Michael Galola faced uncertainty four years ago when both of his sons were diagnosed with autism. Find out how a Phoenix charter school was able to restore hope and ensure a bright future for the boys.
This is Michael’s story.
All Students Deserve a Public School That Meets Their Needs
Like any proud father, Michael Galola speaks glowingly when the conversation involves his two sons, Jericho and Michael Jr.
Jericho, 6, and Michael Jr., 8, are both Cub Scouts who love the outdoors, whether it’s hiking, biking, visiting the beach or playing in the snow. They are also taking swim lessons and growing to become avid swimmers.
Their father is excited for the boys’ futures, specifically the education, social and career opportunities that await them.
Galola’s current optimism sits in stark contrast to the uncertainty he faced about four years ago when the boys were both diagnosed with autism.
Jericho, his youngest son, was diagnosed with moderate severe autism, followed by Michael Jr., whose diagnosis was less severe.
At the time, tasks such buying groceries or attending a family gathering went from routine to arduous, as Galola had to learn how to manage difficult behaviors associated with autism.
Although the behavioral challenges were significant, Galola’s biggest concern was for his sons’ education and finding a learning environment that could cater specifically to their needs.
The single father conducted extensive research into schools around the country, from Florida to New York. Despite using every resource he could find, he was still concerned about the lack of schools that could help his sons.
“I wanted to look for a regular school,” he said.
About two years ago, Galola found Arizona Autism Charter School, which at the time was a fledgling K-5 public charter school set to open in Central Phoenix.
Enthralled by the prospect of enrolling his sons in a school that catered specifically to students on the autism spectrum, Galola made three 17-hour road trips from his home in McAllen, Texas to Phoenix to gain an up-close perspective of the school.
Galola was sold. He packed his belongings and moved his two sons to a new city with hopes that the journey would change their lives.
Once he established state residency, he enrolled both of his sons, anticipating positive changes in their academic and social development.
“That was biggest decision for why we moved here, for the boys, for the school, the plan and philosophy they have posted and presented to parents” Galola said. “I think it was the best match.”
Almost two years later, both of his sons, as well as the school, are thriving.
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“I don’t feel any more like they’re left out, or set aside because they act a little different,” he said. “I know all the teachers are trained to manage kids in the spectrum.”
Arizona Autism Charter School’s curriculum is based upon the Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) method, which is a widely-used, research-based strategy known to be effective for children with autism, said Executive Director and Founder Diana Diaz-Harrison.
“Our school is very data driven. We have data we share with parents and data we’re required to present to the state,” Diaz-Harrison said. “Parents love to see the growth and know their kids are doing better.”
The school also keeps its class sizes small with an average of nine students per class, along with a teacher and two teaching assistants, all of whom are trained to work specifically with children diagnosed with autism, she said.
So far, the school has found success.
In January, the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools approved Arizona Autism’s request to expand to seventh and eighth grades, a rare feat for a school that’s barely two-years old.
For Galola, the school has helped restore hope for his sons’ futures, replacing the uncertainty that surrounded their lives a few years ago.
The boys do their homework, socialize with other students and enjoy school like other children. And Galola knows his sons can now handle trips to the supermarket, family gatherings and public events.
“It’s nice to be able to bring them out in real world even though they’ve only been in school” for two years, he said. “Now I can bring them to the movies, birthday parties. I don’t even have second thoughts on where we want to go.”
Their autism has not served as an impediment to their current lives or future success.
“I believe each student, including my sons, will be much better than where they started,” he said. “It’s not just hope that they will improve, but they are improving.”
About The Campaign
With negative headlines splashed across news outlets, the hard work of our K-12 teachers and leaders is sometimes overshadowed and forgotten. We want to change that. Our Charters Changing Lives campaign is a way to share the stories that are often overlooked: to recognize the efforts of our students, teachers, leaders and community members who dedicate their lives to ensuring student success. With 556 public charter schools serving over 170,000 student, charters play an integral role in shaping the lives of Arizona’s youth. We plan to share how Arizona’s charter schools are changing lives every day.