Mr. Charles Debelak is co-founder and head of Birchwood School of Hawken. 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 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 School District.
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)
- U.S. Merit Roll (top 5 percent of all schools)
- High Honor Roll, one student (top 1 percent of students nationwide)
- Honor Roll, seven students (top 5 percent of students nationwide)
As director of curriculum at Birchwood School of Hawken and co-founder with her husband, Charles, Mrs. 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), Junior Great Books, and a yearly poetry show were firmly established in the school’s system of education.
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. In 2016 she was awarded an honorary doctorate from her alma mater, Valparaiso. She studied abroad in Reutlingen, Germany and also taught for two years in Seoul, Korea.
Sharing ideas in a broader educational context is an ongoing endeavor. Mrs. Debelak is a co-author of the National History Standards K-4, has published in Social Studies and the Young Learner and written a book, “Literature for Building Character” (now a blog). Her service outside of Birchwood includes workshops for the Ohio Council for the Social Studies, the Midwest Archives Conference, National History Day, and the Ohio Future Problem Solving Program. With her husband she has presented workshops on topics such as creative problem solving and the strategic use of academic competitions at conferences of the Ohio Association of Gifted Children, Ohio Association of Independent Schools, and the Independent Schools Association of the Central States.
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 National Center for History in the Schools at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her awards include:
- The History Channel Teacher of the Year, 2005
- Ohio History Day Teacher of the Year, 1993
Currently, Mrs. Debelak teaches reading to third, fourth, seventh, and eighth grade students at Birchwood School of Hawken. She oversees the Leadership Program and coaches the intermediate FPS teams. Her students have earned state and national recognition:
- Ohio Celebration of Poets Anthology – Birchwood has been an Honor School since 2000 for the high number of seventh and eighth grade students that consistently have their poems published.
- Future Problem Solving teams – State finalists 25 out of 32 years, including 2nd-5th place trophies and five 1st place awards. International 2nd place, 2008.
- National History Day 1985-1994. Twelve top three national winners. State and local awards from the Early Settlers Association of the Western Reserve, The Plain Dealer and the Ohio History Connection.
Mrs. Debelak has four married children, three of whom are Birchwood alumni. She has 17 grandchildren, three of whom are triplets.
Dr. Christine Neider
Assistant Head of School
Director of Early Childhood
3rd-4th Social Studies
Dr. Christine Neider is an alumna of Birchwood School of Hawken 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 graduated high school from Hawken School.
Prior to becoming assistant head of school, Dr. Neider created an early childhood program that extends Birchwood’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 provide 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’s ethos to nurture the growth of every human being in our community.
Ms. Bethany Baldwin received a Bachelor of Arts in political science with a concentration in art history from Hiram College in 2005. She later enrolled in a certificate program in architectural plaster working at the American College of the Building Arts, which she completed in 2009. For the past five years she has been working with Hyde Park Mouldings, Inc. of Hauppauge, New York where she was cross-trained in ornamental sculpting and model-making before taking her current role as sales and marketing manager. Outside of work, Ms. Baldwin volunteers her time on the board of directors for the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art – Ohio and Lake Erie Chapter.
As a Birchwood School of Hawken alumna, Ms. Baldwin has enjoyed returning to the school to share her love of the fine and decorative arts with Birchwood students and to be inspired by their natural creativity!
Mrs. Hannah Bontje graduated from Birchwood School of Hawken in 2004, having attended since first grade. She went on to attend the Upper School at Hawken School and became involved with varsity sports (soccer, basketball, lacrosse). She also invested herself in honors and AP courses and even participated in National History Day two years at the senior division level, finishing in third place at the national level her senior year. She graduated cum laude from Hawken in 2008.
With a strong inclination towards math, problem solving and the creative arts, Mrs. Bontje pursued a Bachelor of Architecture at Syracuse University School of Architecture, whose program ranks top in the nation. She received numerous scholarships while attending, including the Robert W. Cutler Scholarship which allowed her to spend her entire fourth year abroad. She lived in both Florence and London, studying the architecture of countries all over Europe. She finished the five-year professional degree program with an additional minor in landscape architecture, graduating cum laude in 2013. She also spent three summers interning at Kaczmar Architects, Inc. in Cleveland.
Since junior high, Mrs. Bontje has continually invested her time in working with children. Her experiences range from helping conduct vacation bible schools and youth conferences to nanny jobs to mentoring junior and high school girls. When the opportunity arose for Mrs. Bontje to teach at Birchwood, she ecstatically accepted and is thrilled to take part in the shaping of children’s lives at this incredible school. She owes many of her own achievements and so much of her development as a person to Birchwood. For her, it is an honor to come full circle.
Miss Michelle Bottini graduated cum laude from Ohio University in December 2014 with a degree in integrated science education, grades 7-12. During her college years she participated in the Ohio University National Science Teachers Association (OUNSTA) where she spent time with other students discussing and practicing science education in Athens, Ohio schools. She also participated in a volunteer organization called Live Healthy Appalachia. During this time she taught and demonstrated to second grade students healthy eating and living habits that they could share with their families.
