In November, Arizona voters will decide whether expanding the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account program makes sense. It was originally started to help the parents of disabled children, foster children, or parents who are active military. It evolved, with little controversy, to include adopted children, children attending D/F rated schools, and those in Native American communities. About 5,000 children are now using the scholarships to attend private schools or be home-schooled, if they don’t feel the public school system is right for their special, unique needs.
This year, a majority of the Arizona Legislature decided that there should effectively be no restrictions on the use of these funds, allowing anyone, regardless of circumstance, to use them. Public school advocates believed this to be a bridge too far and decided to refer the expansion to a public vote in the fall.
I write not to encourage you one way or another on the expansion. That is your vote. Your right.
Instead, I wish to shine a light on the original intent of the program. Has it worked? Has it not? You see, I run the Gateway Academy in Phoenix. It is private, and one of only five schools in the country that educates a “pure population” of children in grades K-12 with Asperger’s Syndrome. We call them “twice exceptional,” because they are high-performing, caring, beautiful students.
They come to us, because they may have been bullied or left behind elsewhere, or really never felt a hug from a classroom.
In many ways we specialize in changing lives, these very, very special lives. We remind them Asperger’s is merely a diagnosis and it does not define who you are, just as it was for Bill Gates, Ralph Nader, Al Gore and many others.
Thanks to Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts parents can send their children to our school free of charge, if they feel existing public school options are not the best or most effective. We use unconventional means from equine therapy to forming rock bands to motivate and educate our amazing students into productive, wonderful members of our community.
We are pleased to report that in the past several years 100 percent of our graduates have gone on to college, emancipating their dreams and fulfilling those of incredible parents.
The stories are endless.
There was a young man who came to us after being bullied at his other school. He’s now a sophomore in high school, building 3D printers for the school, and even building a virtual reality computer to save the school, he now loves, money. But that’s not where the story ends. He even has his own business building 3D parts for the medical profession.
Then there’s our senior in high school who has been with us since the fourth grade. He couldn’t read or write at the beginning, due to anxiety. Now, he often leads our morning meetings with the student body, instructing in manners and performing as a musician.
And how about a young African-American woman, who could barely speak during our initial interview? So she spoke to us through the piano. They were tunes from Heaven. She has now come out of her shell to become a model student.
Whether Empowerment Scholarship Accounts for more, or all, is now a call for Arizona voters to make. No matter how the vote goes it will not impact the state’s existing program for disabled children and ours with Asperger’s Syndrome. And I just wanted your readers to know that, for the most precious and precarious in our state, Empowerment Scholarship Accounts have already made an incredible difference for those who need and deserve it the most. Public schools do a great job too, but, for some, our expertise and focus is a better option.
And that’s something we believe is worth celebrating, whether you vote yes, or no, on November 6.
— O. Robin Sweet is executive director & CEO Gateway Academy in Phoenix.
The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.