Mr. Charles Debelak is co-founder and head of Birchwood School. Mr. Debelak earned a Bachelor of Science in education from Valparaiso University and a Master of Education in curriculum and instruction with an emphasis in gifted education from Cleveland State University.
From 1972 to 1980 Mr. Debelak taught in public and private schools. He began his career in the Cuyahoga Heights Local School District where he taught elementary school and coached high school football. Taking a leave of absence in 1974, he taught at Seoul Foreign School in South Korea. Then in 1979, Mr. Debelak was hired to design and implement the gifted education program in the Willoughby-Eastlake City Schools.
In 1980, Mr. Debelak began to take a particular interest in childhood and adolescent developmental issues particularly as they related to education, character and moral development. He worked nationally and internationally as a counselor, workshop leader and lecturer to adolescents, young adults and young couples.
In 1984, together with a small group of concerned parents, Mr. Debelak and his wife, Helene, founded Birchwood School to give their own children the very best education possible. “We wanted to give our children the best so we dedicated ourselves to creating a premier academic environment that would also nurture personal characteristics, leading to fulfillment and responsibility.”
Mr. Debelak teaches mathematics to fifth through eighth grade students. Both he and his students have earned local, state and national recognition in mathematics, including the following awards:
- Ohio's MathCounts Coach 2011
- Three-time recipient of the Ohio Governors Award for Excellence in Math and Science
Math Olympiads 2012-13
- Highest Team Award, junior & senior teams
- Individual Gold Award, one winner
- Individual Silver Award, 11 winners
Ohio Mathematics Competition 2012-13
- 6th Grade Team, 3rd state; 1st county
- 6th Grade Individuals, 3rd, 4th & 6th state; 1st-3rd county
- 7th Grade Team, 11th state; 3rd county
- 7th Grade Individuals, 5th & 7th state; 2nd county
- 8th Grade Team, 2nd state; 1st county
- 8th Grade Individuals, 1st, 4th & 5th state; 1st, 4th, 5th county
Continental Mathematics Competition 2012-13
- 8th Grade Team, 1st state, 1st Midwest Region
- 7th Grade Team, 3rd state, 6th Midwest Region
- 6th Grade Team, 2nd state, 3rd Midwest Region
- National Student Leader, one in each grade
- State Round, 1st team; 1st & 5th individuals
- State Competition, 4th team; 6th, 10th & 24th individuals
American Mathematics Competition 8 (AMC 8)
- Birchwood School, U.S. Merit Roll (top 5% of all schools)
- High Honor Roll, one student (top 1% of students nationwide)
- Honor Roll, seven students (top 5% of students nationwide)
As director of curriculum at Birchwood School and co-founder with her husband, Charles, Helene Debelak has worked with teachers since 1984 to develop a curriculum in line with the school’s mission. Scouring historical methods and current research for keys to the interplay between academic challenge and character development is her enduring vocation.
In her early years of teaching she explored how to integrate special key programs with subject areas as a means to motivate students to set high goals according to authentic standards of excellence. Programs such as National History Day, Future Problem Solving (FPS), and a yearly poetry show were firmly established in the school's system of education. Mrs. Debelak has four married children, three of whom are Birchwood alumni. She loves reading to her 16 grandchildren.
Mrs. Debelak has a Bachelor of Science in education from Valparaiso University and a Master of Education from Cleveland State University with a focus on the education of gifted students. She studied abroad in Reutlingen, Germany and also taught for two years in Seoul, Korea. In 2016, she was awarded an honorary degree from her alma mater, Valparaiso University.
She is a co-author of the National History Standards K-4, has published in Social Studies and the Young Learner and is the author of Literature for Building Character. Her service outside of Birchwood includes workshops for the Ohio Council of Social Studies, the Midwest Archivist Association, National History Day, and the Ohio Future Problem Solving program. With her husband she has presented workshops on creative problem solving at Ohio Association of Gifted Children and Ohio Association of Independent Schools conferences.
Other activities include service on the state board of the Future Problem Solving program and on the National History Standards project, a joint venture with the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Center for History Education at UCLA.
