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How it all started

Hello, my name is Dr. Tamara Moodie and I am the Principal of an amazing school, South Florida Autism Charter School (SFACS), and also the Executive Director of South Florida Autism Center. SFACS is a public charter school located in Miami-Dade County, Florida that serves students in grades Kindergarten through 12 th grade, up to the age of 22, who reside in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties. As of now, we have 283 students at our school; at full capacity we will have up to 300 students. Fifteen years ago, I was the Educational Director of a private school in Miami where the yearly tuition was $45,000. The school offered a student-to-teacher ratio of 1:1 utilizing the principles of B.F. Skinner’s Theory of Applied Behavioral Analysis. We did amazing work, and we were able to help many families from all over the world. As much as I loved my job, deep down I felt that we were not doing enough, and it made me very unhappy. I was determined to create a place where children less fortunate could have the same education as children whose parents had the means to afford a private school. It made me sad to see the sacrifices parents made for their children when they could only afford to have their children at the school for 1 to 2 years. I believe that every individual diagnosed with autism deserves the opportunity to reach their fullest potential in an environment where they are not only taught properly, but also respected and loved. At SFACS, we target individuals who are most severely affected by Autism, and we have never given up on anyone – not in elementary school, middle school, or high school, and we will certainly not give up on them when they become adults.

I have had the pleasure of meeting many children and their families over the years, but one family always stands out. The parents sacrificed to pay the $45,000 tuition for three years at the private school, and their child made great progress. The reality was they had other children and had to make the decision to withdraw their child and enroll him in public school. About a year after he left the private school, I saw him at an Autism walk. He had lost all of his Sign Language, as well as the ability to walk by himself, and he was in a wheelchair. I could tell that his parents were tired. Sadly, this was the reality; students made progress at the private school, but parents couldn’t afford it long-term, and so they had to make hard decisions about what was best for their family. One parent moved from another state leaving their spouse in their home state to take care of the rest of the family; another family would pay their tuition with 5 checks each month, one from the parents, another from the in-laws, and others from the mother, brother, and sister. Several families took out second mortgages. Others were unable to save for college for their other children because they needed the funds for the private school since they felt it was the best setting for their child. The sacrifices were just too great. I didn’t feel parents should have to make these sacrifices in order to provide the best education they could for their child. One of the hardest parts of my job, back then, was when parents realized that they could no longer be able to sustain the tuition. I was usually the first person they called, and it broke me.

After years of seeing families go through this, I made the decision that I was not going to just sit back and see children come and go. I dreamt harder and spoke more about the dream to anyone who would listen, and many people did.

Fast forward to 2009, when we opened SFACS’ doors to 81 students. I remember sitting in the Hialeah E-library, our first home, during our enrollment lottery, and hearing the names called of the children who won the 81 spots that we had available. Parents were crying and laughing. One father said, “I feel like I won the lotto!” I started to live again. I began to believe that we could do it. I just knew that one day we would be able to provide a place where families could get the best education for their children without breaking their bank account and breaking up their family; a place where they could give their child with Autism a fighting chance with people who truly want to teach them, love them, and bring out the best in them – tuition-free.

I was lucky enough to meet the most amazing people who believed in my vision. Together, myself, Glenn Pierce, Robert Cambo and Susan L Leon started the very first autism charter school in South Florida. I wanted our school to help families whose children would benefit from Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) in a small student-to-teacher setting of 3-to-1. The children we target have communication deficits, behavioral issues and require training in self-help skills. It is not an easy job, but you wouldn’t know that by meeting my staff. My staff and I work really hard to make SFACS better every year and also to help our students have the same experiences that their siblings do. We work with children that others would not be able to work with. Our students participate in events that they may not be able to enjoy if it was not for our school. They go to Prom, participate in Homecoming Week, go to Orlando for our yearly field trip, and participate in our End of Year Talent Show. The Talent Show is our most rewarding event of the entire year, when our students showcase their talents to the best of their ability, and there is not a dry eye in the auditorium.

I need to be able to provide all these programs to my students and their families, as well as the community. An older parent said to me about a month ago, “You give me hope,” and, “Thank you for dreaming,” and in return I said, “No, thank you for believing.” I am super crazy about my work. I have the best, most rewarding job a person could ever ask for. But in order to make this happen, I need your help. I need your help to continue this dream and make this the most beautiful campus ever for families and their loved ones diagnosed with autism. I truly thank you for your time.
Dr. Tamara Moodie
Executive Director / School Principal