Miss Bottini completed her student teaching at Lakewood High School in the fall of 2014 where she taught 10th grade biology. After graduation in December 2014, Miss Bottini taught at Whitney M. Young Gifted and Talented Leadership Academy in Cleveland. She taught seventh and eighth grade science and high school chemistry and physics.
Miss Bottini was new to Birchwood School of Hawken for the 2015-16 school year. She was overwhelmed with joy by the warm welcome from the Birchwood community. Last year Miss Bottini taught fifth through eighth grade science. She also assisted with coaching the Science Olympiad team which placed fifth in the Elementary Division at Case Western Reserve University. During her first year at Birchwood Miss Bottini was also eager to be a part of the Character Committee to help drive our school mission.
Miss Bottini is enthusiastic about the upcoming school year as she will be teaching fourth, fifth, sixth and eighth grade science.
2015-2016 Student Awards
Young Astronauts Day NASA Glenn
Pilot Team: Grades 5-6, 3rd place
Water Rocket Challenge, 3rd place
Landing Gear Challenge, 3rd place
National Chemistry Week, American Chemical Society
Contest Winner: Grade 6 student
BEST Medicine Engineering Fair
Silver Medal: three student recipients
Northeastern Ohio Science and Engineering Fair
eight student participants
District Science Days
Excellent and Superior Ratings: 13 students recipients
State Science Day
Superior Rating: one student recipient
Mrs. Pam Brady has a degree in early childhood education and has been teaching children since 1991. In both the public and private school sector she has had the opportunity to work as a lead and an assistant teacher in preschool and pre-k classrooms.
Mrs. Brady believes that learning should be exciting. She is enthusiastic and appreciates seeing her students achieve their goals. Her personal philosophy is that each child should be recognized as an individual with different personalities and interests. A student with good self-esteem feels pride in their accomplishments; therefore they can achieve anything in life.
Outside of school, Mrs. Brady loves spending time in nature, swimming and traveling. She spends free time drawing and enjoys sharing her talents with her students. Mrs. Brady is also concerned about environmental issues. She has a strong interest in helping her students to be aware of the importance of saving our environment.
Ms. Linda Brown received her Bachelor of Science in education from the University of Alabama. She has been with Birchwood School of Hawken since 1983, when she spent a year with Mr. & Mrs. Chuck and Helene Debelak and Mrs. Lorraine Tzeng constructing a curriculum and plan for the school opening in 1984.
Ms. Brown is responsible for laying the foundation for Birchwood’s exceptional mathematics and science curriculum. Since 2002 she has dedicated her time exclusively to teaching science in grades 5-8. Her classes brim with enthusiasm as students are engaged developing projects, using the scientific method, working on lab experiments, doing research, and studying content at various levels.
Her students have won multiple awards at Young Astronaut Day, Western Reserve District 5 Science Day, Northeastern Ohio Science and Engineering Fair OhioView Satellites Geospatial Technology Conference, National Chemistry Week, Earth Day posters, and The Ohio State Science Fair. Ms. Brown is a three-time recipient of the Governors Award for Excellence in Math and Science, and her students’ accolades during 2013-14 include the following:
American Chemical Society (ACS) and National Chemistry Week
- 5th and 7th grade winners
BEST (Bridging Engineering, Science and Technology) Medicine Engineering Fair
- 3rd place, musculoskeletal 6-8th grade
The Broadcom MASTERS™
- Two students nominated in 2014
Cuyahoga County Solid Waste District Earth Day Photo Contest
- 1st place 9-11 year olds
District Science Days
- Four students earned superior rankings
- Two students earned excellent rankings
Northeast Ohio Elementary School Science Olympiads with Miss Tagaliarina
3rd place, Weather or Not
- 4th place, Circuit Wizardry
- 5th place, Disease Detectives
- 5th place, Don’t Bug Me
- 5th place, Simple Machines
- 3rd place, Water Quality
- 4th place, What Went By
Northeastern Ohio Science and Engineering Fair (NEOSEF)
- 2nd place Health and Medicine
- One student honorable mention, Health and Medicine
State Science Day
- Four students earned superior rankings
- One student earned excellent rating
- Harold C. Shaw Memorial Outstanding School Award
Young Astronaut Day at NASA Glenn
- 1st place, 3rd in the Aerodynamic Lift Challenge, K-6th grade team
- 2nd place, Asteroid Redirect Mission Competition, 7-12th grade team
Young Naturalist Award
- One student semi-finalist
Mrs. Ester Chen graduated from Case Western Reserve University in 2003 with a Bachelor in Arts in Asian studies. She then went on to teach English at Taipei Kuei Shan School, a budding bilingual school in Taipei City, Taiwan, for two years. There she realized her passion for teaching. She taught first and second graders’ English, math and science and was a homeroom teacher facilitating in many daily routines and corresponding with family members. Also, she was integral in creating and planning curriculum for the bilingual program.
