Have questions? Call us today! 816-478-1234 Email: info@thesunrisemontessori.com

Meet the members of our wonderful staff.
Lori Smart

Lori SmartOwner/Director

As a Montessori teacher and mother of young children, it became my mission to bring Montessori education to the community in which I live. For nearly 25 years working in early education, 20 have been dedicated to Montessori education. I believe with a passion that every child should have the educational opportunity that Montessori provides. They deserve respect as an individual with needs that differ from that of the next child and should be accepted as who they are and directed towards who they are destined to become. I am an A.M.S. Certified Montessori teacher who grew up here in Independence and chose to raise my family here as well. I am married with two boys. My husband and I both graduated from William Chrisman High School and have parents and siblings right here in this community. Independence is still a great city, and I believe that the work that we do, the impact we have on these children will make a difference for the future of our community. It is what we instill in the children of today that will become the decisive factor in what tomorrow will bring. Thus, our chosen name, Sunrise Montessori Academy of Independence…bright beginnings every day. Let’s work together to make tomorrow a little brighter for everyone!

Stephen Ward

Stephen WardOwner/Assistant Director

After moving to Independence in 1975 and beginning to raise my children, I went to work with the Independence School District. I spent 31 years at Procter Elementary School here in Independence where I made myself at home. I developed friendships with many families over the years several of which I had the privilege of working with their children, then their children’s children and even their children! Generations of students coming and going through those doors, all of them impacting many years of my life. I became very involved with the school as even two of my own children grew up within Procter during my time there. I was a dedicated employee, PTA member, and showed support by volunteering my time to countless school activities over the years. I truly believe that children are what matter towards tomorrow, and I live my life to help mold the future by helping each child know his/her value by showing my support. As my daughter became involved with Montessori education I realized that the principles she learned were very similar to what I already believed. Over the years, through many conversations and after studying Montessori education, I realized the significance this philosophy could have on the children within my own community and the two of us began to plan the possibility of a Montessori school. I went back to school to study for my Montessori teaching certification through the American Montessori Society and the University of St. Mary. Throughout the course of the last several years, we have envisioned this dream, which has finally come to pass. I believe that our small school, with a family-like atmosphere, will provide an unsurpassed opportunity for early education that you won’t find anywhere else.

Dena Ward

Dena WardAssistant Director & Office Manager

After many years of putting my education to work in various areas of business, including management of mental health and medical offices I went back to school, seeking my Montessori teaching certification after my husband and daughter opened Sunrise Montessori together. I believed this to be my calling at this time in my life and have enjoyed it immensely. Each day, students bring cheer to my life with their funny stories and bright perspectives. I grew up in the Independence area and chose to raise my family here as well. I am the mother of four adult children and grandmother to ten grandchildren who have become a highlight in my life. My hobbies include spending time with family, finding sales and good deals, fixing things, helping others and taking my grandkids out for fun! My goal for my students is to help them to realize their own potential and to develop the quality of perseverance within each of them! I believe that Montessori education offers a great opportunity that other methods do not offer and hope that we at Sunrise will reach the children of our community!

Opal Strong

Opal StrongMontessori Teacher

I have been a Montessori teacher for approximately 40 years. I received my certification through the National Center for Montessori Education which is now the American Montessori Society and attended St. Mary’s College. I love to play tennis and bake tasty foods for holiday celebrations. I also love to collect art and pictures created by my favorite artists. My life passion is to continue my education and my Montessori career. My goal is to meet the needs of my students socially, emotionally and academically. I have enjoyed dedicating my life to the education of young children. They make me smile and laugh each day. There is no other occupation that could have created such happiness or been so personally rewarding.

Watching my students learn and grow is rewarding for me as is observing them closely to see their unique personality unfold.

Araceli Jimenez

Araceli JimenezMontessori Teacher –Spanish Teacher

My name is Araceli Jimenez. I am a Spanish speaking Certified Montessori teacher. I have been teaching for 17 years and I love my job.

