Our Teachers

Charles Debelak

Head of School
8th Homeroom
8th Ben Franklin Initiative
5th-8th Math

Bio: Charles Debelak is co-founder and head of Birchwood School of Hawken. With 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, he and his wife, Helene, founded Birchwood School in 1984, together with a small group of parents, to give their own children the best education possible. Prior to the school’s founding he taught in public and private schools as well as Seoul, South Korea, and designed the gifted program for Willoughby-Eastlake schools. Mr. Debelak teaches mathematics to fifth through eighth grade students. He and his students have earned local, state, and national recognition including receiving the 2012-13 Math Olympiads Highest Team Award, being named Ohio’s MathCounts Coach in 2011, and being a three-time recipient of the Ohio Governors Award for Excellence in Math and Science.

Helene Debelak

Director of Curriculum
8th Homeroom
7th-8th Reading
7th-8th Leadership Program
7th-8th Future Problem Solving/Thinking Skills
5th-8th Avid Readers Club
Mrs. Debelak's blog

Bio: As director of curriculum and co-founder of Birchwood School of Hawken, Helene Debelak worked with teachers to develop a curriculum in line with the school’s mission. She holds 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 co-authored National History Standards K-4, published in Social Studies and the Young Learner, and authored “Literature for Building Character” (now a blog). Valparaiso awarded her an honorary doctorate in 2016. Service includes workshops for the Ohio Council for the Social Studies, Midwest Archives Conference, National History Day, and Ohio Future Problem Solving. She served on the state board of Future Problem Solving and the National History Standards project. Awards include The History Channel Teacher of the Year and Ohio History Day Teacher of the Year. She teaches reading to seventh and eighth grade students. Her students have earned state and national recognition, including Ohio Celebration of Poets Honor School recognition and Future Problem Solving team state finalists.

Sarah Alicea 

Kindergarten Aide

Bio:  Sarah Alicea holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Early Childhood Education from The Ohio State University and graduated Magna Cum Laude with a Master’s Degree in Education from John Carroll University. Sarah started her teaching career at Birchwood School of Hawken in 2006 as a reading teacher for grades 3-5. She thoroughly enjoyed teaching at Birchwood and came to cherish the students, parents, and faculty. In 2009
after the birth of her son and a move to Columbus, she decided to leave the classroom in order to raise her family. In 2017, Sarah moved back to Cleveland and a year later had the opportunity to return to Birchwood as a kindergarten aide. She says that after returning to Birchwood nine years later, much has changed, yet the heart of Birchwood has remained the same. Sarah and her husband, Jose, have 3 children who attend Birchwood School of Hawken.


Bethany Baldwin

5th-8th Art

Bio: Bethany Baldwin holds a Bachelor of Arts in political science with a concentration in art history from Hiram College and a certificate in architectural plaster working from the American College of the Building Arts. She is the sales and marketing manager with Hyde Park Mouldings, Inc. of Hauppauge, New York. Her training with the organization includes ornamental sculpting and model-making. She serves on the board of directors of the Ohio and Lake Erie Chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art. As a Birchwood School of Hawken alumna, she is enjoying her return to the school to share her love of the fine and decorative arts with Birchwood students and to be inspired by their natural creativity!

Michelle Bottini

5th Homeroom
4th-7th Science

Bio: Michelle Bottini graduated cum laude from Ohio University in December 2014 with a degree in integrated science education, grades 7-12. As a college student, she participated in the Ohio University National Science Teachers Association where she spent time discussing and participating in science education in local schools. She also participated in Live Healthy Appalachia, teaching second grade students healthy eating and living habits. After graduation she taught seventh and eighth grade science and high school chemistry and physics at Whitney M. Young Gifted and Talented Leadership Academy in Cleveland. She has helped her Birchwood students achieve success, including awards from National Chemistry Week sponsored by the American Chemical Society, the BEST Medicine Engineering Fair, the Northeastern Ohio Science and Engineering Fair, District Science Days, and more.

Rana Bottino

2nd Homeroom
1st-4th Science

Bio: Rana Bottino holds a Bachelor of Science from Rutgers University and Master of Science from New Jersey Institute of Technology. She worked as a scientist and project manager in environmental consulting before becoming an environmental educator at the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes. Over the next six years, she taught and developed a variety of science and environmental curriculum designed to educate and inspire students in pre-kindergarten through grade 6. In 2015 she completed the Intensive Pedagogical Training Institute through the Ohio Department of Education and received her certification in integrated science and earth science for grades K-12.

