Robert Burke, Executive Director
Robert has served as an educator for the past 26 years and has an extensive background working in large, urban school districts. He has experience teaching at all grade levels and has served as a special education teacher, a Resource Specialist, and a counselor for adults with learning disabilities. Abroad, he has taught in Liverpool, England and been a guest instructor in partnership with the Bureau of Education in Taegu, Korea. Mr. Burke is the former principal of the Open Magnet Charter School, an innovative and highly successful public school founded by parents in 1977. Through Mr. Burke’s efforts the school received the prestigious California Distinguished School and Magnet School of Merit awards. In addition, he has successfully facilitated the renewal of the school’s charter both in 2003 and 2008. His proudest achievement is the facilitation of professional development activities that resulted in closing the achievement gap among targeted groups of students. Prior to being the principal of The Open Charter Magnet School, Mr. Burke worked in the San Francisco Unified School District as a coordinator, administrator for middle and high school operations, and a school principal. Mr. Burke holds Master degrees in Counseling from California State University, Long Beach and Educational Leadership from St. Mary's College.
Leslie Lainer, Founding Principal
For two decades, Leslie Lainer has brought expertise and creative insight to innovative programs in a charter school environment. She was a teacher and the Curriculum Coordinator at Westwood Charter School for 15 years, as well as a Mathematics Instructional Coach for LAUSD. During her tenure at Westwood, Ms. Lainer served as both a mentor and a coach to classroom teachers, providing constructivist-based professional development, and designing and implementing curricular programs. As coordinator, Ms. Lainer managed the bilingual education program, ensuring compliance with legal mandates and giving support to students, teachers and families. Her administrative roles included developing and coordinating the master schedule and collaborating in the planning and implementation of enrollment and budget. Ms. Lainer was a lead writer for the last three of Westwood’s charters and spearheaded the technology program for many years. Ms. Lainer is a native of Los Angeles. She received her BA from the University of Michigan and her MA in Teaching from Tufts University. She holds both a California Teaching Credential and an Administrative Services Credential.
Carolina Merino, Office Manager
Having previously worked at a charter school, Carolina knew that accepting an administrative position with a start up charter would be a lot of work, but she was ready for the challenge. Reflecting back, Carolina says, “I was eager to help build a school, see it grow and succeed. I was looking for a second home and a family that would take the time to go above and beyond to guide children into a successful future.” Born in San Salvador, El Salvador, she grew up in Sylmar and attended California State University, Northridge where she earned a BA in both Psychology and Child and Adolescent Development. Carolina is a caring and devoted mother, and when she is not at work she loves spending time with her family and visiting new places with them.
Sabrina Dominguez, Administrative Assistant
Sabrina was born in Santa Monica and raised in Woodland Hills, California. She graduated from California State University, Northridge with a Bachelor of Science degree in Public Health Education. When the opportunity arose, she jumped at the chance to apply at VCES. Seeing her mother and previous generations of family work in schools, she was always interested in pursuing a career in education. She feels extremely lucky to be part of the VCES community. On her days off she enjoys hiking, Zumba and spending time with her family.
Jessica Bennett, Kindergarten
Jessica Bennett is a founding educator of VCES, a school, she says, that allows for the type of familial community that she can call home. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Jessica comes from a family of educators and says that there has never been a question in her mind about what she wanted to do with her life--as early as the age of three she wanted to be a teacher! She received a BA in Sociology from UC Berkeley, and then graduated with a teaching credential and Master’s Degree in Elementary Education from Stanford University. Before joining VCES she was a preschool teacher at Maggie Haves. Jessica jumped at the opportunity to join VCES because it embodies a teaching philosophy that commits to teaching the whole child and values the social and emotional development of each child. She is grateful for the opportunity to work with children in a role in which she is regularly challenged and that allows her to continue to learn and grow as an educator and as a person. When asked what she loves most about teaching, she says, “I love the children. I love learning from them and with them, and I love watching them grow, explore, experience the world and create things.” Her students love her right back!
Kristin Nicole Rivera, Kindergarten
While many kids dream of being a veterinarian, firefighter or ballerina, Kristin knew from a very young age that she wanted to be a teacher. In fact, she has memories of enlisting her little brother to play student so she could play teacher. The Los Angeles native, who grew up in Santa Clarita, received her Bachelor of Psychology from Chapman University and her Master of Education from Loyola Marymount University. Prior to joining VCES, Kristin held various positions working with children, including at Kumon Math and Reading Center. Kristin loves being a part of the VCES community, which she considers family. She especially loves being in the classroom. She feels being a teacher motivates her to be the best she can be. This is also her goal for her students: to not only do their best but be their best. When Kristin isn’t teaching or prepping a lesson, she enjoys singing and traveling. She also likes exploring the many different cuisines available in Los Angeles.
Jennifer Melyan, First Grade
A member of the inaugural teaching team at VCES, Jennifer Melyan reflects on the school and notes, “such a positive environment where everyone’s passion is constantly improving their practice!” Jennifer earned a Bachelor of Arts from Oberlin College, majoring in East Asian Studies with a minor in History, and then went on to earn her Master’s in Elementary Education from Loyola Marymount University. Prior to joining VCES she taught fourth grade for two years with Teach for America in Lynwood. She is attracted to the teaching profession because she enjoys working with children and also wants to be in a field where, rather than just take, she could actively contribute something positive to society. She finds it especially rewarding watching her students make breakthroughs in their learning and progress both academically and socially throughout the school year. In addition to teaching, Jennifer also has a passion for travel and adventure. Perhaps because she was born and raised in Taiwan and spent her childhood abroad in Taipei and Kaohsiung, Jennifer makes it a life goal to take at least one trip a year and challenges herself to always attempt something new. In addition to teaching first grade, Jennifer boasts the proud position of resident Taiko instructor.
