This was supposed to be a joyous week for Sean Michael Diana as he opened his Amici Trilingual Montessori school, a first-of-a-kind in Ahwatukee because it offers a three-language immersion program for infants up to age 6.
But instead of the sounds of little voices learning Mandarin, Spanish and English, the school at 1244 E. Chandler Blvd. has been filled with the noise of dehumidifiers — and the opening delayed — after a city water main break seriously damaged a room Aug. 15.
“It’s terrible,” said Diana, who has prepping the building for months, making the long roundtrip between Ahwatukee and north Phoenix, where his other Montessori school, Beibei Amigos, is located.
The pipe broke behind the school around 9 a.m. last Thursday, releasing a geyser of water that gushed over a wall and into the school’s infant room.
“I had to rip out the new floor and put in a dehumidifier, and check to see if water got under the floors of any of the other rooms,” Diana said.
Although the city sent him a claim, Diana is still totaling the damages.
Along with the physical damage, “there’s teacher wages and parents’ tuition,” Diana said.
Plus, he’ll need to have the place re-inspected before he can get his daycare license back.
The break occurred at a time when the city’s deteriorating infrastructure has been front and center in Phoenix in advance of next Tuesday’s election involving two propositions.
One addresses the future of light rail and whether that program should be discontinued and the money diverted to fixing city streets.
Prop 105 doesn’t affect the aging infrastructure for the city’s water delivery system. That was an issue the Phoenix Water Services Department addressed when it obtained City Council approval early this year for back-to-back water rate increases this year and next.
But the break is another reminder of the challenges confronting the city as it grapples with maintaining vital services, especially as its infrastructure ages.
A reported 4,000 waterline breaks occur annually in Phoenix, and city officials last year said the rate increases this year and next will help it expand its pipe replacement program.
The other proposition has also fueled debate over city services.
Among other things, Prop 106 would limit the growth of the city budget to population plus inflation until its whopping $5 billion pension deficit is under control.
Although proponents have noted it exempts the budgets for police and fire from this growth limit, opponents of Prop 106 say it would trigger draconian cuts in city services.
Frustrated by the damage to his school, Diana isn’t focusing on these political debates and city issues.
He just wants to open another school that, like BeiBei Amigos, offers a unique variation on the Montessori program — which fosters teacher- and self-initiated education experiences aimed at teaching children early on how to be problem solvers and lifelong learners.
Both his schools have a full-language-immersion curriculum along with a Chinese and Hispanic multicultural curriculum that includes language, vocabulary, songs, art and music.
Each classroom at Amici has a Mandarin, Spanish and English native speaking Montessori teacher along with two assistants.
“We teach the three languages when the brain is hardwiring for languages,” he explained. “Children do not have any problem in this window of time between birth and age 7 to learn any language and many more. At this time, they learn native fluency.”
Nor do the students just get exposed to those languages in school.
“Our students take trips to China and Mexico each year, and my oldest student, he is now in seventh grade, spends a few weeks in China each year with a host family,” he said.
Diana’s career in education is diverse — and international. He moved to Phoenix from Chicago in 2002 but has lived in Spain, Costa Rica and the United Arab Emirates.
He interrupted his doctoral studies in bilingual education at Arizona State University to serve as Head of Faculty in the United Arab Emirates, supervising English teachers from around the world.
A faculty member at Grand Canyon University’s College of Education, where he teaches aspiring teachers, he started BeiBei Amigos when his son was born.
“I started to think about, what can I give to my son and other children to be successful in the future? What skills will they need to be competitive in the 21st century? I decided on the three most spoken languages in the world,” he explained.
“Then I added yoga, ballet and now computer coding. I am constantly looking to the future to prepare our students to be super kids.”
He is not unaccustomed to challenges.
Shortly after he opened his BeiBei Amigos 11 years ago, he abruptly was confronted by the Great Recession. “Everyone was losing their jobs, and no one needed child care,” he recalled.
His entry into Ahwatukee — a competitive landscape for Montessori schools — hasn’t been easy either.
“It was difficult finding the right space,” he said, adding he hopes to eventually moved into the community with his wife and two children.
“Montessori needs bathrooms in every classroom and the building that I finally found was a former Montessori, call Educare Montessori. The outdoor play area is also large.”
He felt fortunate that he also found a competent staff — three Montessori teachers from the graduating class of the Southwest Institute of Montessori Studies.
“Two are Chinese,” he said. “It is very hard to find Chinese Montessori trained teachers.”
With an eye toward eventually offering Mandarin and Spanish classes for children older than 6, Diana has been dealing with his share of challenges.
“It is challenging to get students in this area,” he said. “There are a lot of Montessori schools.”
Nonetheless, he said, he’ll press on.
“I am bullish on opening this school, no other school exists like it in Arizona,” he said. “I am providing the richest cutting-edge early childhood education in the state.”