I’m a mother of two, a boy (Andres) that is 24 years old and a daughter (Samantha) that is 10 years old. I am also a proud grandmother of 2 little girls.

My favorite thing to do when I’m not at school is to watch movies with my daughter Samantha and my granddaughters. I love to do arts and crafts and just putting my creativity to work. I also love to cook Mexican food for my family and spend time together. My family is very important to me. They are the motor that keeps me going every day.

I chose to be a Montessori teacher after working with Ms. Lori at another Montessori school. Her passion for the Montessori method inspired me and after I worked with her for a couple of years, I decided to learn more about this great method. Going to school to become a Montessori teacher was life changing and I just absolutely loved it. I believe in this method and philosophy and I truly believe through our work, we make a difference in the lives of the children that we work with. My goal here at Sunrise is to help kids to learn Spanish as a second language; learn to be themselves and to do their personal best every day.

Mariah Carpenter

Mariah CarpenterMontessori Teacher

I grew up here in Independence and graduated from Truman High School. I continued my studies at MCC working towards my associates in Early Childhood Education. Working with children has always been a passion of mine. I love teaching young children and having the opportunity to impact their lives at such an early age. I truly believe that laying a foundation for education at this young age is so important. Montessori is so personalized and allows each child to learn at his or her own pace. It’s the personalization and hands-on learning approach that I believe makes the difference. I love to be creative and I have a passion for art, music, and photography. I love having a career that allows me to use my creativity and have such a positive impact. My goal is to help each child grow to love learning and to use my creative skills in that process.

Amanda Klein

Amanda KleinMontessori Teacher

Hello, my name is Amanda Klein. I have 2 children, my daughter Rhian and my son Reice, and my husband Nathan. We have a dog named Shilah, a cat named Simba, and several fish and snails!! On most weekends, I watch my daughter play softball. When we aren’t there, I love to spend time at Table Rock Lake with my family and exploring nature with my son. I have been teaching here at Sunrise for 4 years, starting my 5th year here in the fall of 2020. I first met Ms. Lori at Winterset Park Montessori in 1999. She became my mentoring teacher and I attained my Montessori Teaching certification in 2004. Since then, I have dedicated my life to Montessori education. When I learned that Lori had opened Sunrise, I knew I wanted to be a part of her school. It has been an amazing journey for me to finally come to the school, I will call home because that’s how working at Sunrise makes me feel. I love all the teachers I work with and the children too. Montessori is such an amazing way of teaching and I feel very, fortunate to have become a Montessori educator so many years ago. I find the hands-on approach to be very successful, and it provides us as teachers the opportunity to help guide your children to become successful adults. Yes, many of my previous students are now successful adults. Maria Montessori was an amazing woman and one of her quotes that I love most is, “Never help a child with a task he can succeed himself.” I am truly grateful for all the wonder I get to see each day from every child I have had the opportunity to teach.

Lani Trujillo

Lani Trujillo

Howdy, y’all!  My name is Ms. Lani, and I moved to Missouri from Texas about two years ago.  I absolutely love the weather in Missouri especially the snow! I enjoy cooking, eating, reading, shopping for good deals, and watching movies.  I have been married for the past four years and have one step-son. I have been teaching for a total of 12 years, and a Montessori Teacher for the past 3 years. I have my Bachelor of Science in Early Childhood, and I am a certified Montessori teacher. My favorite part of any day is when I have “proud teacher moments.” This is when a child shows me what they have accomplished during Montessori Time which puts a shiny, bright smile on my face. My goal is to assist children to become more independent.

Esperanza Dunning

Esperanza Dunning

I love to travel the world and take photos and learn about different cultures. I currently operate a small business doing photography – one of my greatest passions. I also love to run. Crafting and card making are just a couple of my hobbies. I am married and currently reside here in the metro. I am currently attending school to seek a degree in teaching after completing four years of study with KCSM for an AG license. I have a few years of experience in early education prior to joining Sunrise. Currently, I am a substitute teacher, filling in for other teachers when they need to be gone. I love to encourage, grow in knowledge and keep the kids inspired!

