PHOENIX - When Maria Wheeler was a little girl, her Puerto Rican father had to move back to the Enchanted Island to take over the family business. She spoke no Spanish, being as her mother was from the northeast in the United States.

“My mom spoke to us in English at home, that is how I learned to speak English, it was my first language.” Wheeler said. “I spoke that at home and amongst my peers in the community of Salinas in Puerto Rico, I learned how to speak Spanish."

Fast forward to present day and Mrs. Wheeler, as her students at Desert Horizon Elementary School know her, is teaching kids her second language the same way she learned it.

“To me it wasn’t hard to learn Spanish, I was a little girl, eager to learn, and these kids are just like I was, they’re ready, they want to learn it,” Mrs. Wheeler said.

Four years ago, this program was launched by the Pendergast Elementary School District, and it’s been a success according to Desert Horizon’s principal Debby Cruz and their Superintendent Dr. Lily Matos Deblieux.

“Mrs. Wheeler is always ready, she’s prepared, she’s dedicated and a natural leader,” Principal Cruz said, “I know that I can count on her, I can call her and she will always be there.”

Mrs. Wheeler feels that this was her calling. After a series of jobs, she looked into becoming an assistant aide at a special needs school. Her mentor saw the gift in her and told her to go to school and get her degree and Mrs. Wheeler followed through.

“One day I went to a job fair and sure enough Desert Horizon was hiring,” she said. “I met with them and they hired me right there on the spot. I’m heading into my 18th year and plan to stay here for another 10.”

That’s good news for the Desert Horizon staff, parents and, most importantly, the students. They get to have an A-plus teacher for a while longer.