Todd Boyer

2nd Homeroom
1st-4th Social Studies

Bio: Todd Boyer graduated summa cum laude from Cleveland State University with a Bachelor of Science in early childhood education and holds a reading endorsement (K-12).  He began his teaching career at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Lakewood teaching a pre-K class. He then spent three years teaching pre-K in Fairview Park City Schools as well as teaching Title I as a reading tutor with kindergarten students. Todd has also directed several Camp Invention® STEM summer camps around the Greater Cleveland area geared toward K-6 students.  In addition, Todd is the proud parent of a sixth and seventh grade student here at Birchwood. Examining history and humanities have always been a leisure pursuit of Todd’s and he is eager for our students to find this same joy and satisfaction as they immerse themselves in social studies. 

Pam Brady

Preschool Lead Teacher

Bio: Pam Brady holds a degree in early childhood education and has been teaching children since 1991. She has served as a lead and assistant teacher in preschool and pre-k classrooms in both public and private schools . She believes that learning should be exciting and that each child should be recognized as an individual. A student with good self-esteem feels pride in their accomplishments and can achieve anything in life.

Linda Brown

5th Homeroom
5th-8th Science

Bio: Linda Brown holds a Bachelor of Science in education from the University of Alabama. She has been with Birchwood School of Hawken since its planning stages. She 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. She is a three-time recipient of the Governors Award for Excellence in Math and Science.

Ester Chen

Kindergarten

Bio: Ester Chen holds a Bachelor in Arts in Asian studies from Case Western Reserve University and a Master of Education from John Carroll University. She taught English at Taipei Kuei Shan School in Taipei City, Taiwan and Mandarin Chinese to pre-kindergarten students at Hathaway Brown.

Esther Chin

K-4th Art

Bio: Recognized as a talented young artist, Esther Chin won many awards and competitions during her teenage years in Taiwan. She received a scholarship and came to the US to study fine art, specializing in oil painting at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she earned a degree. She worked as a freelance graphic designer for many years while also teaching children ages 8-14 drawing and painting. She believes that although not all students are destined to be artists, each has the potential to develop the ability to observe, to imagine, and to create through the process of making art and learning to appreciate art.

Esther Chu

Music Director
1st-5th General Music
Choir & Ensemble Director

Bio: Esther Chu's teaching career spans 24 years and extends from teaching preschool to college-age students. At the age of five she began formal training and by nine years old she was winning piano competitions. Three years later she was winning vocal competitions. After graduating from the Chinese Culture University in Taiwan, she received her Master of Arts in piano pedagogy from California State University. In addition, she studied at music education at California State University and Cleveland State University, and computer music at Cleveland State and Oberlin College & Conservatory. 

Some of her students won American Protege at International Music Talent, piano and strings Competition 2006-2019 and performed at Carnegie Hall, NY. In addition, under her guidance, Birchwood Quartet won best Bach & Brahms performances at International Great Composers Competitions, 2018.

Nicole Gregory 

8th Homeroom
5th-8th Math

Bio: Nicole Gregory holds a Bachelor of Science in middle childhood education and a Masters of Education in Gifted Education from Cleveland State University. While at Cleveland State, she tutored and assisted in undergraduate mathematics courses ranging from college algebra to multivariable calculus. Nicole is Central District Director of the Greater Cleveland Council of Mathematics professional group, which has led to her speaking at numerous conferences around Northeast Ohio and is an Ohio Teacher Council of Mathematics's 2019 Conference Scholarship recipient. Nicole states that teaching at Birchwood is a pure delight and a wonderful place where each student has the opportunity to reach their full potential. Nicole and her husband, Matthew live in Lyndhurst with their daughter, Clara.

Kimberly Grogan

5th-8th Reading

Bio: Kimberly graduated magna cum laude from Case Western Reserve University and holds a Bachelors of Art in Cognitive Science, as well as a Masters of Art in English, with a focus on cognitive linguistics. While attaining her MA at Case she was a Writing Instructor, taught introductory English classes, and worked with students for whom English was a second language. She is deeply invested in the way that story and poetry have the ability to instruct, empower, and transform, and is excited to join the Birchwood community.

