Dobson Montessori Elementary and Junior High School is a farm-like oasis surrounded by densely packed apartment complexes across from a city park in Mesa. You can’t even see the school from the street. The simple, unadorned buildings are surrounded by lush vegetation. As you walk through a small office area to the courtyard connecting the classroom buildings, you see citrus trees dotting the playground. You hear the soft sounds of bleating goats, chickens scratching in the dirt and children laughing. You immediately start taking slower, deeper breaths.
This calm but vibrant place of collaborative teaching and learning is one of three Montessori schools owned and operated by Suzanne Woodford and her husband Michael. Their two grown sons teach here, as does their daughter-in-law.
The journey that brought them together began 48 years ago—with square dancing lessons.
Suzanne was attending Arcadia High School. Michael was at Camelback. They might never have met had Suzanne’s parents not decided that, with their children getting older, they needed to pursue a new interest.
They picked square dancing classes, where they immediately clicked with another couple that attended a church where the husband was a youth minister.
Her parents came home one night and said, “‘You should come to this social function [at the church]’ and I was like, ‘Wrong!’” Suzanne says, recalling her teenage reaction. But her parents persisted; they went to the church and Suzanne got involved in the youth group. She met Michael during group activities—volleyball, outings for Mexican food—and before she knew it he was waiting for her in the parking lot after school “and we’d go get ice cream at Dairy Queen.”
“We were high school sweethearts and we got married when we were 19,” she says, then gasps. “You don’t have to print that—bad example!”
Not in this case. The Woodfords have been married for 44 years.
She is the lively, vivacious one; he is more quiet and contemplative, happy to let her tell the story of their shared history, chiming in occasionally with quiet, comedic zingers.
Suzanne started her career in public education. It didn’t take long before she found herself frustrated by the demands of large classes and a rigid structure. “There were some kids that you knew if you could just spend 15 more minutes with them you could break through” and others who were bored and needed to be accelerated. “But there wasn’t a lot of room for creativity—you had to stick to the program,” she says. “When I had children of my own, I knew I wanted something different. I started investigating alternative education and found Montessori. It was a good fit with what I believed about children and education.”
Michael was working as a psychiatric counselor to children with “problems so severe that they got better, but not a lot better,” Suzanne says. The work was exhausting and demanding, with few moments of satisfaction from the effort. Michael reached a point where he wasn’t feeling that great about his effort at the end of the day.
“It became my dream that we would have our own school,” Suzanne says. “So I did the [Montessori] training and an internship. My friend Judy Pemberton [who owns Arcadia Montessori School in Phoenix] mentored me.”
The Woodfords bought a piece of property, drew up plans and put out bids to contractors. The bids came in twice as high as they could afford. So they went to the library and checked out all the books they could find about contracting. Though they were both still working their other jobs, they’d spend hours reading at night so they could learn enough to contract the building themselves.
“Every morning I’d put on my contractor’s boots and off we’d go,” says Suzanne.
“And it’s still standing!” says Michael with a smile. That first preschool/kindergarten program opened in 1980 with 10 kids. Michael still directs and teaches at the school (which is now a preschool), located at 1130 S. San Jose in Mesa. Teaching this age group answered his need to feel like he was making a real difference in a child’s life. He still finds it “exciting and rewarding to see that light go off as they begin to think on their own, interact with each other and be part of a group, but still maintain that individual essence.”
After the first couple of years they had a waiting list for enrollment and decided they needed more space. The goal was to add a grade each year. They found a house on the border of Mesa and Tempe but feared they’d never get it past Tempe’s stringent zoning code.
Michael started attending city council meetings, where he discovered that one member of the council was a Montessori education advocate. The request to convert the house into a school was passed.
When they had first, second and third grade classes full at that location (3249 S. Birchett Dr. in Tempe, which now houses the kindergarten program), Suzanne was content. Then came the day her friend Judy “came busting into the classroom” to announce that the Casa Montessori campus in Mesa was up for sale. Suzanne didn’t think she wanted any more schools. Her friend urged her to take a look.
The Woodfords bought the property the same day it went up for sale, negotiating a favorable deal with the former owner, “who had put her lifeblood into starting this campus and wanted someone to carry on the Montessori philosophy,” Suzanne says. The campus now houses 1st through 9th grades.
