Our Staff

Sara VanSlyke, Director     sara@desertspringschool.org
The oldest of four children Sara was born and raised in Tucson by Minnesota parents. Her childhood was happily spent enjoying her fun loving family and exploring the incredible desert with its ancient ruins, pottery chards, and unique ecosystem. As a teenager she played hundreds of hours of tennis, and rode her Palomino through monsoon swollen arroyos and cactus covered hills. Sara graduated from Sahuaro High School and the U of A with a major in Sociology and minors in Religious Studies and Business. Sara also was very fortunate to travel for a semester on World Campus Afloat.

After college Sara taught in after school programs and four different preschools, and went back to school to pursue a nursing degree. When she finally finished all the prerequisites and started nursing school she realized that her real passion was Early Childhood Education, so she was inspired to open Desert Spring Children’s Center with co-founder Jan Kinkade. Sara and Jan started the planning process in 1985 and opened the doors in May 1987. The last 25 years has been an amazing joyous journey. Sara is grateful everyday for the children and their families that bless her life.

Joni Starzman, Sun Room Educator     sunroom@desertspringschool.org
Joni studied Early Childhood Education at Santa Barbara City College and she is currently enrolled at Pima Community College as a T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood Arizona Scholar. Joni has fifteen years experience working with children ages two to five. Joni is married and has two grown daughters of her own. Some of Joni’s favorite pastimes are reading, gardening, and spending time with her family.

Tonya Padilla, Sun Room Educator     sunroom@desertspringschool.org
Tonya was born in Tucson. She has a beautiful daughter. Tonya enjoys gardening and walking her dog. Tonya is currently enrolled at Pima Community College in the Early Childhood Education program. She has been working with young children ages 2 to 4 for the past eight years. Tonya is happy to be working at Desert Spring.

Dee Altuna, Mountain Room Educator     mountainroom@desertspringschool.org
Dee was born and raised in Arizona. She holds degrees from the University of Arizona in Journalism and from Pima Community College in Early Childhood Education. Dee believes that children learn through exploring the world around them. Dee plans learning activities that provoke creativity,  imagination, play, and time in nature.

Chelsie Lerman, Mountain Room Educator  
Chelsie is a teacher in the Mountain Room at Desert Spring. She was born and raised in San Diego, California. Chelsie moved to Tucson in 2009 to pursue her degree in Early Childhood Education at The University of Arizona. Chelsie has been teaching for six years with ages ranging from infant to first grade. Having taught in Reggio inspired schools for a year during student teaching, Chelsie was immediately drawn to the opportunity to teach at Desert Spring. Chelsie actively seeks professional development opportunities in the Reggio Emilia philosophy as well as others. Chelsie believes that children should learn though meaningful, hands on experiences; learning through play is fundamental to each child’s development. Chelsie is passionate about developing trusting and loving relationships with her students and their families. On school breaks, she travels back to San Diego to visit family.  Chelsie also enjoys hiking, cooking, roller-skating, watching movies, and spending time with her husband Steven and 3 ½ year old daughter Avrie.

Sue Clement, Mountain Room Educator  
Sue has seven years of experience working in education, both in administrative positions and in direct involvement with preschool age children in afterschool programs (she also has four years of experience as a nanny). Even as an administrator, interactions with children have always been her favorite part of the job. Sue is happy to be included in the nurturing environment at Desert Spring where the children are treated with respect and the simple joys of childhood flourish. She enjoys music, nature, cooking and spending time with her husband and 2 cats.

Crystal Simpson, Mountain Room Educator  
Bio coming soon!

Samantha Weston, Monsoon Room Educator  
I am one of the Co-Teachers in the Monsoon Room.  I would have to say my Educator career began when I was 13.  I began volunteering as a coach assistant for my sister 5th Grade team.  It was then when I realized I loved making an impact-of being a part of something that is bigger than me.  From there I volunteered a lot of time to my community.  I attended Grand Valley State University.  I have been working in child care for 6 years now. I have 125 credit hours in Early Childhood Education and love spending more time training to be the best Educator for early child care.  I moved to Arizona when I was 27.  It was the best decision of my life as I am recently married, a home owner and I get to work with children at Desert Spring!  It is an honor to work here and it is an honor to work with families.

Calyssa Arnett, Rainbow Room Educator  
Cally  has been working with children for the last 6 years and teaching for 3 of those 6. She moved from Indiana in March of 2016 to attend the University of Arizona. Cally graduated with her Associates of Science in Early Childhood Education and two technical degrees in education in 2015. She also has her Bachelor’s of Science in Psychology and is currently attending graduate school for Mental Health Counseling. When Cally isn’t in the classroom or studying, she enjoys playing Ultimate Frisbee on multiple Tucson teams and spending time with her pup, Luna.  

Aida Navarrette, Rainbow Room Educator  
My name is Aida Navarrette and I am one of the teachers here at Desert Spring School in the Rainbow Room! I have a Teaching Diploma for infant, toddler and twos. I received my diploma through North American Montessori Center. When I was working on getting my diploma I was employed with Casa Ninos School of Montessori. I worked there for about four years. I chose to become a Montessori teacher because it is a privilege to get to be apart of young child’s life, it’s wonderful to watch and guide children in the development of their skills. The skills that will help them to become independent, and successful people. I have two children of my own, Alasandra (7) and Francisco (2). Our hobbies include cooking and cleaning  for the Great grandparents and lending a helping hand where we can.