Casey Hallett 

Kindergarten
Lead Teacher

Bio: Casey Hallett graduated summa cum laude from Cleveland State University with a Bachelor of Science in early childhood education. She taught kindergarten in a public school for four years in Raleigh, North Carolina and was nominated twice for an “Honor a Teacher” distinction and was selected as a district “Teacher of the Month.” 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

5th-8th Math
7th-8th Latin & Ancient Greek

Bio: Dr. Catherine Haskins holds a bachelor’s degree in Russian from Harvard, an MSW from Boston University, and a Ph.D. in Economics from University of Massachusetts. Once her daughter enrolled at Birchwood, Dr. Haskins became progressively more involved with the school over the years, first as a 5th-8th math aide, then as a Latin teacher, filling in here and there as needed. Last year she was thrilled to put her love of explaining math and coaching students into action as a teacher with 7th and 8th graders and is now on the 5th-8th math team. Dr. Haskins’ current favorite pastimes are comparing introductory calculus texts and teaching herself more Greek. She believes in the power of consistent and focused efforts toward success, and is delighted to be part of such a robust and growing community of learners!
 

Sally Ann Higginbotham

1st Reading Literacy Support
Preschool Support 

Bio: Sally Ann Higginbotham graduated cum laude from Cleveland State University with a Bachelor of Science in early childhood education. She then earned a master’s degree in education focused on reading and literacy instruction. She has taught third grade, first grade, and with Head Start. Mrs. Higginbotham’s educational philosophy emphasizes hands-on learning, and the importance of play-based learning, and of making and being a friend. 

Becky Hoelter

Preschool Assistant Teacher

Bio: Becky Hoelter is a graduate of Bowling Green State University with a Bachelor of Science in education, with a focus in special education. She has worked with students of all abilities in preschool through eighth grade in a variety of settings. She joined our staff in 2012 and has served as an early childhood after care teacher and preschool aide. She enjoys working in a collaborative environment and being a part of children's initial school experiences.

Jessica Hotz

Preschool Lead Teacher

Bio:.Jessica graduated from Cuyahoga Community College with a degree in Early Childhood Education. Working with young children is not only Ms. Jessica's joy but also her passion. After twenty years of working in early education classrooms, her aim is finding the uniqueness of each child and aiding them in forming a love of learning as they lay the foundation of their academic future. In the Seedlings classroom, she nurtures young minds and hearts through patience and compassion. Using her experience in education in a variety of disciplines, such as Emergent, Montessori, Reggio, Waldorf and Play-based learning, along with the philosophies and pedagogy of early education, affords Ms. Jessica a variety of teaching methods to use in the creation of an eclectic curriculum and the skills to implement it.
 

Nancy Isherwood

Before and After School Coordinator

Bio: Nancy Isherwood holds a Bachelor of Arts in French from Cleveland State University and she completed post-graduate studies at the Alliance Francais in Paris, France. She has worked as a substitute teacher and for a Montessori preschool. Her son is a graduate of both Birchwood and Hawken Upper School.

Shulamite Konopinski

3rd-4th Reading

Bio: Mrs. Shulamite Konopinski holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and a Bachelor of Music degree in Piano Performance from Oberlin College and Conservatory. While at Oberlin, she studied methodologies of teaching and tutoring English and broadened her experience by working one-on-one with college students in the Writing Associate program.

Her passion for words began when she started first grade at Birchwood and continued throughout her high school years at Hawken’s Upper School. Returning to Birchwood this year as a Reading and Language Arts teacher, she is eager to continue the school’s tradition of an atmosphere that makes learning exciting and providing unique care for each student.

Amy Kohut

Kindergarten Support Teacher

Bio: 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.​ She was ​excited to join the Birchwood staff as a Before and After School​ ​Care aide for Early Childhood in 2015. She holds a Master of Arts in sociology from Cleveland State University and previously worked at Cleveland State as a teaching research assistant.​

Shelley Kokitka

Kindergarten Support Teacher

Bio: Shelley Kokitka graduated from the University of Toledo in 1992 with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education. While in college she worked as a lead preschool teacher. Upon graduation she served as a lead preschool teacher at Horizon Activity Center before joining the staff of SS. Cyril & Methodius School as a sixth through eighth grade reading, science, and computer teacher where she developed a biology curriculum which and established a middle school science fair. She has also served as a substitute teacher in the Olmsted Falls City Schools. In 2015, Mrs. Kokitka joined the Birchwood staff as a kindergarten aide and she couldn’t be more thrilled. 