Trevor Woodford, who shares his mother’s outgoing, exuberant personality, picks up the story.
“I continually missed out on the entire adventure,” he says. “I was in grade school when they opened the preschool. When I was in high school, they opened the grade school.” Still, he spent a lot of time on the campuses, serving as a mentor, math tutor, playground supervisor and, as his mom says laughingly, “slave labor.”
Trevor describes his brother Rylan as “the privileged one” who attended preschool through junior high at his family’s Montessori schools. The teasing is good-natured; Trevor doesn’t feel slighted.
“We stress Montessori in the home, so I still grew up as a Montessori kid even though I went to public [elementary and high] school,” he says. He was homeschooled through junior high, though “home” was the school where he now teaches. “I’d work part-time with the kids and then go do my own work. I still feel like I got the Montessori upbringing.”
Rylan says having his parents as teachers conveyed many benefits, including extra one-on-one tutoring at home. He has many fond memories of playing on the playground, learning sandpaper letters (a Montessori method emphasizing tactile learning) and participating in “lots of projects,” including pulling taffy.
“Good times,” Rylan recalls, smiling. His manner, like his dad’s, is thoughtful and gentle natured.
Suzanne urges Rylan to share the story of the rooster.
“We raised chickens and my chicken’s name was Tynan,” he says. “It was a male rooster; he kind of ruled the yard. I loved that chicken. But it crowed all the time….”
When neighbors in the apartment complex started to complain, Suzanne had two options: find a new home for Tynan or get him “de-crowed.” She knew Rylan would be heartbroken to lose his rooster, so she drove across town to the only vet who would perform the procedure and spent $250 to have it done.
“A new chicken would have been $5,” Trevor says.
“It made this pathetic sound afterward,” adds Suzanne, mimicking the scratchy, but much subdued, noise.
As Rylan and Trevor finished college, they came back to the family’s schools to teach. Then Trevor met Heather…“and we absorbed her!” Michael says.
Rylan actually met Heather first, at an evening acting studio. When Rylan told his family how much fun the class was, Suzanne and Trevor decided to give it a try. They invited Heather to visit the middle school campus; she fell in love. And not just with Trevor.
“I saw the animals, the open space in the classrooms, instruments like pianos and drums…and even though there were apartments surrounding us it felt very secluded, like we had our own farm. It’s fresh and clean; you can smell the flowers and the animals. I fell in love with the whole environment. I thought this would be the perfect place to work.” She also was intrigued by “this whole ‘working as a family’ thing.”
“And now you’re trapped!” her husband adds.
Her next contribution will be the baby son she and Trevor are expecting in August.
“The baby will come to work with me,” she says. Her mother-in-law/boss is just fine with that. The school already has a resident baby in Zachary, the son of a former student-turned-teacher.
“You shouldn’t have to choose between having a career and being a great mother,” Suzanne says. “Our society needs to support each other as a community. Having Zachary here has never been a disturbance. The other children adore him. And the [students’] families have been very supportive. Practical life is very much a part of Montessori teaching.”
Most adult children couldn’t imagine spending so much time with their parents. These five adults get along so well that they even take vacations together! So you can’t help but ask, “What’s your secret?”
“We never really had those typical teen years…we never rebelled,” Trevor begins. Heather picks up from there.
“Knowing Suzanne and how she and Michael are together, and the way that Suzanne runs this [middle school] program—which is usually when all that stuff starts—she’s upfront with them. She lets them be who they are but she doesn’t let them get away with acting like jerks. Be yourself, experience new things, figure out where you fit in but you still need to be a decent person to other people and you still need to be responsible. It sets the tone. They have freedom…but they have structure and stability.”
The middle school students undertook all the planning and fundraising for a group trip to New York City in March. The primary and intermediate students swashbuckled through “As You Like It” at Chandler Center for the Arts in May. Setting high goals “challenges them, but in a good way,” Suzanne says. “It makes them feel more personally responsible.”
Planning trips and performing Shakespeare may not have been what Maria Montessori had in mind when she conceived her education philosophy but Suzanne, who started out as a “Montessori purist,” has adapted the curriculum to meet the changing needs of students, society and technology.
“I remember coming across a quote from Maria Montessori that was something like this: ‘If you want to follow my philosophy, you must follow the child,’” she says. Now her children are following her.