Jessica Spenchian, M.A. – Founder, Director & Teacher Mentor
Jessica is a certified preschool teacher and former college-level writing instructor. She is also the mother of two wonderful elementary school age children (ages 11 and 9).
With a pre-teaching background in early literacy program evaluation (K-5), grant writing, resource development, interactive media production and project management, Jessica brings a dynamic interdisciplinary perspective to her work with students of all ages. Back in 2015, frequent feedback regarding her caring personality and intuitive ability to connect with young children–combined with a focus on raising her own two children–motivated Jessica to turn her creative energy toward founding her own preschool program.
Inspired by her previous experience working as a Head Preschool Teacher at Stretch the Imagination in San Francisco, Jessica’s mission was to combine the developmental advantages of a small, high quality preschool environment with the provision of full time childcare. Her commitment to the use of responsive language and to designing age appropriate, play-based avenues for extended inquiry make her particularly fond of the project-oriented Reggio approach to early childhood education: an approach which views young children as active and capable shapers of the world around them.
Jessica’s interest in child-centered teaching and in emergent curriculum design–instructional methods which position the children’s own evolving questions as starting points for all forms of sensory exploration–is complemented by her deep understanding of the Italian cultural context out of which the Reggio model arose. Having lived and worked in Bologna, Italy for over three years prior to becoming a teacher, Jessica is a fluent (but imperfect) speaker of Italian and she remains optimistic about the possibility of adding an Italian language and cultural component to The Children’s Workshop Oakland program at some point in the future.
Jessica holds a BA in World Literature and Cultural Studies from the University of California at Santa Cruz, a Child Development Permit from City College of San Francisco and a Masters degree in English Composition with a Post-Secondary Reading Certificate from San Francisco State University.
Lisa Cepeda-Vasquez – Assistant Director, Operations & Teacher Training + Lead 2s Teacher
Lisa first embarked on her career with the goal of becoming an elementary school teacher. However, while in college, she took an assistant position in early childhood and developed an incredible love and respect for the preschool age. Inspired by the children’s naturally inquisitive ways, loving and gentle attitudes and by the respect they shared for their communal environment and for each other, Lisa returned to school to complete her degree in Childhood Development at Merritt College. After working in several different types of programs, Lisa has found that she truly believes in an emergent style of learning wherein she can give children back their right to explore this world and all it has to offer in their own individual ways.
Lisa has been exploring our lovely city of Oakland since she was a child, coming to visit her many relatives and grandparents who lived in the area. Her parents were both born and raised in Oakland and she has fond memories of trips to Fairy Land, feeding the ducks at the lake and going to the park in Montclair. Many of these wonderful memories are the reason she and her lovely wife chose to move back to Oakland. Lisa loves being outdoors, playing soccer and baseball, walking the lake and hiking in Joaquin Miller and throughout Berkeley. Cooking and baking are also passions of hers, as food in her family was a way to express and share love and come together. Overall, Teacher Lisa loves to be adventurous and silly and to dance, sing and tell stories. It is her hope that by sharing her passions with her students, they will in turn discover where their own unique passions lie and will revel in pursuing them!
Since joining CWO in 2018, Lisa has been instrumental in programmatic stewardship, working closely with Jessica as a senior founding member of CWO’s leadership team and helping to develop core training and professional development practices for mentoring both new and seasoned teachers. Having played many roles within the program, Lisa’s favorite vantage point is shepherding new student and new teacher learning through responsive and reflective practice in the always bustling and dynamic 2s classroom. Lisa considers herself a perpetual student of education and remains committed to evolving and strengthening her own teaching year over year.
Natalie Connor, M.A. – Assistant Director, Curriculum & Assessment + Lead 3s Teacher
Natalie has a Masters in Early Childhood Education and is passionate about the Reggio Emilio approach. Before joining CWO she previously taught at Reggio-inspired schools in Brooklyn, New York and internationally in Bangkok, Thailand. At these schools she was able to gain a deep understanding of how an emergent and project-based approach can be implemented to create meaningful and hands-on learning experiences for children in addition to how the environment plays a vital role as a third teacher. Natalie strongly believes that the Reggio Emilia philosophy allows children to be discoverers, empowering them to be active learners who construct knowledge both independently and in joyful collaboration with others. She has witnessed how powerful and motivating learning can be when children are respected and valued as capable individuals and are encouraged to seek answers to their own questions.
In her previous roles Natalie functioned as both a classroom teacher and as a part-time Early Years Coordinator, acting as a liaison between her former school’s early childhood teaching teams and the overarching administration. In this capacity she collaborated on curriculum development, provided mentoring and facilitative support for teachers and led professional development workshops. Natalie’s success in this position further encouraged her to continue to develop and hone her many leadership capabilities.
As both a classroom teacher and a steward of program administration for CWO, Natalie remains on a continuous learning journey to strengthen her practices as an Anti-Racist, Anti-Bias educator, striving to provide culturally responsive education that will support all children and respect diverse perspectives. The Children’s Workshop Oakland’s philosophy and Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education align closely with her own values, beliefs and passions as an educator.
