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Scholarships give more students with autism a chance at Phoenix school

PHOENIX – The classrooms of Gateway Academy are a safe place where challenges are learning opportunities and students are celebrated for their differences. The private school now will be able to serve more “Twice-Exceptional Students,” thanks to scholarships available through its new school tuition organization.

Arizona law allows individuals and corporations to get a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for giving to nonprofit school tuition organizations, which are required to spend at least 90% of tax contributions on scholarships.

With the recent certification of its school tuition organization, Gateway will be able to provide more resources for students with high-functioning autism in grades 3 through 12. About 98% of its students are on scholarship.

“Our students are very unique in that academically they’re very bright, but socially, emotionally, they’re a lot younger,” said Robin Sweet, executive director and CEO of Gateway Academy in north Phoenix.

Roughly 110 students on the autism spectrum work collaboratively with each other, faculty, staff and families alike to “discover and develop their individual gifts and strengths, become self-advocates, and realize their full potential with a cohesive curriculum that emphasizes the practice of social skills as the link connecting each student to the school community,” according to Gateway’s mission statement.

“Gateway is a place where children are safe, they are heard and they are supported,” Sweet said. “We know that these are complicated kids that have good hearts, great brains, they’re the kindest, nicest kids on the face of this Earth, and at Gateway they can be warriors.”

Angelo Chavez, a senior, is among the Gateway students who rely on empowerment scholarships for schooling that caters to him.

“Without the scholarship, I wouldn’t be here,” Chavez said. “I’m very glad that my parents don’t have to stress out and that I can just come to school without thinking about the money.”

Many families with special needs children carry an extra financial burden for sending their kids to private schools to learn in a safe space. And despite the help of school aides, parents may have challenges getting Empowerment Scholarship Account funds from the state. Gateway’s new school tuition organization will assist students who aren’t eligible for Empowerment Scholarship Account funding.

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