Francie Austin's commitment to special education students began when she completed a degree in Speech Pathology and Audiology at the University of Colorado. Francie's clinical experience gave her the opportunity to work with deaf children and she found their challenges to be monumental. She subsequently completed a masters in special education with an emphasis on Education for the Deaf at Smith College. After teaching in Denver Public Schools, Francie moved to Arizona and was disheartened to discover that there were no requirements for the districts to provide an education to students with special needs. As a result, Francie was privileged to be a leader in the statewide campaign to implement legislation requiring school districts to educate special education students in the state of Arizona. For five years Francie served as the director of special education in Creighton School District and later became a principal, assistant superintendent, associate superintendent, and superintendent of that district. Afterward Francie developed the Tesseract School in Paradise Valley where she served as the executive director for four years.
Approximately 20 years ago Francie Austin and her husband, Gene Austin, fulfilled their lifetime commitment to students with special needs by creating The Austin Centers for Exceptional Students. Throughout her educational career Francie has been committed to the students whose disabilities and behavior impeded their ability to learn. Gene's professional background was in special-education administration and the implementation of educational and therapeutic programs in psychiatric hospitals. Together they developed a vision and subsequently a model of a school that would provide the optimum opportunity for students with emotional disabilities, autism, intellectual disabilities and behavioral challenges. At a time when many of their friends were looking forward to retirement, Gene and Francie committed to open a school dedicated to finding the best way for every student to learn in a therapeutic environment enriched by caring, forgiveness, academic individualization and positive behavior supports. The underpinning of The ACES is a sense of family and connectivity that children find in an immediate and extended family of people who genuinely love and care about them. The first ACES facility was in a small rented church in Glendale with approximately twenty students and a commitment to hire the most effective and capable professionals to serve them. The ACES maintains that same commitment today. Since 1995 the Austin Centers for Exceptional Students has grown to three campuses serving approximately 600 students and having a staff of nearly 300 people. It is the largest special-education provider in the state of Arizona and now serves students with a wide variety of disabilities sent from 65 different school districts and charter schools.
Speaking about her love for special education, Francie stated, "Approximately 45 years ago I began my career working with children and every day I would bound out of bed with enthusiasm to go to school because I loved my work. I feel exactly the same way today and consider it a personal privilege to be able to assist students who overcome their challenges and are able to live successful and productive lives." Francie said of her life, "My beloved husband died in 2005 of pancreatic cancer. My work at The ACES was my personal salvation during the years preceding and after his death. In 2013 I remarried a wonderful man who is completely supportive of my commitment to children. We have a rescued Golden retriever named Danbi, an older horse named Wildfire, and a combination of eight children and 15 grandchildren. My life has been richly blessed."