Anna Hart believes all children deserve a quality opportunity to learn, and her passion for special education reflects that conviction.
“I just don’t think there’s anyone worth overlooking, nobody, and I mean that at all
levels,” she said.
For several years the educator has operated Stepping Stones Learning Center, an inclusionary K-5 program that uses the Montessori approach to teach students with special needs, including autism and dyslexia. The two-pronged, two-teacher approach — Hart is a licensed special educator with a specialty in autism and speech therapies and Karen Wood is a certified Montessori teacher — offers a curriculum tailored to address the individual needs of their students. An aide rounds out the team.
A couple of years ago, Hart was teaching by herself when she realized she needed more
help. Through a bit of luck, she connected with Wood, whom she called a “blessing” and an
“amazing educator” who is knowledgeable, patient and flexible.
“I decided to hire a teacher and she’s Montessori-certified so we could teach together,” Hart said of Wood. “I don’t have to know Montessori curriculum, thank goodness, because it’s too much to do. She tells me the scope and sequence of the curriculum and I make the modifications and scaffolding (instruction built on prior knowledge) for each one of the students.”
Established in 2013, the school provides educational services to students with special
needs and students with typical needs in preschool and early elementary grades. It also provides speech/language services, daycare and after-school care. The school has operated out of Hart’s home for five years.
But when the new school year starts later this summer, Hart will have a bigger space that will allow her to take on several more students. She has signed a lease for about 2,000 square feet of space in the old Electrical District No. 3 building in the Maricopa Manor Business Center.
“We’re very excited because we’ll have more workspaces and quiet spaces, more space
for activities and exploration of materials,” she said. “And everybody will be in the same
classroom. It will be a more professional atmosphere and the kids will have ownership of the space.”
In recent weeks, Hart has begun the process of setting up a nonprofit called Stepping Stones Educational Services to facilitate community donations and redirection of tax dollars to the organization.
Hart said she still wants the school program to remain small, so each child gets the attention they need as unique learners.
‘A FANTASTIC TEAM’
“They are exceptional teachers,” said Angela Garcia, an Eloy mother of two boys who have
been learning with Hart and Wood. “They go above and beyond just teaching. It’s just
absolutely amazing what they do.”
Her sons — Marcus, 11, is dyslexic, and Daniel, 9, is on the autism spectrum — have
attended Stepping Stones for two years. Garcia said Marcus was just being passed along year to year at local schools, unable to read effectively in the 4th grade. After two years at Hart’s school, he is making significant progress and growing in his confidence, she said. And Daniel now has a teacher who can teach at his level.
“They have come such a long way,” Garcia said of her sons, who will continue at the school
for as long as they can.
The boys are among six students who attended the school this year. From 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. four days a week, the students learned math and reading in the morning and science and social studies in the afternoon.
Logan Goettl, who is nearly 13, has been working with Hart for about a decade. He has cerebral palsy and is speech-delayed, said his mother Carrie. He started out in preschool, then started tutoring with Hart.
At a Montessori school, Logan thrived with the approach to learning, but not the school. When Hart decided to create a school combining special education and Montessori methods, Logan was one of her first students.
“It’s been such a blessing in our lives,” Carrie Goettl said. “Logan loves to go there. All the kids get along so great. My son has met some great friends there.”
Goettl marveled at the great patience some of Logan’s friends show with him, explaining he
uses a device to communicate. The multi-disciplined approach to learning has worked for Logan, she said.
“Together, they just make a fantastic team,” she said of the teaching tandem, highlighting
their ability to be “loving and strict” at the same time.
A SILVER LINING
Hart’s approach is built on the idea that special needs students work alongside their
neurotypical peers, with both groups learning from each other.
“I really believe in inclusionary education, that children should be educated with their
neurotypical peers both for the benefit of the neurotypical peer and for the child with
special needs,” said Hart, who grew up with a sister on the autism spectrum.
Hart has an undergraduate degree in early childhood special education and communication disorders from Boston University as well as a graduate degree in curriculum and instruction for students with special needs from Johnson State College. She has also completed coursework in applied behavior analysis and been trained in the Treatment and Education of Autistic and Communication Handicapped Children, or TEACHH, program.
An Arizona certified special educator, she is a licensed speech-language pathologist assistant. Part of her mission is preparing parents how to recognize quality special education. It’s a vital part of the process, she said, because Arizona has so little regulation of education.
“So, you can send your child (to a school) and the only recourse you have is the same if
you got a bad cup of coffee — you just don’t go there anymore,” she said. “But now you’ve
wasted a year or two or three of your child’s education and, on top of that, these are children with special needs. They’re already behind the eight ball.”
Though not required by the state, Hart sets goals for her students, uses research-based intervention and tracks data-driven results. The lack of regulation has a silver lining: it allows Hart to be innovative in her approach.
“I’m trying to impart that level of seriousness that goes into education that’s getting completely missed,” she said. “It is very, very scary.”
“I feel obligated to my students and I want to do what’s absolutely best for them. And I want them to have a future that’s bright and good.”
Maricopan since: 2010
Neighborhood: The Villages
Occupation: Owner/Special Educator, Stepping Stones Learning Center
Family: Husband Josh works at Hexcel in Casa Grande; son Jake, 14, and daughter Abbey, 16, attend Desert Vista High School
Educational philosophy: Research-based approaches to teaching all learners. Data dictates progression of teaching. Educational modalities utilized: Montessori, Applied Behavior Analysis, TEACCH, Social Thinking, Orton-Gillingham.
Out of the classroom: Walking, biking, staying active, and traveling and enjoying new foods!
This story appears in the June issue of InMaricopa magazine.