Jean DeMoss

Jean DeMoss

I am married and have two teenage sons. I attended UMKC to attain my BA in psychology w/a minor in economics. I love writing and researching family history. My hobbies include bird-watching, reading, and enjoying coffee with friends. I have years of experience in both teaching and finance. I joined Sunrise to work a more flexible schedule so that I can spend time with my kids. I love the Montessori philosophy and often consider getting my Montessori teaching certification when the time is right. My goal is to have an influence on children to teach them to be kind and have compassion.

Gina Coonce

Gina Coonce

Hello! My name is Gina Coonce. I grew up here in the Kansas City metropolitan area. I attended graduated from FCA in Independence, Missouri. During my Junior year at FCA, I learned of an aftercare position here at Sunrise. I started to work at Sunrise and fell in love with just the simple thought of making an impact in so many children’s lives and it became my passion to help each child grow in Montessori education. I realized that the Montessori method was so incredible in so many aspects. I loved how Montessori is personalized and offers students hands-on learning experience. I believe this truly makes the difference in how each child grows, especially since each child is unique and learns in their own way. I am moving forward in the process of getting my Montessori teaching certification at the Montessori Teacher Preparation of Kansas City. I love to be creative and help come up with ideas to help improve the environment. Working in a position that I can use my creativity in each day is amazing. My goal here at Sunrise is to help each child grow and to have an impact on the current and upcoming generations to come. I want each child to enjoy coming to school and to develop a love for learning because the foundation in education at such an early age is so important. 

Anna Wilson

Anna Wilson

Hello, my name is Anna Wilson. I am married with two beautiful children ages four and six. They keep me busy and I love spending time with them. We love to take nature walks to find new walking sticks and we also enjoy rock collecting. I enjoy painting, photography, and studying holistic medicine and natural healing with herbs and oils. As I join Sunrise from a traditional early education background, I am eager to continue learning more about this unique style of education that provides individual attention and planning for each student. Although I studied traditional early education in school, Montessori philosophy and methods were are part of our studies. I was very intrigued by this style of teaching and I’ve joined Sunrise to continue in the path of Montessori with my students as well as my own children. I am so excited to join the Sunrise family!

Shylyn Gordon

Shylyn Gordon


Hello! I’m Ms. Shylyn. I am currently a pre-primary teacher in classroom D. I live in Independence and have lived here most of my life. I love children and I’m passionate about the Montessori Method. I’ve been teaching and caring for pre-primary toddlers for about 3 years now and I love what I do.


I wasn’t raised Montessori at all, but as I watched it change children’s lives and make such a difference in their development, I’ve grown to love it. I love the Montessori Method because it’s not just about teaching letters and numbers, but it’s about teaching and learning peace, taking care of our environment, and problem solving. I also love how personalized it is, and how each child gets to learn at their own pace and do what they love. I believe that as a teacher, it is important to build a strong bond with your students and to support them emotionally. It’s my goal for each child to reach to their full potential and I love seeing their smiling faces.


In my free time I love being outdoors and exploring nature. I love camping, hiking, journaling, cooking tasty foods, and spending time outdoors with my dog Apache. I love Disney movies and Studio Ghibli. I’m engaged to the love of my life and we have a dog, 3 cats, and a pet turtle that I adore. I love being creative and making different things like candles and essential oil rollers.

This is my second school year at Sunrise and I love the family like atmosphere here and I can tell how every teacher cares so much about their students. I feel like every teacher here brings their own twist to the Montessori classroom and makes it unique.