Some other fun facts about Natalie include: Growing up mostly overseas, from Grade 1 until college she lived in Southeast Asia. Both of her parents are teachers as well. After college she worked in the fashion industry in New York City for five years. She has a wife named, Caitie, and newborn son named, Kiki and two cats named, Marge and Barbara. She loves crossword puzzles, dance, poetry, vegetarian food and the beach. She visited California many times prior to joining CWO but had never lived here. Now officially a West Coaster, Natalie is thrilled to be part of the wonderful group of children, families and dedicated educators that make up the inspiring CWO community!
Samuel Maier, M.A. – 5s/TK Lead Teacher
Sam comes from a long line of teachers. After growing up in his mother and father’s classrooms, he was convinced that he would do anything but teach! But, as life seems to go, that is how he is happiest, and he has devoted his life to working with young children. Sam has taught across the country, starting in Pasadena, CA before relocating first to Chicago and later to New York City. Sam has taught both as a classroom teacher and as a studio art teacher. In 2017 he completed a dual Masters degree in Philosophy and Education from Teachers College at Columbia University, specializing in contemporary social theory and progressive, critical and multicultural education.
Sam is a firm believer in the importance of play. His classrooms always contain a variety of open-ended materials for experimentation, construction and storytelling. Reggio Emilia’s project-based approach appeals to Sam because of the vast room it leaves for children to learn cooperatively together. In Reggio-inspired classrooms, students’ innate desire to learn about their world and from each other is recognized and highly valued and responsibility for both constructing the curriculum and continuously shaping the many lenses through which that curriculum comes to be explored is thus placed in the children’s hands, with their teachers acting as co-learning partners and framing facilitators in the service of their vision.
Before moving to the East Bay, Sam spent the 2019-2020 school year working at schools in various small villages in India, from the Ladakhi Himalayas to tropical valleys in Tamil Nadu. The year abroad exposed Sam to culturally sustaining educational organizations that create play-based curricula in a very different context. These schools prioritize skill-based education, particularly farming and crafts, as a way to ensure that schooling feels familiar and applicable to children’s rural home lives. Environmental and cultural sustainability were central to these schools’ missions and the experience will forever shape the way Sam considers his role as teacher and his work as an educator.
Outside the classroom Sam likes to work with his hands, particularly with clay. While living in New York, he showed his work at various galleries in Manhattan. Sam hand-builds geometric vases out of slabs of stoneware. He also collects children’s books. (Tony’s Hard Work Day by Alan Arkin – 1972 edition with illustrations by James Stevenson is one of his prized possessions!) Additional passions include urban cycling and cycle and pedestrian-safe urban design, cooking, playing tennis and basketball and political organizing.
Sara Candito – 5s/TK Co-Teacher
Sara is a creative and caring teacher who is passionate about the importance of play for preschool-age learning. Over the past decade, prior to joining the CWO team, Sara worked as an assistant preschool teacher, substitute and parent volunteer in early childhood and elementary school classrooms. She is dedicated to supporting the emotional, social and cognitive development of young children through play and wonder-based learning activities.
As a former designer, Sara’s passion for teaching began when she became a mother. The birth of her first son opened her eyes to the rewarding life of working with young children. During the six years that she served as a weekly volunteer within her sons’ preschool and elementary school classrooms, Sara discovered her gift for positively, calmly and respectfully engaging children. It was in the classroom that Sara first realized how much teaching leverages the two most essential facets of her personality: her drive to nurture and her spark for creativity.
While working as an assistant teacher in the Children’s House at Global Montessori International School in 2019, Sara completed her Early Childhood Education certificate through UCLA Extension and prepared to formally launch her teaching career when the COVID-19 pandemic got in the way! Once schools reopened, she began substitute teaching at The New School of Berkeley, where it felt incredible to be part of a program that respected children as individuals and allowed them the freedom to explore their environment.
During her first years of teaching, Sara’s commitment to continuing her own learning resulted in her discovery of the Reggio Emilia approach which affirmed her ardent belief in children’s vital right to play. After attending an online professional development conference called the “Free to Play Summit”, Sara came away with a plethora of ideas for bringing wonder, nature and child-led play into the classroom. She has since fallen in love with the Reggio spirit of collaborative learning and with the inquiry-driven and emergent project-based teaching environment at CWO! She is a huge fan of open-ended use of loose parts and found materials to power children’s imaginations.
Sara holds a joint BS and BA from UC Davis in Design and Visual Communication Arts and in Italian, a professional degree in Fashion Design from FIDM and a Montessori Language Arts certification. In her free time she enjoys exploring the Bay Area with her husband and her two wonderful sons.
