AZ Spec Needs & Foster Care - Client Photo and Profile

Parent Profiles and Institute for Justice Clients:

Arizona’s School Choice Programs For Children with Disabilities & Foster Children

Andrea Weck
Scottsdale, Ariz.


Andrea Weck with her daughter Lexie.

Andrea Weck is the mother of twin five-year-old girls, Charlie and Lexie, and a four-year-old daughter, Samantha.  When Lexie was eight months old, she was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy and began physical, occupational and speech therapy.  She was later re-diagnosed with mild autism and mental retardation as well as Cerebral Palsy.

When Lexie was three, she entered Aztec Elementary School’s Panda Program, an early childhood program for special education students with developmental delays.  But by the end of her second year in the program, it was clear to Andrea and school officials that Lexie was making little progress academically or socially.

Andrea began researching styles of education for children with developmental disabilities and found Chrysalis Academy, a private school in Tempe that specializes in educating children with autism and related disorders.  Chrysalis officials believed that she was exactly the type of child they could make great strides with and so they accepted Lexie. 

She began school at Chrysalis in August 2005 and is flourishing.  “We feel truly blessed she was accepted into the program,” Andrea says.  “In only her first week being there, the school opened up a whole new world to Lexie through sign language and pictures.  Her progress has surpassed our greatest expectations.  Lexie has made incredible leaps in academic ability.”

Lexie’s focus and ability to stay on task has improved, she now knows her alphabet, and she’s even developing social skills and interacting with her sisters like never before.

But Andrea cannot afford tuition at Chrysalis.  Her parents dipped into their savings to help, but the financial burden created turmoil for the family, and Andrea worried she would not be able to keep Lexie in the school she loves.  Fortunately, Andrea received a scholarship through Arizona’s new program, relieving a major financial burden for her family and providing educational stability for Lexie.


Jessica Geroux
Apache Junction, Ariz.


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Jessica and her husband have two children, six-year-old Tyler and four-year-old Connor.  Tyler has been diagnosed with autism.  Jessica hopes that through Arizona’s new school choice program for children with disabilities, she can find a school that will meet Tyler’s needs better than his current situation.

Tyler is a first-grader at Gold Canyon Elementary School in the Apache Junction Unified School District.  He started his kindergarten year at a different public school, but his parents and school officials met and decided, as part of Tyler’s Individualized Education Plan, to move him to Gold Canyon.  The rest of his kindergarten year went smoothly, and by the end of the year he was staying in the general education classroom 95 percent of the day with the help of an aid.

But this year, Tyler isn’t as well integrated into the mainstream classroom as he could be or as his IEP requires.  Because Tyler has high-functioning autism and can handle a mainstream classroom with specialized help, having him in a classroom with other children his age is very important to the Geroux family.  They want him to develop the skills that will help him become a productive adult.

Jessica is currently investigating a number of schooling options for Tyler, including other public schools and private schools to find a school that has just the right services to help a child with his particular combination of autism and giftedness.

“Sadly, under current state and federal law, there is a tremendous amount of bureaucratic red tape involved with transferring a child with a disability even from one public school district to another,” Jessica said.  The new scholarship program would make transfers to public or private schools easier and more affordable for parents like her. 

“Parents should be free to choose the education environment that is best for their child,” she concluded.  “I support anything that improves educational opportunities for children with disabilities so that they have the chance to become the best upstanding citizens they can be.”


Kristina Peterson
Mesa, Ariz.

Kristinia Peterson and her husband have twin 11-year-old sons, Damian and Dimitri.  Damian has been diagnosed with autism and Dimitri with Asperger’s Syndrome.

The Petersons have struggled for years to find an appropriate educational setting for their sons, trying as many as five different public schools and a variety of academic programs.  The trouble began at their first school where they were denied any special education services.  So they switched schools and waited for months, despite medical diagnoses of the boys’ conditions, to secure an Individualized Education Plan from the school.  At the end of the year, a teacher asked that they find a different school for the boys because “this school is not for them.”

Kristinia and her husband then tried three other schools and a number of special programs.  None has worked well, and as the twins get older, it becomes harder to find an environment that is the right fit:  not as fast paced as a regular education class, but more challenging than a self-contained environment.

