Elizabeth Goldsmith founded Thrive with Autism two years ago with the goal of establishing an autism-focused, tuition-free charter school for students to receive academics and therapeutic services. Goldsmith said the one-stop model of the proposed school was inspired by The Els for Autism Foundation facility in Jupiter, Florida.

Goldsmith, the president and founder of the Magnolia-based nonprofit, said families often struggle to find autism-focused programs offering high-quality education and therapy at an affordable price. Goldsmith said she experienced this issue with her 8-year-old son, who has autism.

“We want to give families hope and know that something’s coming to help them meet their needs for their children,” Goldsmith said. “They have so much potential inside them; we just have to find a way to get in and unlock that potential.”

The organization plans to build a school facility off of FM 1488 between Sierra Woods and Superior Road in Magnolia and is slated to welcome students in fall 2022. The campus will accept students residing in seven local school districts, including Conroe, Klein, Magnolia, Montgomery, Spring, Tomball and Waller ISDs.

“This is where we first saw the need,” Goldsmith said. “Most of us reside in this area, and we saw the kids struggling and we wanted to help.”

While the school will start by offering multiage classes of kindergarten to fifth grade, grade levels will be added each year until accommodating students ages 3-21.

Adrienne Sodemann, a charter board and application team member with Thrive with Autism, said higher grade-level support for autism is unique to the school.

“We want to get a good model that works, and we can’t accommodate every grade level right away,” Sodemann said. “We need more support at the younger ages, but it just kind of fizzles out.”

According to Sodemann, the school plans to offer applied behavior analysis treatment to students in an academic setting. As a public school, the charter school will receive state and federal funding, allowing tuition to be free.

“This [school] gives [families] the opportunity to have access to the insurance-based therapists without having insurance or having to go broke trying to pay for it,” Sodemann said.

To satisfy the school’s foreign language requirement, Sodemann said American Sign Language will be offered to students.

“One of the stumbling blocks for children that have autism is communication,” Sodemann said. “They struggle with being able to speak; some are nonverbal, and so what sign language does is it gives them another avenue to communicate with their peers, with their teachers and everyone.”

Making plans

Goldsmith said Thrive with Autism submitted a 500-page charter school application in late January to the state and expects a decision later this summer.

In the meantime, the nonprofit is currently fundraising for a $1.5 million down payment on the land on which the facility will be built. The organization currently has a $200,000 pledge from nonprofit The Brown Foundation and has applied for a $900,000 grant offered by the Public Charter Startup Program, according to Goldsmith.

“[We’ve been] building our team, making connections, fundraising [and] reaching out to families to see what they would like to see in a school like ours and getting community support,” Goldsmith said.

Sodemann said the organization has been connecting with the community to get feedback from residents on what the school should look like. When the coronavirus pandemic made it difficult to conduct community outreach meetings in person, the nonprofit went virtual instead.

“Those [meetings] were so valuable to us because [families] ... were so honest with what their struggles were and giving us ideas of what worked and what they want to see,” Sodemann said.

Looking ahead, Thrive with Autism plans to open a second charter school in the Houston area by fall 2025. Sodemann said while the Houston campus will mirror the Magnolia campus model, it will start with a younger pool of students in kindergarten to fourth grade and service Alief, Fort Bend, Houston, Pasadena, Pearland and Spring Branch ISDs.

“There’s a greater need out there, and there’s ... greater struggles in general for families, so we want to get a good model going strong in Magnolia and then start small in Houston and just grow and build and make it as successful as we can,” Sodemann said.

Thrive with Autism