Neurodiversity Education Research Center
Neurodiversity Education Research Center

Inside a STEM-focused microschool forautistic students in south Phoenix

By Madeleine Parrish | Arizona Republic
May 18, 2024

Karyn Macvean searched widely before deciding where to send her two children for theireducation.

Both of Macvean’s children are autistic, and she wanted to find a school that would supporttheir social and emotional needs while also challenging them academically, especially inmath and science.

She chose Science Prep Academy, a private microschool geared toward neurodivergentstudents, with 22 students in sixth through 12th grades. The school, inside the SalvationArmy’s Kroc Center in south Phoenix, was the niche she sought.

The school’s founder, Kenneth Mims, believes microschools, which are small, typicallyprivate educational settings, can uniquely support neurodivergent students, specificallyautistic students. With such small class sizes, Science Prep Academy allows teachers tosupport students’ social and emotional growth better while individualizing the curriculum toeach student, he said.

Mims sees Science Prep Academy as helping to fill a gap. His school focuses on STEAM —science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics — and embeds robotics andcomputer science into its curriculum. It is geared toward neurodivergent students whose”parents believe that their children can transition” to college or the workforce, he said.

“Unfortunately for many students who are autistic and neurodivergent, they’re in a learningenvironment where the school system does not believe that they can be successful,” Mimssaid. But there are “thousands of jobs out there,” he said.

Most parents take advantage of Arizona’s education voucher program to pay for the school’stuition. There’s an admissions process because the learning environment doesn’t support all students, and the school doesn’t accept students who display aggressive behaviors, Mims said.

Though private schools in Arizona do not have to be accredited, Science Prep Academyis accredited by Cognia.
Through Science Prep Academy, Mims wanted to provide an environment that “pushesstudents to their greatest potential.”

Macvean was drawn to Science Prep Academy because of this vision. “It really spoke to futureindustries and how they were going to help the kids learn the skills needed to participate,”she said. She also saw the microschool environment as a way to address her children’s needs.
“For my two children, their individual needs are different than their peer group,” she said.”Especially when it comes to kids who are on the spectrum, you’re going to have a hugevariation. And it’s not based on age.”

Everyone meets developmental milestones “in a different way, at a different pace,” Macveansaid. “So, you can’t group them together that way, which is what’s traditionally done.”

Mims said that students come to the school at all levels, some multiple levels below their age-based grade level.
“All of our students come to us because they are not successful in their previous learningenvironment,” he said. “So, when we get students, our focus is on growth.” Students takeassessments three times per year to monitor their progress.

Focused on preparing neurodivergent students for work

Students regularly learn about new STEM careers. On one weekday this school year, thefocus was on aerospace engineering.

“Remember, at Science Prep Academy, we believe all of you guys can become scientists,”success coach and fitness and health teacher Josh Burnett told students.

Microschools: How ASU’s charter network is helping launch them across the country

As part of its focus on preparing students for the workforce, the school also offers a yearlongemployment transition program at Banner Desert Medical Center in Mesa. Studentscomplete rotations in different areas of the center, and the school has two staff members atBanner who support the students.

The employment transition program, which happens after the fourth year of high school, is inpartnership with the University of Arizona Sonoran Center for Excellence and Disabilitiesand Project SEARCH, a nationwide employment program for people with disabilities basedat Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.

Mims said two of the four program participants this past school year have already securedpaid employment, including one with Banner.

Cam Magnaye, whose son participated in Banner’s yearlong vocational program this pastyear, said the program helped him develop skills such as speaking professionally.

“If he has a problem,” the coach and the instructor are there to help him through, Magnayesaid. “He’s learning so much about interpersonal communication.” He’s planning to completea production assistant certification program and attend film school, she said.

For Macvean’s daughter, Caroline, 13, the microschool environment was a welcome changefrom her previous experiences in larger educational settings, which included charter schools.

Caroline said the lessons are more tailored to her, and whereas in the past she didn’t feel”appreciated or supported” at school, teachers at Science Prep get her. “They actuallyunderstand my needs,” she said. “It’s really nice.”

Her eyes lit up as she described the roles she played in one of the robotics projects she andher classmates created and coded for a competition. “I’m really good at engineering,” shesaid. “I built those robot modules. … All me.”

Academy is also a site for research on computer scienceeducation

Adleen Toloumu, an instructor at Science Prep who formerly taught special education atdistrict and charter schools, said she thinks the microschool model can be more inclusive forstudents who may find a larger school setting intimidating due to their learning differences.

She also said it allows her to tailor instruction to each student in real-time in a way that isdifficult in a traditional classroom with more students and potentially few resources.Assignment modifications do occur in a traditional public school setting to meet students’legally binding special education plans, Toloumu said, but “it’s not as personalized when youhave so many kids.”

“Because we’re so small and because you can build better relationships with students andunderstand what they need, you can tailor everything to them,” she said.

Toloumu said tailoring instruction could involve giving a student a less rigorous readingpassage to help them understand the material while still teaching them a goal for their gradelevel, like identifying a theme. It could also involve reducing the number of questions astudent must answer, changing the grading criteria on an assignment, or asking a student togive a verbal response to a question rather than write an essay.

“We just look for different ways that they can show understanding at their instructionallevel,” Toloumu said.
Macvean sees downsides to sending her children to such a small school setting, but she saysthe pros outweigh the cons.

“There is a benefit to being a part of a bigger school environment in that you get to interactwith different types of people,” she said, including kids who are neurotypical. “So, that’ssomething that we just have to try to figure out as a family outside of school.” Her kids areenrolled in extracurricular programs like music and theater lessons, Girl Scouts and fitnessclasses, she said.

More than just a school, Science Prep Academy is also a site for research. It’s a program ofthe Neurodiversity Education Research Center, which is led by Mims, and part of a three-year National Science Foundation-funded research project with Arizona State University. That project, which is in its third year, is focused on expanding computer science educationfor neurodivergent students.

Anani Vasquez, the director of the research partnership, said the researchers wanted to findinteractive ways to teach computational thinking — methods of problem-solving that canhelp students learn computer science — that included music and movement. In partnershipwith teachers, including two from Science Prep Academy, the researchers created wearablemusic sensors and a companion curriculum.

Students at Science Prep Academy then created musical instruments out of Legos and codedthem to create sounds using the sensors. They then provided feedback, Vasquez said.

“Many times, when people create educational technology specifically for students withautism or students with a certain disability label, what they try to do is they get those students to use the tools to learn how to behave more normally or typically,” Vasquez said.”And that was not our goal.”

Instead, the goal was to create a tool to “meet them where they are, the way they want tolearn, the way that makes the most sense to them,” she said.

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