At age 3, they’re setting tables and clearing dishes for lunch.
At age 8, they’re organizing fund drives after their peers explain to them the plight of children with cancer.
At age 11, they’re booking school trips for themselves, lining up hotels, creating an itinerary and working up a budget.
These are the children who might become the part-time neighbors of residents in Ahwatukee Lakes Golf Club.
They are students at Desert Garden Montessori School, which would occupy five acres on the 101-acre site of the closed golf course as part of owner True Life Companies’ plan to create Ahwatukee Farms, an “agrihood” of homes, a professionally managed farm, café, farmers market, two lakes and a multi-purpose recreational path.
Shetal Walters, founder and director of Desert Garden Montessori, broke her silence last week to discuss the school after weeks of criticism by Lakes residents who oppose True Life and want the site restored as a golf course.
Opponents have claimed the plan will generate too much traffic and some have even suggested it would be a source of free child labor for the farm—allegations both True Life and Walters call preposterous.
The company that would run the farm itself, Farmer D Organics of Atlanta, Georgia, looks at the Desert Garden Montessori students as partners, not laborers.
Katie Pigott, landscape designer and community agriculture consultant for Farmer D, said, “The school gets to work side by side with us, not just on the agriculture part but the business side as well.”
Such seemingly adult activities are what Desert Garden Montessori has been preparing its students for since they could crawl.
“I feel like we’ve been a good service to the community from day one,” Walters said of the school she founded her home in 1996.
“Day one” isn’t something Walters will ever forget. On the day ground was broken for Desert Garden’s campus on Warner Road and 51st Street, two years after she started, her water broke. She gave birth to the second of her three children later that day.
Up until the campus opened, Walters had been running the school in her home, then another home, and then a third as her class grew.
Finally, she found the site that suited her needs.
Freedom of movement essential
“I’m not a developer, but I learned a lot about building permits, zoning and everything else associated with building,” Walters said.
The site offered Walters a chance to implement a philosophy that encourages children to appreciate and respect nature and the environment.
“The proper environment is as important as good teachers,” she said, “Development is all about movement. It’s important they have the freedom to move.”
That freedom translates into an atmosphere that’s markedly different from typical schools.
There are no exams or even report cards. Instead, teachers meet weekly with each of the approximate 285 students, who range from 6 months old to 11th grade. Teachers continually interact with parents to keep them posted on their children’s progress.
Even before first grade, the students become accustomed to developing a work plan for every week of class. Large group gatherings are limited to occasional presentations by teachers, and instead, the students essentially manage their own academic development and work both individually and in small groups.
Teachers have only 12 students each and stay with them for years. “Students don’t have the trauma of trying to get used to a new teacher every year,” Walters said.
Besides, she added, “we’re not really teachers, but guides. We’re very relational. When you think of it, they spend more time with us in some ways than they do with their families, so we become a family.”
From the time they can crawl, the youngest students spend class time in a room where all the furniture is their size. Instead of highchairs, they sit in specially made chairs that keep them upright but allow them to walk away from a low table anytime they want.
They don’t nap in cribs, but on small mattresses on the floor. Walters successfully lobbied the state Legislature two years ago to relax a law that had required cribs.
And they never drink from bottles with nipples or cups with lids. They drink from tiny glasses.
Self-sufficiency taught early on
As they get older, the students start engaging in activities not normally expected in children their age.
The toddler class, 18 months to 3 years old, set their table for lunch, clear the dishes afterward and wash and put them away.
“They become self-sufficient because they’re given the opportunity to be so,” Walters said. “It’s adults who put limits on children.”
By the time they are in first or second grade, the students are researching projects as part of their lessons.
Amie Murray, 8, is planning to hold a toy drive that would collect money to connect a cancer-stricken child with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, because she was moved by a presentation about children with cancer that had been given by a classmate.
Soon, Amie and her classmates will be planning a trip. Students have gone to places including Hawaii, Costa Rica and San Diego as part of their learning.
But it’s the student’s responsibility, not the school’s, to develop the itinerary. “They have to create a budget, make hotel reservations and do everything else involved in planning a trip,” Walters said, adding that the children enjoy the challenge so much that many handle trip planning for their families.
One glaring omission among the children in lower grades is an emphasis on technology. Aside from one computer in the classroom, children learn from books and not screens. Cell phones are banned.
“We embrace technology where it is relevant,” Walters said. “But there is no substitute for literature in books.”
Opposing viewpoints on traffic
The emphasis on self-sufficiency has even given birth to a small coffee shop called the Garden Café, which serves organically grown coffee to teachers ($1) and parents ($2).
Students in the 11-to 13-year age bracket run the shop independently, from ordering product to working as staff before and after school. They also maintain inventory and control budgets.
The problem Walters is wrestling with involves space. Of the 285 students, 37 are in grades 7 to 11. They work at a satellite campus that’s little more than a few offices in a strip mall. Walters would like to start a 12th grade, but she has no room.
“We are using every inch of space,” she explained, pointing to planters hanging in some classrooms because the school’s garden isn’t as big as needed.
Walters had approached True Life shortly after the company bought the Ahwatukee Lakes golf course to find out if it was willing to sell some land for a new campus.
“As we started to get to know each other, we mutually discovered a much larger opportunity than just a land sale,” said Aidan Barry, senior vice president/development for True Life.
“We saw the beginnings of a partnership in creating a community hub by master planning the next campus of the Desert Garden Montessori School in conjunction with our community-supported agriculture concept,” he continued. “In essence, the birth of Ahwatukee Farms.”
Walters wants to keep the youngest children at the Elliot Road campus and use the Ahwatukee Farms school for students 7 years old and older. She envisions an enrollment there of 400 to 450 students.
Opponents of Ahwatukee Farms have argued that would generate intolerable levels of traffic in the Lakes community, particularly since Mountain Pointe High School is nearby, with scores of students who drive and dozens of school buses going in and out of that campus daily.
Walters said class day start and end times are staggered, partly to accommodate parents’ schedules, but also because she believes that children should not have to wake up too early in the day. It disrupts their learning ability, she believes.
Barry said opponents are premature in their judgments about traffic, stating that True Life “performed a due-diligence level of traffic analysis” before it even bought the golf course.
Although the company “concluded that the streets and intersections had adequate capacity to handle the additional trips that would be generated by our project,” he noted it will have to prepare “a very specific and detailed traffic study which will analyze, at a granular level, all the current traffic flows.”
He said that by studying actual trips generated by each component of the Farms, “this process will conclude with an understanding of the project’s impacts to existing intersections and roadways. That will translate into required mitigation measures and conditions of approval so that the intersections continue to flow consistent with the city’s standards and guidelines.”
As for the farm itself, Walters envisions its usefulness in two ways.
First, it will supply the school cafeteria with fresh produce, since the kitchen already uses organic ingredients for lunches.
Second, it will give the students more exposure to nature on a daily basis, since they would be able to grow more vegetables and flowers than they currently can at the tiny garden of their current campus.
As Walters declares on True Life’s website, Ahwatukee Farms would be “providing our children with the opportunity to learn about farming, sustainability, and so much more as part of a 21st century education.”