“It’s been extremely frustrating,” Kristinia says.  “We’ve tried everything the public schools have to offer, and we still didn’t find a setting that was appropriate for them.”

Fortunately, the Petersons received a scholarship through Arizona’s new program, and placed Damian and Dimitri in Howard S. Gray, a private school in Scottsdale that specializes in serving children with special needs.  The family chose the school because its intimate setting, individualized instruction and the teachers’ specialized training can provide a more appropriate pace for the boys’ education.  The Petersons could never afford the school without the scholarship.

Under Arizona’s old system for securing private placements for children with special needs, “we would have had to hire an attorney to secure the same funds for the private school,” Kristinia says.  “Now parents have a choice.”


Edwin Rivera
Tucson, Ariz.

Edwin Rivera and his wife have one child, 14-year-old Edwin Jr., who was diagnosed with autism.

For years, the Riveras have struggled to secure the services from their public school that they believe Edwin Jr. needs.  At home, he shows progress, learning the alphabet, identifying colors, writing his name and playing educational games on the computer, but the school refuses to adjust his Individualized Education Plan with more specific goals and objectives that would teach Edwin Jr. academic and communications skills beyond those he already has.  The school does not seem to care that he is so far behind; they seem to have given up on him.

“Children with autism can learn and become independent, but my son is not getting the skills he needs—and it may soon be too late,” says Edwin.  “In the long run, it would be better for everyone for my son to be able to get a job and be independent.”

The Riveras have identified a public school program that could work for Edwin Jr., but they know they could never get him into the program under Arizona’s current system for placing children with special needs.  They are also exploring local private schools to find one that would better suit him.  They hope that through the new scholarship program they can move Edwin Jr. to a public or private school with a more personalized program that would help him become a productive adult.


Kimberly Wuestenberg
Glendale, Ariz.

Kimberly Wuestenberg is a single mother of two children, two-year-old Caden and thirteen-year-old Imre, who was recently diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. 

Imre is an extremely intelligent child, with a matter-of-fact manner of speaking and a natural sense of authority of leadership.  His interests and vocabulary often exceed those of his peers in his public school—often opening him to teasing and ridicule and making it hard to find friends.  He began displaying signs of difficulty in school in pre-kindergarten, and by the time he was in the third grade, detention was a part of his daily routine.  As with other children with Asperger’s Syndrome, he has difficulty adapting to change and keeping on task in the public school setting, especially because the children around him can be a distraction.

Imre has been in a behavior modification class, with an IEP, through his school’s special education department since being incorrectly diagnosed with Emotional Disability, Anxiety and Depression with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder tendencies.  Kimm was told that Imre would, within one to two years, earn his way out to a mainstream classroom setting.  However, after four years in the program he has not done so.

“It is difficult to express in words the pain of hearing your beautiful, intelligent, young child tell you that he would rather play by himself because it is safer, to hear him say that nobody likes him because he is different,” Kimm said.  “He’s not getting the tools he needs to be a successful adult.  His current school is trying very hard, but they don’t have the specialized training or programs to help him learn the social skills he needs.”

“The opportunity offered by the Arizona Scholarships for Pupils with Disabilities Program has renewed my hope for a bright future for Imre,” she added. 

Kimm is afraid to apply for a scholarship because of the legal action against the program.  If she lost the scholarship, she couldn’t afford to keep Imre at a private school, and consistency is particularly important for him.


Shirley Okamura
Phoenix, Ariz.

Shirley and Mike Okamura care for their four grandchildren through Arizona’s foster care system.  They took each child into their care from the very day they were born to the Okamuras’ daughter.  Shirley and Mike are now in the middle of adoption proceedings.

All four children attend a Catholic school in Phoenix, thanks to partial scholarships from a school tuition organization.  But the rest of the tuition comes from their savings and Mike’s salary, and every year the Okamuras fear they cannot continue to afford the school.  They plan to apply for scholarships through Arizona’s new school choice program for foster children as soon as possible.

The children were once in public school, where they were often teased about their family situation and some had difficulty hiding their anger and were frequently disruptive.  But those problems disappeared in their new school.

“They all love school now and even play make believe school in our tiny home,” Shirley said.  “It brings great joy to my heart to see them play school.”

The school choice program would bring Shirley and Mike the peace of mind of knowing that their grandchildren, who have already been through so much, can continue to attend the school they love.

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