Mrs. Debelak teaches reading and leadership to seventh and eighth grade students at Birchwood School. Both she and her students have earned local, state and national recognition, including the following awards:
- The History Channel Teacher of the Year, 2005
- Ohio History Day Teacher of the Year, 1993
Ohio Celebration of Poets Anthology
- Fall 2012 – Five 7th grade winners, and eight 8th grade winners were published
- Spring 2013 – Seven 7th grade winners, and nine 8th grade winners were published
Dr. Christine Neider
Assistant Head of School
Director of Early Childhood
3rd Social Studies
Dr. Christine Neider is an alumna of Birchwood School and now serves as its assistant head of school. She earned a Ph.D. in curriculum studies from the University of Pittsburgh in 2016 and previously completed a combined Master of Arts in history and teaching from Columbia University’s Teachers College, supported by the federally funded James Madison Memorial Fellowship. Dr. Neider graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in history from Ohio University’s Honors Tutorial College with an honors year at the University of Oxford in England. She also graduated high school from Hawken School in Gates Mills, Ohio.
Prior to becoming Assistant Head of School, Dr. Neider created an early childhood program that extends Birchwood School’s mission into developmentally appropriate educational experiences for young children. She mentors exceptional teachers in a process of embodying and enacting an ethos, philosophy and practice which are unique in the world of preschool and kindergarten education.
Before to returning to Birchwood, Dr. Neider garnered a wide range of teaching experiences with children and adults. She began her career as a high school humanities teacher at Central Park East Secondary School, a member of the Coalition of Essential Schools, in Harlem, New York. After marrying, she moved to Chicago where she taught middle school social studies at Lake Forest Country Day School. Seeking further professional growth due to her interest in the development of human beings at every stage, Dr. Neider accepted a position with The Avery Coonley School, a school for gifted children, to lead a fourth grade classroom. Later she moved to Pittsburgh into a neighborhood seeking literacy opportunities for their 4- to 6-year-old children; Dr. Neider initiated and then taught a community reading program to meet this need.
Along the way, Dr. Neider discovered the joy of working alongside teachers to support their best efforts, both through mentoring and curriculum development. She led strategic planning and execution efforts to uplift and coordinate preschool through eighth grade curriculum design, while using this fertile ground for faculty growth and professional development. Dr. Neider developed significant experience and expertise in faculty mentoring through workshops and one-on-one conversations, guiding teachers through the process of reflective and self-directed growth. Further, she developed and synthesized curriculum and led curriculum workshops to support targeted teacher professional development. Beyond the school walls, Dr. Neider partnered with Chicago Public Schools teachers through the Chicago Metro History Education Center to help them incorporate historical inquiry and research into their curriculum. As a result, National History Day invited Dr. Neider to lead national teacher workshops on these talks at their annual summer institute.
The experience of being involved in teachers’ growth and development led Dr. Neider back to graduate school. The University of Pittsburgh awarded her several teaching fellowships in recognition of her expertise and experience in the field, and Dr. Neider became a teacher of educators. For several years, she created and taught a prerequisite course in the social foundations of education to pre-service undergraduates. Dr. Neider also taught curriculum studies in the graduate program for teachers and administrators.
Having taught at every level of education – preschool through graduate school – Dr. Neider has taken the opportunity to deeply consider the role of formal education in supporting and encouraging the human yearning to “Become.” Her ongoing scholarship and publishing explores learning, philosophically and historically, with an emphasis on the role of teaching and learning in purposeful human development. Dr. Neider is specifically focused on the educational encounters of teachers, asserting that the intentional human Becoming of teachers is essential and critical to their creating educational opportunities for the Becoming of their students. She joyfully commits herself to implementing Birchwood School’s ethos to nurture the growth of every human being in our community.
Mrs. Claudia Bixler joined the Birchwood School administrative team in 2012. As the school secretary she thoroughly enjoys working and interacting with Birchwood students and families.
Prior to moving to Cleveland, Mrs. Bixler worked in hospital administration in Rochester, New York and as a translator in Montreal, Canada.
She became a certified translator through McGill University in Montreal and holds a Bachelor of Arts in French and Spanish from the University of Western Ontario.
Mrs. Bixler is married to a Birchwood alum and is a proud Birchwood mom as well. She is happy to be a member of the Birchwood staff and community and relishes the opportunity to greet students and parents each day.
Before coming to Birchwood School, Ms. Michelle Ehlert spent 12 years in the development field. After returning from Dublin, Ireland, where she had been living and studying, Ms. Ehlert began her fundraising career at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. During her two years in Manhattan, Ms. Ehlert worked on internationally-acclaimed projects like the Costume Institute Benefit and the Acquisitions Fund Benefit. In her tenure at the museum, Ms. Ehlert’s projects raised millions in support.
