Desert Garden Montessori started small, with 10 students gathering in owner Shetal Walters’ living room about 14 years ago.

Since then, the school has blossomed into 250 preschool through sixth-grade students at its own location in Ahwatukee Foothills. And now, Walters hopes the school grows even more.

Desert Garden kicked off an effort to raise money to expand its current facility and eventually open a new location this week. The school will need that additional space, since middle school grades are added to the program this fall.

Walters explained the Montessori approach as inquiry-based, applied learning that empowers students. Students will take a big question – for instance, how water loss affects a community – then use that question to explore history, literature, math and other subjects.

A math approach could involve students identifying water sources for a particular village, calculating how much water that village would need and identifying how the actions of other communities could affect the water supply, Walters said.

“It’s not about fact finding and regurgitation,” she continued. “It’s relevant to their life. They answer the questions with us as guides.”

That’s an approach parent Katrina Ontiveros likes. Ontiveros drives two of her children to Desert Garden Montessori from Laveen, and her third child will start in the toddler program this fall.

Ontiveros, who taught in a local school district for about four years before becoming an entrepreneur, said Desert Garden Montessori is more individualized and plays to children’s individual strengths in a way traditional classrooms don’t.

For instance, students who are drawn to books can focus on books, while kids who are drawn to the outdoors can incorporate that into their learning, she said. At the same time, students are challenged to try new things.

Ontiveros believes that the environment has had a positive effect on her children.

“Everywhere we go, people comment that my kids are more mature than their age,” she said. “Well, that’s because they’re treated like adults. They’re respected.”

Walters tried to start a middle school program last year but was only able to attract five students.

This year, school staff made a concerted effort to bring people in for tours and build partnerships with community groups, including individuals in environmental movements and groups like Save the Family.

Walters said that has made a difference in encouraging people to try something new and look at Montessori. She already has 12 spots filled and, while she needs to have at least 25 seventh- and eighth-graders, she’s willing to take more.

Plans are for Desert Garden to grow as those additional students come in. The school needs to raise nearly $600,000 to add about 6,600 square feet to its current building, which Walters hopes to have completed in 2011.

And once that goal is accomplished, Walters would like to build a new campus nearby just off of Warner and Priest roads.

The new facility, which would include features like community gardens and areas for student-run businesses, would eventually house elementary through high school students, Walters said. The current building would remain for toddler and kindergarten programs.

Walters would like that new building to open in 2012, but timing, size and ultimate cost of the project will depend on financial support from the community.

Desert Garden Montessori is hosting tours for prospective families and others interested in the school. The next tours will be from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. April 6 and 9 at the school, 5130 E. Warner Road.

Future tour dates and information about tuition, scholarships and admission is online at www.desertgardenmontessori.org.

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