When Diane Fitzsimons, her husband Mike and two young boys moved to Ahwatukee in June 1986, they went looking for a preschool in which to enroll their youngest.
They found the small, four-room Ahwatukee Preschool at Mountain View Lutheran Church, the community’s first, and knew it was what they wanted.
It was even possible for the former Nebraska elementary school teacher of 16 years to be a substitute teacher in the then 5-year-old school.
That part-time position morphed into a full-time teaching berth and then, five years later, she was named director of the growing preschool.
Fitzsimons now finds it hard to believe 30 years have flown by, and on April 1, preschool alumni, parents and friends, coworkers and church members are gathering to celebrate her career and ministry.
Fitzsimons acknowledged that there have been numerous changes at the preschool. An addition increased the number of classrooms now serving 80 children, and upgrades to the building and the playground made the space better for all.
But there have been other subtler changes in 30 years, including the geographic area the preschool serves.
“Basically, everyone that used to come lived in Ahwatukee, or just across the freeway,” she said. “Now, we have children who have come from as far as Maricopa and Laveen. Also, many more cultures are represented in the diversity of the children.”
Today’s preschooler is also staying for longer hours, and with added programs like lunch bunch and extended care, those needs are accommodated, she said.
“And our curriculum has changed in that it’s a little bit more academic than it used to be. In all honesty, though, the philosophy has stayed the same,” she said. “We still want to have each child develop to their full potential during that one or two years they’re with us, help the families to work on their parenting skills, and to support those parents.”
Fitzsimons said she’s proud of the curriculum the school has developed, but foresees possible changes to that.
“A lot of preschools buy programs that they use for their curriculum, and I think it takes away the teachers’ creativity in some ways. Most preschools are moving in that direction, so that might happen,” she acknowledged.
Ahwatukee Preschool alumna Lauren Brown said she believes Fitzsimons gave her a wonderful start for the remainder of her education, which included Mountain Pointe High School (Class of 2011) and Arizona State University.
“I have a lot of great memories with Diane. I remember I used to call her my principal,” she laughed. “She affected so many lives; my brother Ryan went there, I went there, my mom (Beth Brown) teaches there. It’s come full circle.”
Post-retirement for Fitzsimons and her husband of nearly 40 years means doing more of what they love to do – go camping.
“We love traveling in our little trailer and most all of our trips have been to the west coast,” she said. “We’ve traveled most of the west coast; our son Scott lives in Portland and Brian is in Seattle. Now we’d like to travel east and to Canada, too, as I’m originally from Edmonton.”
And unlike past years where trips were done only during school breaks and during summer vacations, they can now do so any time of year they wish.
”There comes a time when you have to make a choice and with the 30th year anniversary at the preschool and our 40th wedding anniversary, this was the year to retire. And, my husband has been retired a couple years and he’s been encouraging me,” she chuckled.
Staff members learned of Fitzsimon’s retirement in February. For many, like Kris Roland and Leslie Franzmeier, the thought of her leaving is heart-rending.
“Working with parents, with children, and with teachers and trying to keep everyone happy, trying to see everyone’s viewpoint isn’t an easy task. This obviously takes a great deal of diplomacy and empathy, both of which Diane has in abundance,” observed Roland a teacher at Ahwatukee Preschool for 25 years.
“Diane is a quick thinker who gets to the heart of a problem in the blink of an eye,” she added.
Interaction with children, Roland said, is another Fitzsimons strong point.
”Every morning and afternoon she greets the children and their parents with true joy, and she knows the name of each child, as well as their personality,” she said.
For Leslie Franzmeier, who has worked alongside Fitzsimons at Ahwatukee Preschool for 14 years, the very mention of the pending retirement brings tears to her eyes.
“She is the easiest person to work for as she can see what we or the children need,” said Franzmeier. “She’s everyone’s listening ear and shoulder to lean on and cry on. Her calm demeanor is something we all strive for, and that is one of the keys to success of Ahwatukee Preschool.”