Tim LaBar

K-8th Physical Education
7th-8th Exercise Program
7th Math
Main Office Assistant

Bio: Tim LaBar holds a Bachelor of Science in sport studies, coaching and conditioning and a Master of Science in athletic administration from The University of Akron. He played baseball in college and currently serves as the pitching coach and assistant athletic director for Lakewood High School. He is a member of the Lakewood Community Baseball Association board, and a lead instructor at Ohio baseball camps and clinics. He organizes Birchwood’s annual 5k run. His passion for helping children understand the importance of fitness, health, and wellness, helps students’ reach their fitness goals and prepare for team sports.

Laura Mamone

1st Homeroom
1st-2nd Reading/Language Arts

Bio: Laura Mamone graduated cum laude from Bowling Green State University with a double major in history and sociology. After raising her children, she earned her teaching license and master of education degree, along with a K-12 reading endorsement, from Baldwin Wallace University. From 2010-14, Ms. Mamone taught at Madison Community Elementary School, working with kindergarten through third grade students as a math and reading Title I teacher. She was excited to become a member of the Birchwood family as not only a parent but also a teacher.
 

Connie Miller

6th Homeroom
6th-8th Social Studies
National History Day

Bio: Connie Miller joined the Birchwood community in 1993 when her oldest son entered first grade. From the beginning she was involved: helping to form the Birchwood Parent Committee and assisting in planning the first few International Festival and Auctions. Her first year teaching seventh and eighth grade social studies also marked her first year of taking students to the national level of National History Day. Birchwood students continue to qualify each year and have won many awards. For her work she has received the Ohio Historical Society's Ohio History Day Teacher of Merit, the David Van Tassel Award for outstanding contributions, and the Ohio Humanities Council District 3 Teacher of Merit. Mrs. Miller enjoys taking students through the process of historical research and helping them present their findings in diverse ways. 

Lauren Miller

2nd Homeroom
1st-4th Science

Bio: Lauren Miller graduated cum laude from The College of Wooster with a degree in biology. After graduating, she worked as a field technician in Pennsylvania, netting and banding grassland birds and performing population surveys, but she had always had a heart for teaching. Mrs. Miller found a way to combine her love of science and teaching by becoming an environmental educator. She has taught environmental and outdoor education at Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center, Stratford Ecological Center, Upham Woods Outdoor Learning Center, and, most recently, at the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes for the last five years. Mrs. Miller is thrilled to be joining the staff at Birchwood and is excited to bring her passion for experiential science into the classroom. 

Jessica Moore

2nd Homeroom
1st-4th Social Studies

Bio: Jessica Moore graduated cum laude from Cleveland State University with a degree in early childhood education. Prior to Birchwood, she taught first grade at Stepstone Academy in Cleveland. Mrs. Moore has enjoyed her many roles at Birchwood, including teaching science and social studies. In college, she enjoyed being a cheerleader as well as coaching high school cheerleading in Parma.

Krystyna Moreno

4th Grade Aide
Recess/Lunch Aide

Bio: Krystyna Moreno holds a Bachelor of Science from Cleveland State University in business administration. Prior to joining the staff at Birchwood she worked for UPS and is now a proud alumni and current Birchwood parent. She enjoys being outside on the playground and indoors in the lunchroom with the students 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.

Diane Owen

8th Homeroom
5th-8th Reading
7th-8th Future Problem Solving
7th-8th Leadership

Bio: Diane Owen holds a Bachelor of Arts in romance language and literature from The University of Chicago and a Master of Science in genetic counseling from the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. She began her teaching career in Post-Soviet Russia by facilitating the sixth through ninth grade education of the children of several American and British families using the Birchwood Home-School Curriculum. Upon returning to the US, Diane taught algebra, US history 11, US government 12, biology, reading 8, english 9/10, and served as the English Department Chairperson during her 15 year tenure at Acaciawood College Preparatory Academy, a small private school in Southern California. In addition to her years at Acaciawood Prep, Diane spent five years at the Walworth Barbour American International School in Israel where she taught ELL humanities and math in the middle school. Diane feels privileged to join the Birchwood faculty and is excited to meet and interact with her students on their journey together through literature.

Joe Parrino

6th Homeroom
4th-7th Social Studies

Bio: A Birchwood alum, Joe Parrino graduated from Case Western Reserve University, summa cum laude, with dual degrees in history and Asian studies. Fascination with Eastern societies led him to a school in Taiwan to start a bilingual program that included developing reading, language arts, math, and science curriculum. Following a promotion to head teacher, Mr. Parrino returned to the US to earn a master's degree in journalism from the University of Illinois. After writing for several newspapers, he returned to teaching and earned a master's in teaching from Austin Peay State University. After teaching in Kentucky for five years, he moved home to Cleveland and Birchwood. 