After her great experience of teaching in Taiwan, she got married and settled down in Cleveland and began family life. She began her Master of Education at John Carroll University and received her degree in May 2012. She taught mandarin Chinese to pre-kindergarten students at Hathaway Brown School for several years before joining Birchwood School of Hawken in 2013.
Recognized as a talented young artist, Mrs. Esther Chin won many awards and competitions during her teenage years in Taiwan. She received a scholarship and came to the United States to study fine art, specializing in oil painting at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she earned a degree in 1997.
After she was married, Mrs. Chin became a freelance graphic designer for many years. At the same time, she also taught children ages 8-14 drawing and painting. One of her students is now working as an animation artist at Walt Disney World.
Mrs. Chin believes that although not all her students are destined to be artists, each has the potential to develop the ability to observe, to imagine, and to create in her class through the process of making art and learning to appreciate art.
Mrs. Esther Chu, who was born into a family of musicians and artists in Taiwan, became Birchwood’s music director in 2006. At that time, the music program at Birchwood School of Hawken was in its infancy. Mrs. Chu immediately began to apply her talent and passion for music to build up the choir. Within several years, she had also organized a variety of ensemble groups such as strings, wind instruments, guitars, recorders and mixed instruments in order to give as many children as possible a musical outlet.
In addition, she established a program for Birchwood students to reach out to the community by sharing music with the elderly. To encourage excellence, she also takes students to perform at the Greater Cleveland Solo and Ensemble contest where, last spring, they earned top rankings.
Mrs. Chu’s teaching career spans 24 years and extends from teaching preschool to college-age students. Since her college years, she had devoted much time and energy to studying and exploring the best ways to develop the musical gift that she feels is within each child.
When one considers Mrs. Chu’s musical development, her vision for each child is not surprising. She enjoyed singing and playing instruments before attending school. At the age of five she began formal training and by the time she was nine was performing and winning piano competitions. Three years later she was winning vocal competitions. As a young adult, she went on to become the accompanist for a famous youth choir in Taiwan.
After graduating from the Chinese Culture University in Taiwan in 1986, Mrs. Chu came to the United States for advanced studies. She received her Master of Arts in piano pedagogy from California State University, Los Angeles in 1994. Her piano teachers included Susan Svrcek, Paul Vanasse, Robert Ward and Meng-xiang Li, all of whom are legendary pianists.
In addition she studied music education programs, including teaching credential courses, at California State University, Los Angeles and Cleveland State University. Her studies also span to include computer music at Cleveland State and Oberlin College & Conservatory.
In 2001, she became one of the founders of the To-sheng ensemble, a group of professional Christian musicians from the Great Lakes area. Mrs. Chu composed several hymns and arranged instrumental parts for the ensemble which has recorded six CDs.
Mrs. Chu is a sought-after piano teacher whose students have won local, state and international honors. Some of them even won honors at the American Protégé International Piano and Strings Competition and were invited to perform at Carnegie Hall.
Mrs. Chu an accompanist for her church choir. She also coaches summer Christian music camps at Kenyon and Oberlin colleges. Realizing that one’s musical education is never complete, Mrs. Chu continues to receive Orff Schulwerk music training and attends music teacher workshops.
Mrs. Chu is a member of the Ohio Music Teachers Association and the National Federation of Music Clubs.
Ms. Nicole Gregory holds a Bachelor of Science degree with a duel certification, in mathematics and science, from Cleveland State University. While at Cleveland State, she tutored and assisted in undergraduate mathematics courses ranging from college algebra to multi-variable calculus.
A Clarkston, Michigan native, Ms. Gregory was recruited to play Division 1 tennis at Cleveland State. As her family originated from the Cleveland area, there was nowhere else she would rather settle to continue her education and begin her teaching career than in Cleveland.
Ms. Gregory is thrilled to be teaching for Birchwood School. Her passion for teaching problem solving skills, engaging activities and enriching children's lives will unlatch the door of learning.
Mrs. Casey Hallett graduated summa cum laude from Cleveland State University with a Bachelor of Science degree in early childhood education in May 2011. Mrs. Hallett moved to Raleigh, North Carolina after graduating to pursue her teaching career. She taught kindergarten in a public school for four years.
Mrs. Hallett was nominated twice for the district’s “Honor a Teacher” distinction and was selected as a district “Teacher of the Month.”
While she and her husband loved North Carolina, nothing compared to having family close by, so they moved back to Cleveland the summer of 2015. After visiting Birchwood, she knew it was the place to continue her teaching career.
Mrs. Hallett believes the early years are crucial to a child’s education and character development. Her hope is to nurture lifelong learners who develop a love of reading, writing, math and everyday problem-solving by helping them form a solid foundation to successfully continue on their life’s journey.
Dr. Catherine Haskins holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Massachusetts, as well as a Master of Social Work from Boston University. She graduated from Harvard University in 1986 with a bachelor's degree in Russian.
In high school, Dr. Haskins was very fond of Latin and Greek. She earned a perfect score on the Latin SAT Subject Test and completed two Latin AP classes with top marks.
