My name is Jessica Spada and I have been working with children, ages 6 weeks through 13, for over 20 years. Children have held a special place in my heart for as long as I can remember. And ever since receiving my Master’s in Early Childhood Education, this has been my one and only career, by choice. Seeing the world through a child’s eye and being able to share these monumental, life changing experiences with them and their families is priceless. Creating an environment and curriculum that embraces and develops key life and self-help skills, builds confidence, a sense of community and giving back is essential to developing a well-rounded individual. This can only be achieved by a smaller class size that gives individual attention for the students in our care. This is the educational opportunity we found at Magical Journey.
Beginning as an associate teacher, I worked my way up to preschool teacher, assistant director, and finally director. Between New York City and North Carolina, I spent a total of 5 years as an Early Childhood Director. I met Bonnie Smith in 2007, and in 2017 we partnered in search of a school that excelled in its dedication to early childhood. When we discovered the Magical Journey Learning Center, we were impressed by its excellence in education, as well as its smaller ratios and class size.
I’m Bonnie Smith, and I’ve worked as a teacher in early childhood, ages 2-5, for approximately 15 years prior to being hired as a UPK teacher in the Bronx. It was my desire to give back to society, and with a Master’s in Teaching Reading, I felt I could reach disadvantaged children and instill in them an enjoyment of reading and education. After several years, I was promoted to the position of Director, and had my first opportunity to manage and impact the direction of education in an entire school. Three years later, I left the Bronx, to move to New York City, where I continued as an Early Childhood Director. I was privileged to work with Jessica from 2007-2012 where we managed an early childhood school together. Jessica moved on to direct schools in other areas as I continued to direct the same early childhood school until 2016.
Jessica and I teamed up again in 2017, when we moved to Arizona to find a school that aligned with our mutual philosophy of childhood education. We were thrilled to come across Magical Journey Learning Center, directed and taught by Julie and Michelle. Their love of children and education was evident in their classrooms. Their curriculum went beyond the basics, and included life-learning skills, such as “mindfulness” and community projects. The Kindergarten project of “My Journey in Life Counts” was one example of how they strive in their education to develop successful members of society.
We are looking forward to joining Julie and Michelle as they expand and develop their outstanding program at Magical Journey Learning Center. We hope to infuse already existing programs with additional ideas. We welcome fresh ideas from parents and teachers to make the curriculum enjoyable, and relevant to the needs of the children. We thank you, Julie, Michelle, staff and parents, for allowing us this opportunity.
Julie Fischer, Co-Founder of Magical Journey, is a specialist in early childhood education. She began her teaching journey in Iowa, teaching fifth, third, and first grade. She moved to Arizona in 1988 and began teaching third grade and kindergarten in the Kyrene School District. In December of 2008, Julie was awarded the Excellence in Education Award by KEZ radio. In 2012, she partnered with Michelle Willis to form Magical Journey. "I always loved teaching the primary children. They have such an eagerness to learn. It's really magical."
Throughout her career, Julie has developed creative solutions to problems that plague many teachers and parents. For example, when she realized that Kindergarten children often struggle with learning the 'teen' numbers, 11-19, instead of asking them to simply memorize, Julie created special puppets to help students identify the number names in a fun way. Buoyed by their success, Julie shared her strategy with first grade teacher, Amy Piazzola whose students were also struggling with the same issue. When Amy achieved the same results, these innovative educators joined forces and published Ten, Nineteen, and In-Between a children's book and teacher resource designed to help students master those pesky numbers between 10 and 20. This is just one example of Julie's mastery in her field.
Julie has three beautiful children with whom she loves to spend time at their cabin in Pinetop, AZ. While she will always call Ahwatukee home, she recently moved to a 24th floor apartment in Phoenix. Now, she joyfully lives in the same building as her parents and daughter!
