Desert Garden Montessori in Ahwatukee recently celebrated its 15-year anniversary and invited its families to celebrate the successes of the school.

The celebration was at director Shetal Walters’ home, where more than 200 people showed up to celebrate the longevity of Desert Garden.

The school began in 1996 when Walters noticed there was a need in the community for an institute for children to expand their education.

“It started in my home with 12 kids. This was not my passion in life, I just wanted to respond to a need in the community… and then it turned into becoming my passion,” she said.

Slowly Walters and her team began expanding the schools into different houses around the community, and eventually were unable to run the business because of homeowners associations’ rules.

It was a blessing in disguise because it provided a chance to look at the bigger picture about the school and figure out where it would land, Walters said.

She and her staff would meet at Ironwood Library in Ahwatukee every Thursday and hosted different presentations on the vision they had for the school and what they were going to provide to their students.

In March 1999 Walters and her team were able to move in to their current location off Warner Road, where she said was not the perfect timing to open up a school.

“March is not a good time to open up a school because the school year ends in May. We opened up with 75 students,” she said.

Despite opening at a bad time, when the new school year came around in August, the school’s enrollment increased to 175 students.

The school began teaching primarily toddlers through 6 year olds, and in 2001 Desert Garden slowly evolved into an infant and elementary program.

“We were completely full with the waiting list. There used to be a line out front with people camping overnight, trying to get into the school,” Walters said. “It was quite an amazing experience just by doing the right thing.”

At this point there are about 275 students enrolled at Desert Garden, out of which 120 students are from first grade and up.

“For us we revere every child as an individual. They’re taught as an individual, they’re respected, they’re celebrated as an individual and then they flourished because they feel esteemed from inside and out,” Walters said. “They’re empowered and every kid feels like they can… it’s not about what can you do to show me that you’re not going to fail, but what can you show me that’s inside of you that I can grow from and learn from.”

First- through third-grade teacher, Jill Carson, has been with Desert Garden since its birth and said the school has grown into something beautiful.

“It’s been a fun journey to see the school grow, to start from very humble beginnings, to be in this type of environment is amazing,” Carson said. “It’s been really such a blessing to see this journey, and it was all a vision that Shetal had. I remember meeting in a living room about the vision, and 15 years later who would have thought that this is where we would be. The dream continues.”

Currently, Desert Garden is working toward expanding its program to the high school level, and Walters said that school would be looking to open in August 2015.

• Contact writer: (480) 898-4903 or dochoa@ahwatukee.com.

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