After moving to Cleveland from Washington D.C. in 2006, Dr. Haskins and her husband were grateful to discover a school for their daughter with Birchwood’s philosophical underpinnings, rigorous academics, and no-ceilings approach to curriculum.
Dr. Haskins has served as a Latin, Greek, math, SAT, and ACT tutor; she remains a scholar of foreign languages such as French and Korean. She enjoys introducing Birchwood School of Hawken students to the study of Latin and Greek with their rich vocabulary and elaborate but logical grammars.
Miss Becky Hoelter joined the Birchwood School of Hawken staff in 2012 as the preschool/kindergarten after care teacher and in 2013 she became a preschool aide. Miss Hoelter enjoys being part of collaborative effort at Birchwood and part of children’s initial school experiences.
Miss Hoelter is a graduate of Bowling Green State University with a Bachelor of Science in Education. Her studies focused on special education. She has worked with students of all abilities in preschool through eighth grade in a variety of settings for over ten years.
Ms. Mary Kausek has performed with over 15 professional orchestras, including The Cleveland Orchestra and Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. She has performed as principal oboe of the Pittsburgh Opera, Akron Symphony, Wheeling Symphony and Great Lakes Theater, among others. Ms. Kausek is the principal oboist of CityMusic Cleveland, and she is also the English horn player of the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra and Firelands Symphony Orchestra.
As the Fernand Gillet Fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center, she performed seven world premieres in celebration of their 75th year, including works by John Williams and Bright Sheng. Other summer engagements include performances with the National Repertory Orchestra and the Breckenridge Music Festival Orchestra. In 2012, she performed across Japan with members of The Philadelphia Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Vienna Philharmonic as a member of the Pacific Music Festival. Mary has worked with such notable conductors as Fabio Luisi, Ludovic Morlot, Andris Nelsons, Michael Stern, Stephan Deneve, Michael Tilson Thomas and Charles Dutoit.
Ms. Kausek has earned degrees at the University of Texas at Austin and Cleveland Institute of Music. Her teachers were Rebecca Henderson and Frank Rosenwein. In addition to her orchestral experience, Mary is the oboist and founding member of the Cleveland-based woodwind quintet, North Coast Winds. In 2015, they earned second place at the Yellow Springs Competition for Emerging Professional Ensembles. North Coast Winds has founded a chamber music camp for wind quintets in grades 6-12 and is actively engaged within the community.
Ms. Kausek is teaching clarinet to fifth and sixth grade students at Birchwood School as well as offering after school private clarinet lessons to interested students.
Mrs. Nancy Isherwood was born and brought up in Seoul, Korea. She has lived in South Korea, Hong Kong and the United States. She graduated from Magnificat High School and Cleveland State University with a Bachelor of Arts in French and completed post graduate studies at the Alliance Francais in Paris, France.
Before marrying, Mrs. Isherwood worked at a statutory agent and a substitute teacher as well as at a Montessori preschool and Borders Bookstore. Mrs. Isherwood’a son, Alexander, attended Birchwood School of Hawken for eight years and graduated in 2012.
Mrs. Amy Kohut is a Birchwood parent alum. Her son is a high school student at Lake Ridge Academy. She spent many years volunteering within the Birchwood community, both as treasurer of the Parent Committee and as a homeroom parent.
Mrs. Kohut was excited to join the Birchwood School staff as a Before and After School Care aide for Early Childhood students in 2015. For the 2016-2017 school year, her role has expanded to include serving as the music aide for first through third grade students.
Mrs. Kohut holds a Master of Arts in sociology from Cleveland State University. She previously worked at Cleveland State as a teaching research assistant.
Mrs. Shelley Kokitka graduated from the University of Toledo in 1992 with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education. While in college she worked at Epworth Methodist Church as the lead preschool teacher.
Upon graduation Mrs. Kokitka served as a lead preschool teacher at Horizon Activity Center before joining the staff of SS. Cyril & Methodius School in Lakewood as a sixth through eighth grade reading, science and computer teacher. While at the school she developed a science curriculum in biology which was adopted by other teachers and also established the first middle school science fair which became an annual event enjoyed by many.
After the birth of Mrs. Kokitka’s first child she became a stay-at-home mom and began a licensed in-home daycare, offering young children creative learning centers to help foster a love of learning. Once her three children were in school she went back to the classroom as a substitute teacher in the Olmsted Falls City Schools.
In 2015, Mrs. Kokitka joined the staff of Birchwood School as a kindergarten aide and she couldn’t be more thrilled. Outside the classroom she enjoys spending time with her family, cooking and visiting Cleveland Metroparks. She also enjoys working with animals and is certified in pet first aid through the American Red Cross.
Step into Mrs. Karen Kufahl’s classroom. It is a realm that fosters great writing and a love of history. Mrs. Kufahl expects her students to write daily and coaches them toward clarity of expression. She also appreciates the sacrifices of the men and women who have given so much to establish our nation and strives to nurture that sense of dedication and service to others in her social studies classes.