Our kindergarten teacher, Denise Johnson, brings over a decade’s worth of experience in elementary education to our team. She taught fourth grade in the Mesa Public School District for six years and has been teaching kindergarten in the Kyrene School District for the past five years. Another award winning educator on our Magical Journey team, Denise received the Tribune Newspapers’ Educational Leadership Award. Her strong leadership skills were quickly recognized in Kyrene when she was selected as one of only three finalists for the Ahwatukee Chamber of Commerce’s Educational Mentor of the Year. A gentle guide in the classroom, she encourages her students to construct their own meanings, solve problems, and explore the world at their own pace. Her class, Mrs. Johnson’s Beautiful Butterflies, celebrates the uniqueness of all children. “Butterflies develop in distinct stages, are fragile but resilient, unique, beautiful and necessary for the health of our ecosystems – just like our children.”
Denise and her husband, Mike, have two beautiful children. Maria works in marine conservation in Mexico, and Taylor loves his job at Five Guys. Denise cherishes the time she spent at home raising her children when they were young. Denise loves spending time with her family and friends, reading and exploring the wonderful desert habitat here in Ahwatukee.
Cindy Sleasman, our Administrative Assistant, has been living here in Ahwatukee for the past twenty-four years. Cindy is also an accomplished teacher, having taught first and second grade in Pennsylvania for ten years. While there, she also served as a reading specialist. After moving to Arizona, she worked at Kyrene de la Sierra as a reading intervention instructor and a classroom assistant for ten years. Cindy’s strong educational background and friendly, outgoing personality make her the perfect person to answer any questions a parent may have.
After leaving the snow, Cindy prefers the outdoor lifestyle our desert climate affords. An avid hiker and kayaker, she also loves to read and travel. She has a soft spot for children that also transfers to animals. She volunteers for the Arizona Animal Welfare League in her free time. Cindy and her husband, Tom, have three grown sons. When Cindy and Tom are not enjoying the outdoors, they are fanatically cheering on the Philadelphia Eagles. Cindy’s deep love for and extensive knowledge of the Eagles rivals anyone at ESPN.
Kim Graber is so excited to join the Magical Journey Community. She has been involved in the Early Childhood community for the past few years. She has a Bachelors and Masters Degree from The Ohio State University and has 15 years teaching experience. Here in Arizona, she taught for Cartright School District, Kyrene School District and Arizona State University. She is a mother to Cole (age 8) and Stella (age 5) and chocolate lab, Lola. She will be working on marketing, fundraising and the Magical Journey Scholarship Fund.
Libby Garza is excited to be joining Magical Journey and to be working with Mrs. Schneider and the wonderful children in the First/Second grade class. Libby has earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Geography and a Master’s Degree in Elementary Education. She taught two years in the Roosevelt School District, working with at-risk middle school aged youth. After taking time off to raise her two daughters, Libby returned to the classroom as a Pre-K teacher at a local Ahwatukee preschool. She has also has many years of experience teaching in Kindergarten through eighth grade classrooms as a guest teacher in the Kyrene School District.
Libby is originally from Overland Park, Kansas, but has lived in Arizona for 30 years. She moved to Ahwatukee, with her wonderful husband, Rich, in 2000. They have two beautiful daughters, Abby (age 12) and Emma (age 9). Libby treasures the opportunity she had to stay at home and raise their two girls, volunteer in their classrooms and in local organizations.
In her spare time, Libby enjoys spending time with family and friends, traveling to the beaches of Mexico and the mountains of Colorado. She also enjoys scrapbooking, baking and reading.
Full time teacher assistant for our Pre-K class, Patti Kingery, has a Bachelor of Arts in Elementary Education with an Early Childhood emphasis, from Arizona State University. After traveling the world, working as a Travel Consultant, Patti moved to Ahwatukee and spent many fun-filled and cherished years at home raising her three active boys. For the past five years, she has been a teacher assistant at a local Ahwatukee Preschool.
Patti and her husband, Tom, love traveling to various parts of the country to visit their sons; Matt lives in NYC, Scott lives in Clearwater, FL and Sam attends NAU in Flagstaff. Patti also loves to read and hike and is an avid baseball fan! Her favorite teams are the Diamondbacks and the minor league Clearwater Threshers, on which her son, Scott currently plays.
