Kami Cothrun was a frustrated public school teacher when she decided to open a school of her own. She “saw a need” and decided to act.
What started out as a small endeavor with just six students has blossomed into three Arizona campuses with 200 special-needs students.
“I really wanted to offer something different to families,” says the founder of Pieceful Solutions.
How did she do it?
“I’d heard a lot of struggles from families—things that they wished could be changed, things they wished public schools would do,” Cothrun told The Daily Signal. “I took all of that information and created Pieceful Solutions. And so, really, just to offer something, bigger, better, different is really kind of my philosophy.”
Cothrun also credits Education Savings Accounts for playing a role in the success and growth of Pieceful Solutions.
A tailor-made education
In Arizona, qualifying families can get the state’s share of a student’s per pupil amount deposited into a savings account. Parents are then given a debit card loaded with these funds. They can individually select the educational products, services and resources they consider appropriate for their child.
“Education Savings Accounts are empowering parents to completely customize their children’s educational experience,” said Lindsey Burke, the Will Skillman fellow in education at The Heritage Foundation. “Families are able to construct a tailor-made educational experience for their children by virtue of the fact that they can direct every dollar in their child’s ESA.”
That’s exactly what’s happening at Pieceful Solutions.
The school was created in 2008 to help children with autism and other disabilities. It takes a different approach from public schools, utilizing innovative teaching techniques to improve learning.
Frustrated with ‘bureaucracy’
Cothrun, who has a bachelor’s degree in speech and language and a master’s in special education, taught in Mesa, Ariz., public schools for five years but became frustrated with the “bureaucracy” as she tried to teach students with special needs.
That led her to start a new K-12 school—the first in Arizona specifically for autism. Today, she serves as the school’s executive director.
“I was struggling with the bureaucracy of a public school district,” said Cothrun. “I really wanted to offer something different to families.”
Shortly after it was founded in 2008 with six students, Cothrun began seeking ways she could help her fledgling school grow.
“Growing the school was tough,” she said. “Starting off with six students, obviously that’s not enough to fund a teacher and to pay for the light bill.”
Cothrun had a second mortgage on her home and borrowed money. She “did whatever I could to basically keep the doors open knowing that at some point it would be worth it.”
The growth of Education Savings Accounts
A year after she opened the school, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that the state’s voucher program for special-needs students was unconstitutional. The setback for school-choice advocates actually paved the way for Education Savings Acccounts, which Gov. Jan Brewer signed into law in 2011 and have withstood court challenges from teachers unions.
Unlike a voucher—which the state would pay directly to a private or religious school—Education Savings Accounts put parents in complete control of the money.
Cothrun said that Education Savings Accounts gave her the freedom to provide more for her students and their families. Today, Pieceful Solutions offers classes such as “karate, yoga, music therapy, cooking, lots and lots of speech and language, small class sizes and a high student-teacher ratio.”
“It has allowed me, as the founder of the school, to be able to offer our program to so many more families,” Cothrun said. “When I first started Pieceful Solutions six years ago, ESA didn’t exist and so for families to afford a private education, it was rare. It was nearly impossible.
“With the ESA, these families can get the specific individualized education that their child needs using the dollars straight for the school,” she said.
Video by The Daily Signal’s Jamie Jackson in conjunction with Patchbay Media.