Through her teaching it is no wonder that her students become exceptional writers who together celebrate each other’s success and mini-historians who grow up to make impressive contributions to society.
Originally, Mrs. Kufahl did not imagine herself as either a writing or a social studies teacher. But she has been involved with Birchwood School almost from the beginning–first as a parent shepherding her four children through the Birchwood program, then as a teacher’s aide, and now as a language arts and social studies teacher. She still remembers the day when Mrs. Helene Debelak, co-founder of Birchwood School, asked if she would be interested in pursuing a college degree and then coming back to Birchwood. With her children mostly grown, Mrs. Kufahl took the opportunity to complete her degree at Baldwin Wallace University in 2000 before beginning to teach language arts and social studies to Birchwood’s third through fifth graders. Success soon followed.
Under her dedicated instruction, Birchwood’s creative and imaginative young writers blossomed with daily practice, weekly writing goals, and efforts to enter contests and become published authors. They also grew to love the history simulations, field trips and hands-on activities that made social studies a class that students were eager to attend.
“Each fall my language arts students enter several contests,” said Mrs. Kufahl. “After many, or even just a few, see their work accepted for publication, the entire class realizes that success is possible, and they are eager to write.” During the 2015-2016 school year, 75 percent of Mrs. Kufahl’s fifth grade students were published by Creative Communication and two received prizes in a Cricket magazine fiction-writing contest, one earning first place and having his story published in this national magazine while another received an honorable mention award. Another child won first place in a diamante poetry competition sponsored by The Plain Dealer, earning a visit from Cleveland Indians pitcher Bryan Shaw who arrived with Slider and a pizza party for the entire class. Finally, a third student was named first place winner for the state of Ohio in the national Letters About Literature competition. This is especially notable since 974 entries were submitted at this level throughout the state.
Mrs. Kufahl is enthusiastic about the Birchwood writing curriculum, “Learning To Write by Writing,” because it matches perfectly her own journey into writing. “I am delighted I can teach children to write using a program that mirrors my own experience,” she notes. “I learned to write by writing every day.”
She also grew to love history by helping her children through years of developing history projects. “It is wonderful to have the opportunity to help children realize that history is exciting, that those who came before us impact every area of our lives.” Mrs. Kufahl’s summer project included many hours of labor to take a fresh look at the fourth grade social studies curriculum with the goal of infusing it with even more sentient learning experiences, including quarterly field trips, speakers, research and mini-research projects, various genres of historical writing, and hands-on learning projects such as cooking, simulations, historical games and music. Enhancing the already-rich study of Ohio history, the year should prove to be an engaging and exciting one for the students.
Although she admits that writing and doing historical research will always be challenging arts, she stresses that it doesn”t have to be the torturous struggle so many students experience in high school and college because they never wrote much or engaged in research when they were younger. As Mrs. Kufahl labors to help students touch the joy of learning, she feels honored to be their teacher since reading their work gives her a window into her students’ hearts and seeing them grow into productive and critically thinking citizens is innately rewarding.
The following is a list of awards won by Mrs. Kufahl’s students in 2015-16:
Cricket Magazine Writing Contests
• March 2016 – honorable mention
• October 2015—first place
Creative Communication Essay Writing Contests
• Fall 2015 – 18/24 students’ essays accepted for publication
• Winter 2016 —14/20 students’ essays accepted for publication
Letters About Literature Contest
• Two Birchwood students reached the final round of judging
• State of Ohio first place winner for Level 1 (Grades 4-6). Total entries: 974
The Plain Dealer Diamante Contest
• First place
After serving as a sonar technician in the United States Navy for six years, Mr. Richard Kurtz attended East Carolina University where he was awarded his Bachelor of Arts in both English and philosophy with a GPA of 4.0. He was a member of both the Golden Key and Phi Kappa Phi honor societies, and later went on to earn his Master of Arts in English with a concentration in literature, again with a GPA of 4.0.
He acted as assistant editor of the North Carolina Literary Review while in graduate school and was chosen as East Carolina University’s 1998 graduate school student commencement speaker. Mr. Kurtz has traveled extensively around the world, teaching English in such places as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Barcelona Spain, and then in Taiwan, where he was school director for a language academy for 15 years.
Mr. Kurtz has published several opinion articles on the web, over two dozen poems in renowned literary journals, had his poem “He Weighs the World at Four” selected as poem of the year in Pif Magazine, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2010 for the poem, “Star Sapphire.”
Mr. Richard Kurtz joined the Birchwood staff in 2014 and enjoys challenging students in language arts and reading.
Mr. Tim LaBar
K-8th Physical Education
7th-8th Exercise Program
Main Office Assistant
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. Judith Little attended The Ohio State University from 1971-1974 as a music education major. Her education was interrupted to begin a family. From 1987-1989, she continued her education at Baldwin Wallace University, graduating magna cum laude with a bachelor of science in education, and a dual certification for elementary and music.
