For the last 25 years, a school in Ahwatukee has been doing things a little bit differently.
In the middle of their five-acre campus, local plants and wind chimes are scattered across an open courtyard, where even in the middle of the school day students can be seen freely walking around campus.
In every classroom, each student cares for a class pet, such as a bird, lizard, or chinchilla.
Windowed garage doors take the place of a wall in each classroom, filling each room with natural light. When the weather permits, these doors open, and students can feel the fresh air while they learn through hands-on experience.
This is Keystone Montessori, one of the first Montessori schools in Ahwatukee, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.
“Montessori really boils down to the ability to allow children to learn how to learn. They become the caretakers of their education,” said Heather Bonacorda, the admissions and marketing director for Keystone Montessori.
The charter school was born in the living room of Sherri Sampson’s home in 1995. After moving with her family to Ahwatukee, Sampson wanted to enroll her children in a Montessori school, but the only local school could not accept any more students.
Eventually, she was teaching 13 preschoolers in her living room, with one of her children’s rooms serving as a nap room, and the other serving as the aftercare room.
Two years later, the school expanded to a nearby church, where they began accepting elementary school students. In 2000, they moved to the campus where they have been ever since.
“It was a very young community, so there were a lot of young children that were needing places and there wasn’t that much available,” said Cindy Maschoff, the administrative advisor who has worked at Keystone since 1998.
Montessori schools were developed by Maria Montessori, who opened the first school bearing her name in 1907.
Students at Montessori schools are divided into multi-age classrooms, where they remain for three years, starting as the youngest student in the classroom, and eventually becoming the oldest.
Unlike traditional schools, Montessori classrooms don’t have rows of desks with a teacher at the front. Instead, students work in small groups, while a teacher moves around the room, working with individual students.
“How we learn as human beings, for the most part, doesn’t change. Yes, the technology has changed, so we have to adapt with that,” said Laura Hertzler, the current Head of School. “It feels homey, so they don’t miss the electronics and things. It really sparks their creativity.”
Students are divided up into four different programs. The Toddler Program is for ages 15 months to three years and the Children’s House is for ages three to six. In both, classes are bilingual, as students are taught in both English and Spanish.
The Elementary Program is divided into two groups, the Lower Elementary is children ages six to nine, and the Upper Elementary is children ages nine to 12. The oldest students are part of the Adolescent Program, which is for ages 12 to 15.
Many of the staff members at Keystone have worked at the school for years and have seen the school grow into what it is today.
Yoo-Kyung Yoo is a Lower Elementary teacher, who has been with Keystone since its founding. After enrolling her daughter in the first preschool class, she began working as a classroom assistant,and was later asked to become a classroom lead.
Originally from South Korea, Yoo said she grew up in a very structured school system, and when she sent her daughter to a Montessori school, she became passionate about the school and its unique curriculum.
Twenty-five years later, Yoo said she still has that passion, “I feel like it’s my second home for me and my family,” she added.
Like Yoo, Maschoff has been with Keystone for over 20 years. Throughout these years, Ahwatukee has been growing and changing, but Maschoff said the key focus of the school has not changed.
“Through the years there’s always changes and different trends. We just focus back on what our true beliefs are, educating the whole child, and that involves establishing relationships with children, with parents, and the community,” Maschoff said.
With it being the school’s 25th year of operation, staff members said they are planning to celebrate. Although they don’t have any solid plans yet, they said that they will have something planned for the spring.
Information: keystonemontessori.com, 480-460-7312