making on behalf of all the kids that you’re serving in Arizona. But I’ll leave a special thank you for just changing the discussion nationally because I think through your work we’re going to see just a huge number of kids more effectively served in the decades to come.

Thank you so much.

[00:35:59] Diana Diaz-Harrison: Thanks for having me.