Mrs. Little began teaching at Birchwood School in the fall of 1991. Working full-time at Birchwood School over a period of 15 years has afforded her the opportunity to teach a wide range of subjects, including social studies, science, reading, music, and art at the primary, intermediate and junior high levels, although her areas of expertise are reading and the fine arts. Through the years, she has purposefully woven reading, music and art into the social studies and science curriculums. She has enjoyed coaching students in various competitions, including the National History Day Competition, ExploraVision Science Competition, Creative Communications Poetry Competition, and the Pentel International Children’s Art Competition. Her students have won state, national and international recognition in these arenas.
During her tenure, Mrs. Little has also contributed to curriculum development and program enhancement. She helped rewrite curriculum for both reading and social studies and added substantially to the social studies and science libraries. For several years she directed the annual schoolwide poetry show, working to raise the level of performance. Each class recites 15 minutes of poetry according to a designated theme, and class presentations include an introduction, costuming, blocking, choreography, and props. Also, she created an in-house speech contest for junior high students. Mrs. Little wrote a music curriculum for grades 1-8 and developed the music program in its initial stage. She created and instituted an annual Fine Arts Night, which included musical performances, student artwork, and drama presentations. Later, she created a fine arts curriculum for junior high students.
After being away for a few years, Mrs. Little returned on a part-time basis in 2010 and is currently teaching 5th and 6th grade reading. Following is a list of recent student poetry awards:
Creative Communication’s Ohio Celebration of Poets Spring 2014 Anthology
• Ten 5th grade winners
• Fifteen 6th grade winners
Cricket Magazine March, 2014
• Five 5th grade winners
• Four 6th grade winners
Ms. Laura Mamone graduated cum laude from Bowling Green State University with a double major in history and sociology. After working in several daycare settings, she became a stay-at-home mom to her three children while also continuing to volunteer and work in a variety of school settings. As her children neared high school graduation, Ms. Mamone returned to school at Baldwin Wallace University where she earned her teaching license and master of education degree, along with a K-12 reading endorsement, in 2010. It was during this time her youngest son, who is a student at Birchwood, came into her life.
From 2010 until 2014, Ms. Mamone taught at Madison Community Elementary School, which is a part of Constellation Schools. She worked with kindergarten through 3rd grade students as a math and reading Title I teacher. When a teaching position became available at Birchwood, she was excited to become a member of the Birchwood family as not only a parent but also a teacher.
Ms. Mamone's favorite activity is spending time with her family, but she also enjoys reading, gardening and her four cats.
Mrs. Connie Miller joined the Birchwood community in 1993 when her oldest son entered the first grade. From the beginning she was involved with the school. She was part of the first group of parents to form the Birchwood Parent Committee and was an integral part of the planning for the first few years of the International Festival and Auction. She also worked part-time before becoming a full-time teacher in 1998.
Her first year teaching seventh and eighth grade social studies also marked her first year of taking students to the national level of the National History Day competition. Fifteen students qualified and set the standard. Since then, Birchwood students have qualified each year and have won many awards. From 1999 to 2016, 145 of her students qualified to compete at the national competition held at the University of Maryland and 53 placed in their respective categories. In addition, Mrs. Miller has served as a judge for many years at the national competition.
In 2007, she received the David Van Tassel Award for outstanding contributions to History Day and in 2010, the Ohio Humanities Council recognized her as the District 3 Teacher of Merit. She also received the 2010 Ohio History Day Teacher of Merit award from the Ohio Historical Society (which is now the Ohio History Connection).
Mrs. Miller enjoys taking students through the process of historical research and helping them present their findings in diverse ways. With enthusiasm, she strives to engage her students’ interest in history and endeavors to stimulate their critical thinking skills, not only in looking at the past but also in considering history’s relevance to today’s world.
Below is a brief listing of her students’ accomplishments in the 2015-2016 school year.
Kenneth E. Behring National History Day Contest
University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland, June 2016
• National qualifiers – 12 students
• Second place – Group Exhibit: The Influenza Pandemic of 1918
• Sixth place and Civil Rights History Award – Individual Historical Paper: The Hough Riots
National History Day, State Contest
Ohio Wesleyan University, Delaware, Ohio, April 2016
In addition to the above qualifiers:
• National alternates – 2 students
• Special award – Ohio Historical Records Advisory Board
National History Day, District Contest
Case Western Reserve University/Cleveland History Center, Cleveland, Ohio, March 2016
• First place – 10 students
• Second place – 9 students
• Third place – 3 students
• Honorable mention – 2 students
Mrs. Jessica Moore graduated cum laude from Cleveland State University in 2012 with a degree in early childhood education. In October, 2013 she began teaching first grade at Stepstone Academy in Cleveland. During her college years she worked at Bethel Christian Academy's aftercare program and taught dance and gymnastics to children 18 months to five years of age through Bop and Bounce, LLC. Mrs. Moore was also a cheerleader throughout her college years and coached high school cheerleading at Parma Senior High School from 2012-2014.
Mrs. Moore enjoyed her many roles at Birchwood her first year, including becoming the third grade homeroom and science teacher in January. She enjoyed teaching first through third grade social studies during the 2015-16 school year and was overwhelmed with joy from the support she received from the families and staff during the year.