Bianca Di Palma – 4s Lead Teacher
After taking a few years off to raise her two daughters, Bianca was thrilled to get back in the classroom! Bianca studied Psychology at the University of San Francisco where she became fascinated with early childhood development, particularly the cognitive benefits of play and its effects on the growing brain. After volunteering within a preschool program in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District, Bianca knew she wanted to work in early childhood education. While teaching, Bianca received her early childhood certificate from City College of San Francisco.
Bianca has over ten years of experience in early childhood education. She has worked within various types of programs over the years, from state funded pre-K to smaller private schools. Over the course of her teaching journey Bianca discovered and became a dedicated practitioner of the Reggio-Emilia philosophy. With over eight years of experience as a Reggio teacher, Bianca aims to create an environment where children’s ideas and interests are valued and early school experiences reflect joy and foster a lifelong love of learning. She encourages children to do their own research and to be observant and curious, empowering them to ask and seek answers to their questions.
Bianca is originally from Santa Fe, New Mexico and has been residing in the Bay Area for 18 years. She lives in Oakland with her husband Mike and their two daughters, Renata and Leona, along with a dog and too many cats.
Scheherazade Webster – 4s Co-Teacher
Scheherazade began teaching in 2016 and has worked with hundreds of children ranging in age from preschool through 5th grade since then. Her primary focus has been on early childhood education within preschool classrooms. She has enjoyed facilitating the expansion of her students’ skills to navigate their own curiosity, creativity, feelings and conflicts. She is passionate about contributing to the intellectual, social emotional and physical development of young children through an emergent curricular approach and with plenty of play-based learning. She believes in co-constructing the classroom with her students, actively building around their evolving and expanding passions as well as all the questions they hold about the world around them.
Before coming to early childhood education, Scheherazade’s studies were focused on botany, native ecology and permaculture. These skills were happily integrated into many beautiful spring and summer seasons of garden teaching with students of all ages.
Outside of the classroom Scheherazade is also an illustrator, ceramicist, professional cook, writer and food history enthusiast. She likes to spend her free time kayaking, hiking and foraging.
Chelsea America – Atelierista Alumna & Special Projects
Teacher Chelsea is a passionate artist and educator who believes that art making is integral to the learning process. Having spent several years teaching art in elementary schools, moving from classroom to classroom to lead students through various projects prior to teaching at CWO full time, Chelsea has enjoyed putting down roots as CWO’s visiting atelierista alumna.
Teaching in public elementary schools and in preschool summer camps over the years has shown Teacher Chelsea the limitless creativity and capabilities of young children. She views art as the perfect tool for investigation, having arms in all other subject areas including math, science, design and technology, humanities and history. Art provides a tangible form to the learning process and for the imagination. For children, art is both visual aid and articulation for their investigations. Chelsea loves seeing her students make discoveries and problem solve through the process of art making: what happens when they mix colors or the look on their faces as they lift a scratch-board to reveal the imprint of their artwork. Art expresses individuality and stimulates the brain through its visual and sensorial qualities and Chelsea is excited to support and inspire her students at CWO and her fellow co-teachers.
Teacher Chelsea has a huge heart for children. With three vivacious children of her own, she believes in the inherent capability and autonomy of young learners. The Reggio-Emilia philosophy coincides with her beliefs about and experiences in education. She believes in the power of the joy of learning and understands that every child is a naturally curious learner who should be supported to follow his/her own path of interest. After observing the ways in which the children and teachers consistently collaborate together at CWO, with such mutual degrees of vested interest, respect and reciprocity, Teacher Chelsea is grateful to have found a place amongst this incredible team of educators and within such a unique cooperative learning community.
Chelsea holds a BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute and has pursued Post-Baccalaureate studies at the Siena Art Institute in Siena, Italy. She is currently completing another MFA degree while teaching at San Francisco State University but remains connected to CWO, frequently returning to collaborate on special projects or guest teach during the summers. When not teaching, Chelsea enjoys undertaking elaborate art projects, taking trips to the library and going on adventures outdoors with her own children. In her solo-time, Chelsea teaches monthly art classes for adults, co-runs an art gallery, explores art exhibitions and puts time into her personal art practice. In sum, art is life for Chelsea!
Elizabeth “Liz” Hinsley, M.A., Ed – Co-Teaching Alumna & Ongoing Program Advisor
Liz is a Master of Education in Early Childhood Education and has over 12 years of experience working with and teaching young children. When Liz isn’t teaching, mentoring or directing, she works as a child development consultant with educational research groups such as WestEd where she develops content for the California Department of Education to support Early Childhood Educators across the state. Specializing in mindfulness and the power of mindful awareness to enhance social, emotional and academic learning, Liz combines the use of resonant experiences from the children’s everyday lives with positive affirmations to create a supportive and nurturing classroom culture. Liz’s dedication to the field of Child Development, her extensive training and ongoing advocacy for high quality early childhood education programs for all children and her unwavering commitment to guiding young children towards successful outcomes in school and in life make Liz an outstanding teacher and role model.
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