Noemi Rodriguez

K-8th Spanish
After School Coordinator

Bio: Noemi Rodriguez began her career as a kindergarten teacher in Argentina and quickly gained the attention of the administration with her innovative 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. When she moved to the US she trained with the Berlitz School of Languages and began tutoring children and adults in Spanish. In 2002 she started teaching Spanish at Birchwood. After several years she was asked to organize the school's kindergarten program. She recently returned her full-time focus to Spanish as well as serving as the coordinator of after school program.

Jennifer Seward

5th-8th Language Arts

Bio: Jennifer Seward earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Bowling Green State University in 1997, which was followed by many years in newspapers as a reporter, an editor, and a writing coach for other professional writers. As a reporter, Mrs. Seward was recognized by the Associated Press as one of the Best News Writers in Ohio, among many other awards from the AP and other Ohio news organizations. After starting a family, Mrs. Seward opted to work part time as a freelance writer and editor, composing feature and economic development stories and polishing everything from greeting cards to books. During this time, she also began volunteering with children through Scouts BSA and working in classrooms as a teacher assistant and as a long-term language arts substitute. These experiences led to a joyful realization that teaching is where she is meant to be. Mrs. Seward is honored and enthusiastic to join the faculty at Birchwood

Michael Sprau

3rd Homeroom

Bio: Michael Sprau is a graduate of Cleveland State University with a Bachelor of Science in elementary education and a Birchwood alumni parent. He began teaching at Birchwood in 2003 after four years experience in public and private schools. He 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 earn top distinctions in math competitions, such as the Noetic Learning and Continental Mathematics League contests. He also holds weekly after school math club 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 believes that when given the appropriate tools all students can succeed. 

Rhonda Sprau

1st Homeroom
1st-2nd Reading/Language Arts
1st-4th Avid Readers Club
Mrs. Sprau's website

Bio: Rhonda Sprau holds a Bachelor of Arts from Case Western Reserve University and is a Birchwood alumni parent. 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 a member of the International Literacy Association. Mrs. Sprau created the blog mrstreasures.edublogs.org which helps parents choose quality books for their children. She is also belongs to 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.

Lorraine Tzeng

7th Homeroom
6th-8th Language Arts
6th Future Problem Solving/Thinking Skills
7th Reading

Bio: Lorraine Tzeng began teaching language arts when Birchwood opened its doors in 1984. After taking time off to raise her children, all of whom are Birchwood alumni, she returned in 2004 to continue to develop Birchwood’s writing program. She has incorporated the pedagogy of writing pioneers like Peter Elbow, Donald Graves, Donald Murray, and Lucille Payne, and 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 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 and is a member of the National Council of Teachers of English, and a judge for Power of the Pen and Ohio Future Problem Solving.

Marrianne Uechi

3rd Grade Homeroom
1st-4th Math

Bio: Marianne Uechi graduated from Cleveland State University with a bachelor degree in mechanical engineering. In the process of finishing the engineering program at Cleveland State, Mrs. Uechi realized that her passion was actually for math.  Last year she helped teach 5th and 6th Grade Math at Birchwood School of Hawken. This year she is looking forward to working with the first through fourth grade math team.

Emily Waldal

K-8th Computer/Programming
Director of Technology
Mrs's Waldal's website

Bio: Emily Waldal is a proud Birchwood graduate who has brought her expertise in technology and understanding of the Birchwood ethos our school. She holds a Bachelor of Business Administration in information systems from Cleveland State University. Kindergarteners and grades 5-8 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.

Joanna West

4th Homeroom
3rd-4th Reading/Language Arts
7th-8th Future Problem Solving
7th-8th Exercise Program

Bio: Joanna West graduated cum laude from Otterbein College with a degree in early childhood education and a reading endorsement (K-12). She began her career teaching at Fit by Five and then the Goddard School. When the opportunity arose to return to her alma mater, she was ecstatic and began by assisting in kindergarten and teaching third and fourth grade reading. Ms. West has gone on to teach third and fourth grade social studies, Future Problem Solving, physical education and exercise, and turbo kick after school. Ms. West’s passion for literature makes her an ideal person to bring reading and language arts to our young students.