Mrs. Moore is enthusiastic about her third school year at Birchwood as she will be teaching first through fourth grade social studies. She has a passion for history and the city of Cleveland – she knows all the free events around town. Mrs. Moore is looking forward to a year full of exploration and adventure!
Mrs. Krystyna Moreno has a bachelor of science degree from Cleveland State University in business administration. Prior to joining the staff at Birchwood School, she worked for UPS for 15 years; first as a driver and then as a supervisor.
In 2013, Mrs. Moreno joined the Birchwood School staff. She serves as an aide for art, music, recess and lunch. She enjoys spending time with students in class, on the playground and during lunch each day.
Mrs. Moreno has enjoyed traveling the world and has spent time in France, Japan, Spain, Poland, Greece, Colombia, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Holland, England, the Czech Republic, Ecuador, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Puerto Rico.
She has two children. Her daughter is a Birchwood graduate, currently attending Hathaway Brown’s Upper School, and her son is a fifth grade student at Birchwood. Mrs. Moreno is a proud Birchwood parent, volunteer and staff member.
Mine is a Birchwood legacy family. Thirty years ago, during the school’s genesis, I attended as a student. Now two of my three sons are enrolled.
In between, Birchwood’s message of personal betterment while making the world a better place has stuck with me. I graduated summa cum laude with dual degrees in history and Asian studies from Case Western Reserve University.
Fascination with Eastern societies led me to the other side of the Earth. My wife Emily and I were hired by a Chinese school in Taiwan to start a bilingual program. We spent three years there, creating reading, language arts, math and science curriculum. I was eventually promoted to head teacher as the program grew, and new hires needed training and evaluation. The job was transformative. I learned I had the right stuff for the classroom and could bridge culture divides.
The next season of life took us back to the United States but onto a different professional track. The University of Illinois boasted of a journalism program with a strong record. My wife and I earned master’s degrees there and went on to write for daily newspapers in the Midwest and South. One highpoint in journalism was winning an award from the state press association for my coverage of a catastrophic tornado.
When we decided to start our family, I switched back to teaching. Austin Peay State University in Tennessee offered a master’s in teaching program. My performance there and my reputation from newspaper journalism landed me a job at a public high school in western Kentucky.
For five years, I taught social studies to approximately 800 students. Of course that position equipped me with plenty of teacher know-how. But I also had the opportunity to lead several epic field trips, one to Washington D.C. and another to Chicago. My final year there I served as the school’s gifted program coordinator and the class valedictorian chose me as her most inspiring teacher.
I am glad to have brought my family back to live in my hometown. The many changes Cleveland has undergone in my 14 year absence make it feel like a new city.
Sra. Noemi Rodriguez began her career in 1966 as a kindergarten teacher (her childhood dream in Buenos Aires, Argentina) and quickly gained the attention of the system’s administration with her exceptional results. Sra. Rodriguez developed an innovate approach to early childhood education synthesizing the methods of Maria Montessori and the theory of Jean Piaget. She was asked to develop kindergarten curriculum for the Buenos Aires public school system.
In 1987, Sra. Rodriguez immigrated to the United States and began training with the Berlitz School of Languages to teach Spanish to Cleveland’s international business community. During the next 15 years, she became one of the most sought after Spanish tutors in Greater Cleveland for adults and children.
In 2004 Sra. Rodriguez started teaching Spanish at Birchwood School in grades 1-8. When the school decided to start a kindergarten class in 2009 Sra. Rodriguez was the perfect choice. Under her vision, expertise and hard work, Birchwood’s first kindergarten class was a success. Now that an exceptional kindergarten program has been firmly established, Sra. Rodriguez has returned her focus to teaching Spanish to students in K-8th grade. In addition, she also serves as the coordinator of Birchwood's After School Enrichment Program.
Mrs. Kathleen Shumway graduated from Ryerson University in Toronto, Ontario in 2004 with a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education with a minor in psychology. In July 2004 she accepted a lead preschool teaching position at Ryerson Early Learning Center, a progressive lab school in downtown Toronto. It was a rewarding experience teaching young children, working with their families, and having the privilege of mentoring university students interested in early childhood education.
In August 2006 Kathleen got married and moved to Cleveland. She became a U.S. citizen in January 2012. For several years Kathleen worked at Mather Childcare as a master teacher in a preschool classroom. Upon having a son in February 2010, Kathleen decided to use her knowledge of early childhood education and start her own child care center in her home.
Kathleen was excited to begin working at Birchwood School in August 2012 as a preschool teacher in a program that allows children to explore and be challenged to develop their full potential before entering kindergarten.
Mr. Michael Sprau is a graduate of Cleveland State University, where he earned a Bachelor of Science in elementary education. He began teaching at Birchwood in 2003 after four years experience at public and private schools. He and his wife, Mrs. Rhonda Sprau, have two adult children who are both alumni of Birchwood School.