Abigail Urtiz

Abigail Urtiz

Hello, my name is Abigail Urtiz. Most people call me Abbi here at school and in my personal life. I was born and raised here in Independence, graduating from Truman High School. I am the only child, but I have 4 pets, 3 dogs, and 1 cat whose names are George, Coco, Mateo, and Milo. I started out at Sunrise as an intern while studying in the early education program with the Independence School District. I chose early education as my career path during my high school years. Then, I joined the Sunrise team to be a part of the after-care staff, caring for children after the academic day ends. Later, I joined Sunrise full time to assist in classrooms, particularly the pre-primary classrooms.

It’s all thanks to the Independence School District, and of course, Ms. Lori, that I have the opportunity to be a part of setting the foundation of early education students here at Sunrise. The Independence School District offered a program for high school students, allowing me the opportunity to work with preschoolers for half of my school days. It was a two-year program. During my junior year of high school, the 1st year of the program, I was learning the different ways of teaching, visiting different schools, and learning more about their methods of teaching, which is where I learned about Montessori education. In my senior year, the 2nd year of the program, we were able to choose a school that we wanted to intern in, and I chose those schools that we visited while I was doing the 1st year of the program. Afterward, I chose to study the Montessori philosophy and methodology that is being offered here at Sunrise. A few months later, I was offered a position here at Sunrise and I couldn’t be happier. My goal is to attain my Montessori teaching certification and continue in Montessori education.

Maria Byle

Maria ByleMontessori Teacher & Spanish Teacher

I am bilingual, married, and have four children. I love to go camping, cook and spend time with my family, and create happy memories together. I have experience in various fields in the restaurant and production industries, however, I have a life passion for helping others, and teaching young children allows me to do just that. I love to help the students learn self-control and learn to make good choices for themselves by developing strong relationships with them and building trust between each one of them and myself. Helping the children to find the work that brings peace to their inner self is very rewarding and brings me joy.

Baylee Whetsel

Baylee WhetselMontessori Teacher

Hello! My name is Baylee Whetsel. My many hobbies include art, painting, being creative, and eating tasty foods. I am so excited to work here at Sunrise Montessori. My passion is working with children. For the three years before joining Sunrise, I worked at summer camps learning from children ages 6-12. I love working with children so much because their curiosity, imaginatio, and wonder never cease to inspire me every day. I am from Bixby, Oklahoma but moved to Independence, Missouri in late August of 2017. I moved here to attend the University of Missouri at Kansas City where I thought of becoming an RN. I left nursing school because I found that I have a passion for Montessori education. I have since turned my studies to Montessori early education and attended school to attain my Montessori teaching certification. I continue my studies of early education in the evenings and weekends. I love to implement all that I am learning with my students. The social and emotional wellness of the children is very important to me. I am so grateful to work with the children here at Sunrise as they remind me every day to laugh, be curious, but most of all, to always be yourself!

Parva Rezvani

Parva RezvaniMontessori Teacher

My name is Parva. I am from Iran and came to the USA 7 years ago. I attended Blue River and my major was nursing. I had been working at a Montessori school as an assistant teacher and decided that I wanted to become a certified Montessori teacher, so I went to school to attain my certification. I want to spend the rest of my life doing this. I enjoy my job so much. The work that I do makes my days and life truly better. I love children and spending time with them. I love cooking, shopping, eating burgers and Mexican food. I enjoy drinking coffee and one of my favorite things is dark chocolate. The rose is my favorite flower and summer is my favorite season here in Missouri.

“The greatest development is achieved during the first years of life and therefore it is then that the greatest care should be taken.” Maria Montessori

Niki Bass

Niki Bass

I am married and a mother of three children. We have lived in independence most of our lives except for the years my husband’s military career required us to move. I love reading, arts and crafts, paper crafts, and being a pen pal to others around the world. I love to be outdoors, hiking, walking my dogs, playing tennis, and bowling. I graduated from Blue Springs High School and continued my education in the legal field. I was a paralegal for several years before joining Sunrise. I love my family and my faith. I believe that “Every day counts!”