This is Claudine Hart’s first year as a Classroom and After School Assistant. She first worked as an Instructional Assistant and Resource Aide at Kyrene de la Sierra. For 6 years, she worked with students of all abilities including those with special needs. She was also a Kindergarten classroom assistant. She came to Magical Journeys from St. John Bosco Catholic School, where she was a teacher’s aide in grades Kindergarten through 6th grade. After working with children of all ages, she realized how much she enjoyed working with young children. Claudine truly loves helping young learners achieve their potential and become enthusiastic about school. She also believes in partnering with families to foster a strong school community. Recently, she graduated with her Associates in Arts Degree from Mesa Community College and has just been accepted at Northern Arizona University where she will begin her Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies in the fall.
Most of her life’s work has been raising her 4 children: Nick, Steve, Ashley, and Matt. She has been married to her husband, Steve, for 39 years and they have 4 grandchildren: Miles, Lucas, Jonas, and Lucy. She was born in Chicago, Illinois but has called the desert home for most of her life. Her passions include her family, her schnauzer, Charlie, and the Arizona Diamondbacks. She is so thrilled to be a part of the talented team at Magical Journey!
Michelle Willis, Co-Founder of Magical Journey Learning Center, is a National Board Certified teacher as an Early Childhood Generalist, with over 15 years experience teaching kindergarten. National Board Certification is the most respected certification in the education profession. Far surpassing the state standards for teacher certification, National Board Certified teachers must participate in a rigorous examination of their teaching knowledge and practices through a peer review panel. This is an in-depth, arduous process that takes no less than one year, but must be completed within five. In short, it is the gold standard.
In addition to her National Board Certification, Michelle is a Reading specialist and holds a Master of Arts degree in Curriculum and Instruction. It is no surprise that she was selected for the Tempe Diablo Excellence Award - Teacher of the Year Finalist in 2011. She also honors her profession by teaching incoming teachers at Rio Salado Community College. "Everyday I am blessed to be able to touch children's lives through my teaching. I feel an immense obligation to be my best everyday so I can feel good about how I have shaped the minds of parents' most valuable treasures - their children."
Michelle's tender-heartedness towards children naturally led her to become a wish-granter with the Make-A-Wish Foundation. To date, she has helped grant three wishes! Her compassion for children also extends to those members of society without a voice - our animals. An avid pet lover, she is the proud owner of two cute little dogs- Pixie and Chewee (Chewbaca).
Michelle's passion for education is intertwined with her personal life. She is married to Kevin Willis, the Department Chair for Mathematics at Desert Vista High School. They have two beautiful daughters.
LeeAnn Schneider is our 1st/2nd grade teacher. This is her third year at MJLC and has witnessed first hand the incredible benefits of a multiage classroom. She has over 13 years experience in the education field and is thrilled to incorporate her philosophy of fostering and instilling the love of leaning through thematic instruction and differentiation. LeeAnn has been in Ahwatukee for 25 years where she an her husband Mike have raised three incredible children, Steven, Christopher and Megan. Although she and her husband are University of Arizona alum, their sons have chosen Arizona State for their college experience, and Megan has yet to decide if she will be a Wildcat or a Sun Devil to break the tie.
LeeAnn loves spending time with her family and friends and heading to the beach whenever possible.
Carrie DeSouza fills many roles at Magical Journey. She serves primarily as a kindergarten aide, but also works in the 3’s class, Pre-K and the after school program. She is excited to begin her second year at Magical Journey and assist with the learning and development of the students. Carrie has over fifteen years of experience in early childhood education. She has always loved being in the classroom and is passionate about working with children.
Carrie enjoys scrapbooking, shopping and spending time with family and friends. Although she doesn’t have children of her own, she plays a very active role in the lives of her nieces and nephews. They have filled her life with joy.
Carrie is a true football fan. She cheers on the Arizona Cardinals and the NAU Lumberjacks, where her nephew attends school and plays football.
Carrie looks forward to continued success and new journeys with the amazing group of children and teachers at Magical Journey.
Kirsten Wachter is the aide in the 3’s classroom. She attended Northern Arizona University and is working to complete her Early Childhood Education degree.
This will be Kirsten’s second year at Magical Journey and her fourth year working in a preschool. She is very excited to be working with Mrs. Willis and the three year olds this year.
Kirsten has lived in Arizona most of her life and in Ahwatukee for the last 10 years. She enjoys traveling to new places and cuddling with her cat Moo!
She cannot wait for another amazing year at Magical Journey!