Eager to explore other aspects of fundraising, Ms. Ehlert returned to Ohio and accepted the challenge of starting and funding a community arts education program with the Dublin Arts Council, a program that within one year was the organization’s single largest source of income.
While at the council, Ms. Ehlert decided to pursue graduate studies. She accepted a full scholarship to The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law where she focused on nonprofit and culture property law. She finished her degree at the University of Oxford and then moved to Pittsburgh with her husband. There, Ms. Ehlert spent two years as the special events manager and major gifts officer for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, overseeing programs that raised more than $1.5 million. She left to take a position as director of development for the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh, and, most recently, she spent two years as a development officer for University Hospitals in Cleveland where she built a major gifts program for St. John Medical Center in Westlake.
Today, Ms. Ehlert finds it particularly exciting to undertake the unique challenges presented at Birchwood School surrounded by such a welcoming and dedicated community. She looks forward to the Birchwood development efforts attaining the same caliber as the school’s academic success.
Mr. Tim LaBar earned two degrees from The University of Akron: a Bachelor of Science in Education in sport studies, coaching and conditioning in 2011 and a Master of Science in athletic administration in 2015.
As an undergraduate student Mr. LaBar played baseball, and his passion for the sport continues as he enters his fifth year as the pitching coach at Lakewood High School and begins his role as their assistant athletic director. Mr. LaBar also serves on the board of the Lakewood Community Baseball Association and is a lead instructor for baseball camps and clinics throughout Northeast Ohio.
During his first two years at Birchwood, Mr. LaBar served as the fifth through eighth grade physical education teacher and now teaches physical education to kindergarten through eighth grade students. He organized the first annual Birchwood 5k in the spring of 2016, a school fundraiser and motivational tool for students and families.
The 2016-2017 school year will be Mr. LaBar’s first year teaching a health unit for each grade level. Mr. LaBar has a passion for helping children understand the importance of fitness, health and wellness, as well as reaching their fitness goals and preparing for sports clubs/teams outside of school.
Mrs. Cindy McNaughton stepped the her role as director of marketing and public relations for Birchwood School in 2012. Since that time enrollment at the school has increased by 60 percent. Her love for Birchwood and its mission shows in every aspect of her work as she promotes the many wonderful opportunities Birchwood offers to its students and their families.
A graduate of Cleveland State University with a bachelor’s degree in English and a minor in communications, Mrs. McNaughton appreciates the value of continuing education. In 2013 she began attending the Content Marketing World Conference and Expo hosted by the Content Marketing Institute, the leading global content marketing education and training organization. She has continued her involvement, volunteering at this Cleveland event ever since. In addition, for the past 10 years, Mrs. McNaughton has volunteered as a children's coordinator at her church.
Prior to her current role, Mrs. McNaughton taught physical education at Birchwood School. During her tenure, nearly half of her students earned either the coveted Presidential or National Physical Fitness Award following participation in the President's Challenge Physical Fitness Test each year.
In her earliest years, Mrs. McNaughton was an award-winning gymnast. She placed second at Ohio’s High School Gymnastic Championship, was named North Shore Conference all-around champion, and was voted most valuable player during her distinguished gymnastics career.
The mother of a current Birchwood School student and two Birchwood graduates, Mrs. McNaughton knows firsthand the value of a Birchwood education. As she and her husband continue to enjoy raising their family in Cleveland’s West Park neighborhood, her appreciation has grown for this educational gem on city’s west side.
Mrs. Linda Miyares is excited to be joining the administrative staff at Birchwood School. After graduating with a degree in English from Saint Bonaventure University in New York, Linda spent over 15 years in corporate work. In 2009, she became a stay-at-home mom and enjoyed teaching her children and volunteering in their schools and with their activities.
Growing up in a large family which emphasized the importance of books, education and opportunities for learning in everyday life led her to develop a passion for reading and natural curiosity. Seeing these pursuits reflected throughout the wonderful Birchwood community of students and families makes the school feel like home.
She and her husband are enormously proud of their son and daughter, both students in their early years at Birchwood.
Mrs. Donna Parrino has been a part of the Birchwood community since the beginning. She loved her supportive roles providing childcare for some of the teachers’ young children and as a parent of two boys who attended Birchwood. By day she would nurture the little ones (two and three year olds) in her home and in the evenings work on homework with her own children. All the while she appreciated the opportunities for great education that her sons were receiving.
