When Cross Middle School eighth-grader, Dakota Broughton, and his mother, Sherri, walked on to the campus of the Sunshine School earlier this month, it was the first time the young man had returned in the better part of a decade.  A former student at the preschool, Dakota said a curious thought struck him when he walked out onto the back patio.

Wasn’t the tire on which he used to climb a lot bigger?

“I used to think it was big, but when I was smaller it looked big to me,” he said. “Now, it’s just tiny.”

The observation drew a bit of laughter from his mother, though Dakota was not the only person taking a walk down memory lane when dozens of Sunshine families and former students came together on May 4 to celebrate the retirement of the school’s founder, Sue Trinacty. 

Founded in 1984 after family friends, local doctors and property owners John Haymore and Eric Hartvigsen wanted to develop the plaza surrounding their practice, Sunshine School began as the desire of Trinacty—a self-proclaimed born educator—to create a positive learning environment for the community’s youngest learners. 

Far removed from the days of a dozen students and three educators, Sunshine School now staffs 15 and handles a student body of nearly 60. Though her one-room schoolhouse may have grown over the years, Trinacty said the mission has remained the same, to prepare preschoolers for the rest of their lives by instilling a sense of self-confidence, decision- making ability and social skills in each child.

“I have found over the years that if you keep your focus on what is honestly best for the children, they will never screw up, never be waylaid,” she said. “Sometimes it can be difficult to talk to parents about their children, but if your mind is purely on the child, you will get through, and you will have done a good job for the child.”

Learning at Sunshine School takes place in a variety of individual and group-focused activities and recess, and Trinacty said the staff engages each student as they progress through puzzles, challenges and other scenarios, though the work is left up to the children.

For Broughton, who first became part of the Sunshine family a decade ago, the social learning environment and supportive staff at Sunshine was an instant sell. Whether cleanliness, teacher attitude and experience level or enrollment levels, Broughton said she took some time combing through schools before finding the right one.

“As soon as I walked into Sunshine, however, it was a done deal,” she said.

Trinacty said she has seen countless parents go through the same decision making process as Broughton, and has been overwhelmed by the compassion and support she has received from parents and staff over the years. That moment of realization came to her in a dream.

“So I am looking at my calendar and it says Aug. 13, my birthday, and I am there doing a jig in my skirt and my white T-shirt and I realized that was it, it was time to be done,” she said. “I realized that I have done a lot of work in my life. I have raised my three sons, but I have helped to raise hundreds.”

Though she may be stepping back from Sunshine School, Trinacty said she saw no reason why the school should end without her at the helm. After discussing candidates with her board of directors Trinacty decided longtime teacher Marla Ayers should take over.

Ayers, who has been a part of the Sunshine family for more than a decade and a teacher for nearly as long, first involved herself with the school when her oldest of three children started preschool. By the time her youngest was preparing to leave for kindergarten, Ayers said she knew she had to stay on as a teacher.

A native Tucsonan, Ayers completed her undergraduate work at the University of Arizona before moving on to study counseling and education San Diego State University.

“The moment I walked in here I knew it was the place for my kids,” she said. “They have come out of this school so capable and confident, I could never pick a different school, and I feel so blessed that we chose Sunshine. Hands down, I think people feel that away across the board.”

Ayers said she hopes to continue on with the Sunshine mission of supporting whatever is best for its children, and said Trinacty has left her with a deep foundation of love and caring from which to draw in the coming years.

“It’s a huge honor to be given the opportunity to carry on with what Sunshine is, the essence of it all,” Ayers said. “I think that if somebody had come in from the outside it could really change things, and what Sue has started and created here will continue – I want it to continue. I just hope that I can make Sue proud and continue on with the amazing school that Sunshine is. Maybe one day, when I am about to turn 70 years old, I can retire here like Sue.”

Though her own retirement is still a far-off goal, Ayers said she is excited to begin the next chapter of her professional journey alongside the same educators who first caused her to fall in love with the school.

As for Dakota, he said his own future children may one day follow in his footsteps and attend Sunshine School.

“I would want my kid to go here because there are so many people; it’s really easy to meet new friends here,” he said. “It’s easy to have a fun time with all of the toys, too.”

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