In 2009 Mr. Sprau piloted the primary mathematics classroom, in which he is a full-time math teacher for students in grades 1-4. His dedication and hard work have made the program a success. His students consistently earn top distinctions in national math competitions, such as the Noetic Learning and Continental Mathematics League contests. They also score among the best on standardized math tests, such as the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. Many even qualify to take the ACT Explore test, which is designed for eighth and ninth grade students. Mr. Sprau’s students routinely go on to take advanced math courses in Birchwood’s upper grades and in high school. Since 2010, he has held a weekly after school math club, a voluntary program for students who wish to improve their problem solving skills and prepare for math competitions. Although he acknowledges that math can be hard work, he also believes that, when given the appropriate tools, pace and oversight, all students can succeed in math, regardless of natural ability.
Together with his co-teacher, Mrs. Hannah Bontje, Mr. Sprau provides a nurturing classroom environment that gives Birchwood students a head start in their academic careers.
Mrs. Rhonda Sprau graduated from Case Western Reserve University with a Bachelor of Arts degree. She has been teaching at Birchwood School since 2002. Her classroom exudes her love of reading with a library of more than 2,000 books, a listening center and multiple learning activities.
She is certified by the Junior Great Books Foundation as a great books basic leader and is a member of the International Literacy Association. Mrs. Sprau created and maintains her own blog, mrstreasures.edublogs.org, which helps parents choose appropriate, quality books for their children.
Mrs. Sprau is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and the Westside Kid’s Writers’ Group. Her students have had work published in Spider magazine and have won local and national awards in the PBS Young Authors and Illustrators Contest.
Since joining Birchwood School, she and her husband, Mr. Michael Sprau, who is also a teacher at Birchwood School, have greatly strengthened the school’s sense of community and family.
Mrs. Lorraine Tzeng
6th-8th Language Arts
6th Future Problem Solving/Thinking Skills
Mrs. Lorraine Tzeng started teaching language arts when Birchwood School opened its doors in 1984. After four years she took a hiatus to raise her four children, all of whom are Birchwood alumni. In 2004 she returned to continue developing the writing program at Birchwood.
Over the years she has incorporated the pedagogy of writing pioneers like Peter Elbow, Donald Graves, Donald Murray and Lucille Payne, and she continues to evolve as she learns from her students. Many of her pupils have distinguished themselves in local, state and national writing contests where they have been awarded honors in prestigious competitions like Letters About Literature and the Scholastic Writing Awards.
Mrs. Tzeng earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Case Western Reserve University. She is a member of the National Council of Teachers of English and a competition judge for Power of the Pen and the Ohio Future Problem Solving Program.
From 2012-2016, her students have earned the following recognition:
Letters About Literature
- Twenty-five students (grades 6-8) recognized in various levels of the state level competition, from semifinalists to finalists
- Three first place Ohio winners
Scholastic Writing Awards
- Eighty-three middle grade students recognized at the regional level from honorable mention to silver and gold awards
- Three Gold Key award recipients in 2016, two of whom were nominated for a “Voices of America” award, one earned a top of the category award
- One national award winner
Power of the Pen
- Multiple team and individual awards at the local, district and state levels.
- Seven state finalists in 2016
- Two of the seven state finalists recognized for special awards
- Three state finalists qualified for the Power Round
- Second place Overall Team at the state finals
Promising Young Writers Program, Eighth Grade Students
- Two award winners
Future Problem Solving (FPS) Scenario Writing Contest
- Ten state winners
- Three international winners
Mrs. Emily Waldal is a proud Birchwood School of Hawken graduate who has brought her expertise in technology and 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.
Kindergarten as well as fifth through eighth grade students learn computer/technology skills in Mrs. Waldal’s classroom, while first through fourth grade grade students benefit from her supervision.
She finds it exciting when students discover how technology can enrich and support their life and learning, and has developed waldal.com to provide students with safe and engaging online learning tools.
Birchwood students are continually challenged to try something new, including the following coursework developed by Mrs. Waldal:
- Virtual Reality Academy for middle school students (in conjunction with the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton)
- Virtual Reality Academy for grades 7-8
Ms. Joanna West
7th-8th Future Problem Solving
7th-8th Exercise Program
Ms. Joanna West graduated cum laude from Otterbein College in 2007 with a degree in early childhood education and a reading endorsement (K-12). In August 2007, Ms. West began teaching preschool at Fit by Five in Westlake. In 2008 she got a teaching job at the Avon Goddard School where she taught Pre-K for two years and worked with children in kindergarten through fifth grade in an after school program. In 2010, when the opportunity arose to return to her alma mater, Ms. West was ecstatic.
During Ms. West's first two years at Birchwood, she was the aide in the kindergarten as well as the third and fourth grade reading teacher.
During the 2012-2013 and the 2013-2014 school years, Ms. West taught social studies and reading to the third and fourth grade as well as physical education. In 2013 she began teaching turbo kick (kickboxing) to grades 3-8 in the Birchwood after school program. Ms. West’s passion for literature makes her an ideal person to teach third and fourth grade reading and language arts.