Often, she would read the same literature her children were reading so they could have additional book discussions at home. The boys had fun with the challenges, including problem solving in math, and they loved history and geography, delving into projects with enthusiasm. Learning to write stories and poetry with creativity and some hard work gave the boys great satisfaction. Her children would often be inspired to set goals and stretch a little more, rising to the next challenge to see what each one could accomplish. This all became the best foundation for their secondary education, but even more, the character training helped shape them to be confident, successful and contributing individuals for life.
Later, Mrs. Parrino served staff, students and parents as the school secretary. The value of teamwork and learning together was something established in the small community from the beginning. It was amazing to see it in operation and the results. She also spent a number of years with students in the classroom. Working with a child, one on one, to give them a little extra practice to develop basic skills or engaging a small group of bright students who were ready for the next challenge were her favorite things to do.
In admissions, Mrs. Parrino helps people become well informed and up-to-date with Birchwood’s history and great academic achievement. There is so much to share with those who value great education and a place where children thrive.
Today, Birchwood is home may of our alumni’s children, including Mrs. Parrino’s grandchildren. She has found it exciting and gratifying to pass on a legacy of learning to the next generation.
Ms. Lisa Samarin joined the Birchwood staff in 1992 when her two children were students at the school, serving as the lunch/recess supervisor and aide in the administration office. Through the years Ms. Samarin has been involved with many aspects of Birchwood School. As a member of the Birchwood team she has been a teacher aide and substitute, copier technician, award and flyer designer and graduation coordinator.
In 1998 when Birchwood moved to a new facility, Ms. Samarin took over the after school care program, developed the program further, and was the main supervisor until 2014. She also initiated the before school program and served as its supervisor until this year.
Currently, Ms. Samarin serves as the administrative manager for Birchwood School. Ms. Samarin can be quoted as saying “It has always been a pleasure serving Birchwood families, especially getting to know and watch their children grow.”
Mrs. Brenda Spicer is an award winning marketing professional with over 20 years of experience working in nonprofit settings. The majority of Mrs. Spicer’s career was spent working for Cleveland Metroparks. Her work with the park district included editing the Emerald Necklace newsletter, serving as project manager for promotional videos, and developing a self-guided audio tour of unique natural spaces throughout Northeast Ohio.
While with Cleveland Metroparks, she was awarded exceptional performance recognition for her work in helping to bring the prestigious national Gold Medal Award for Excellence in park and recreation management to Cleveland. Additionally, she was selected to participate in a staff exchange with Parks Victoria in Melbourne, Australia where she managed centenary celebrations for two of Australia’s national parks.
Mrs. Spicer’s experience also includes working and freelancing in the marketing and communications departments of several Northeast Ohio hospitals.
Mrs. Spicer holds a Bachelor of Arts in telecommunications from Kent State University where she served secretary and then president of the student chapter of Women in Communications, Inc.
Outside of work, Mrs. Spicer enjoys spending time in the outdoors. Prior to becoming a mom, she participated in a backpacking and mountaineering adventure in Olympic National Park through the National Outdoor Leadership School. She was also a frequent Cleveland Metroparks Institute of Great Outdoors participant and volunteer, enjoying canoe camping, backpacking and winter camping.
As a teen and young adult, Mrs. Spicer enjoyed sailing competitively and was a member of the youngest crew to win first place in both the junior and senior nationals of the U.S. Mirror Dinghy Association. She also traveled to Wales to participate in the Mirror World Championships.
Today, Mrs. Spicer loves being a Birchwood mom, staff member and volunteer. She also enjoys supporting the student dance program at the Beck Center by serving as a member of the board of the Dance Alliance of Beck Center. Her responsibilities as marketing manager at Birchwood allow her to communicate with the school community via the Birchwood News email, Clipboard newsletter and birchwoodschool.org website.
Mrs. Emily Waldal is a proud Birchwood graduate who has brought her expertise in technology as well as her understanding of the Birchwood ethos to the school. She has been teaching at Birchwood for eight years and holds a Bachelor of Business Administration in information systems from Cleveland State University.
Mrs. Waldal teaches kindergarten and grades 5-8, and supervises computer/technology classes for grades 1-4. She is always excited to see children learn how technology can enrich and support their learning and life.
In addition, Mrs. Waldal hosts the website, waldal.com, so students can access fun, safe and engaging games to play online. Birchwood students are continually challenged to try something new in their computer/technology classes.