From left, Stepping Stones Learning Center students Isaac Etzel and Penny Neimann focus on an activity while support staff specialist Kathy Turley works with Luke Dolson, at rear. [Brian Petersheim Jr.]

Stepping Stones Learning Center has a new home.

But, as Anna Hart, the school’s founder and executive director pointed out, it is not her home, and that is important.

Her inclusionary K-5 program, which uses the Montessori approach to teach students with special needs, including autism and dyslexia, has moved into part of the former Electrical District No. 3 office in the Maricopa Manor Business Center. The school launched in 2013 and she had taught students out of her home for several years.

Hart, a fellow teacher and a support staff person are currently teaching nine students from an 1,100-square-foot office, though nearly all learning activities take place in one of two classrooms – about 800 square feet of the total space.

With space already a bit tight, she is looking for more space, either in the larger, front suite of the old ED3 office or in a larger suite elsewhere. Moreover, Hart is planning to take on 2-3 more K-2 students in the next school year and looking at hiring a second general education teacher and another support staffer.

“It does feel like a small space,” she said. “If I had all the money in the world, I would have a huge space, but I have to balance the overhead with the income. I’ve had people I know approach me, people I have had relationships with before, like with their older kiddos or people interested in the program, so I know I’m going to need more space.”

The transition to a new facility is an important step forward for Hart and her students.

“A public location offers a level of professionalism and transparency,” she said. “Parents of my students can walk into the classroom anytime to see what’s going on.

“I don’t know we had that same feeling when it was in my house,” she continued. “Oftentimes, people would (feel like they had to) knock on my door because it’s my house. So, we have that more professional feel now.”

Hart fervently believes all children deserve a quality opportunity to learn, and her passion for special education reflects that conviction. Stepping Stones currently employs a two-pronged, two-teacher approach — she is a licensed special educator with a specialty in autism and speech therapies and Karen Wood is a certified Montessori teacher — that offers a curriculum tailored to address the individual needs of their students.

Music therapist Kelly West, left, plays guitar while students, from top to bottom, Katrina Veronko, John Veronko, Alberto Gurule and Aaliyah Elliot play their own instruments. [Brian Petersheim Jr.]
Inclusionary program

On a recent day at the school, several students worked on their skills in one classroom. In another room, others gathered around a guitar-playing music therapist with their own instruments.

“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,” Hart has said. She 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 is currently working on a dissertation on co-teaching.

An Arizona-certified special educator, she is a licensed speech-language pathologist assistant. Her mission includes helping parents to recognize quality special education. It’s a vital part of the process, she said, because Arizona has so little regulation of education.

Hart is always looking for ways to improve the educational experience for her students.

Anna Hart, the school’s founder and special education teacher, works with student Logan Goettl at the new location. [Brian Petersheim Jr.]
She is in the process of writing a $3 million National Science Foundation grant application to make science curriculum accessible to all learners.

“We’re modifying a science curriculum for 3rd through 5th grades in public school and modifying it so that every learner in a school can utilize that,” she explained. If the study is accepted and funded, “I can take the materials, concepts and support and all the great things we’re finding in the research and implementing it into my program.

“That would give my kids a lot of resources that might be a selling point in terms of my program,” she added.

A second grant application focuses on teaching computer science.

Hart currently awaits IRS approval of 501c3 status for her non-profit entity, Stepping Stones Educational Services, to facilitate tax-deductible donations and redirection of tax dollars to the organization. That would make it possible for her to use donations to offer scholarships or fund capital projects, like a playground for her kiddos, she said.

Stepping Stones Learning Center
19756 N. John Wayne Pkwy., Suite 104