Kris Nakano, First Grade
One of six founding teachers, Kris Nakano knew from day one that VCES was where she wanted to be. Above all, Kris appreciates the philosophy of VCES and the creativity afforded to the staff to make curriculum that is interesting and engaging. It is not surprising that Kris chose a career as an educator. Her mother was a first grade teacher and a huge inspiration to her. Growing up in West Los Angeles, Kris loved to help out in her mother’s classroom and throughout high school often volunteered in preschool classrooms. She graduated UCLA with a BA in Asian American Studies, then enjoyed a career as a florist before earning a California State Teaching Credential at California State University Northridge. She started her career student teaching second grade at Westwood Charter School and continued with the school for 10 additional years teaching both first grade and a first-second multiage class. Kris loves watching her students grow, hearing about their lives, and listening to their discussions. What she finds most amazing is, “that moment when a child understands something for the first time,” and she feels fortunate to be a part of that learning process.
Anne Aronchick, Second Grade
The students in Anne Aronchick’s class are fortunate to have a teacher with 18 years of professional experience in the classroom. Upon receiving her credential from LAUSD’s rigorous training program, Anne honed her educational skills for 10 years at Topanga Elementary Charter School, teaching kindergarten and fourth grades, and at the UCLA Lab School teaching 8-10 year-olds (third and fourth grades). What may excite her pupils more is that she has a knack for making Queen of Sheba chocolate cake as a former pastry chef at Capri restaurant in Venice. Or the fact that in the 1990s she was a research assistant scouting for cacti and other desert plants for the seminal Biosphere Project 2 (a glass-enclosed ecosystem where people lived together as an experiment for future space colonization). Or even that she knows how to draw drosophila species (fruit flies) or that she was an agricultural expert that helped farmers grow cantaloupe organically (ask her for the best recipe for a non-toxic bug spray). Born and raised in Tucson, Arizona, Anne earned a degree in creative writing and completed her coursework for a master’s degree in art history, both at the University of Arizona. She spent her childhood in the field with her father, a professor of evolutionary biology, learning about inter-connections and deciphering the world around her. Now she wishes to teach her own students with the same project-based approach as valued by her father and by VCES. Anne became a teacher to inspire lifelong learners and leads by example for her students.
Stacy Howerton, Second Grade
Stacy Howerton grew up in Granada Hills, just a few miles from VCES. She studied English Literature at Loyola Marymount University and went on to get her Master’s degree in education at National University. She received her Library Media Specialist Certification through Northeastern State University. Prior to becoming a teacher, Stacy worked in public relations. She even did voice-over work at Nickelodeon. But she felt a strong pull back to school, which she says, “has always served as a second home for me.” Before joining VCES, Stacy taught various grade levels and subjects at both LAUSD and Jenks Public Schools in Jenks, Oklahoma. Stacy loves watching her students make new discoveries and is constantly inspired by their curiosity and joy. In her spare time, Stacy likes to sing and build Legos with her young son, swim, do yoga, and read. She especially likes reading fantasy fiction.
Mary Allen, Third Grade
Impressed with all that VCES established in its first year, Mary Allen joined VCES in the fall of 2011. Born and raised in the Los Angeles area, Mary Allen knew from an early age that she wanted to be a teacher and went on to earn her undergraduate degree in Elementary Education and Master’s degree in Child and Adolescent Literacy from Loyola Marymount University, and a California Reading Certificate. Mary has been teaching since 2004, starting her career at St. Jerome Elementary School, and then spending several years at Carlthorp Elementary School before joining VCES. Her experiences teaching Kindergarten through sixth grade in small group, whole group and one-on-one settings have instilled in her a firm belief that children learn best in an environment that allows them to construct their own knowledge. She was drawn to VCES so that she could teach in a place that was founded on that constructivist philosophy. What she loves most about teaching is watching “light bulb” moments in her children. Her goal is to ensure that every one of her students leave her classroom with a love for learning and reading.
Lauren Schauer, Third Grade
Born in Dallas, Texas, Lauren Schauer grew up in Northridge, California. She attended CSUN and received a BA in Liberal Arts, Concentration: Mathematics, a Multiple Subject Credential, and a Masters in Curriculum and Instruction. Prior to joining VCES, where she initially served as a Teaching Assistant in Jessica Bennett’s Kindergarten class, Lauren worked as a substitute teacher and a nanny. She is a teacher because, “It’s who I am...a magical profession. I get to be a scientist, a nurse, a coach, an actor, and a friend. I get to make an impact in a child’s life and grow from every new and exciting experience. It’s amazingly challenging and so rewarding.” Lauren enjoys editing video, music, volleyball, arts and crafts, and cake decorating.
Janelle Barker, Fourth Grade
Janelle Barker wanted to teach since first grade when her “compassionate, creative and innovative” teacher so inspired her that she knew her calling from that moment on. Born in Norwich, Connecticut, she grew up in Michigan where she also received her BA in Elementary Education, Concentration: Language Arts and Fine Arts from the University of Michigan. After acquiring her degree she worked as an arts specialist teaching Integrated Arts to K-4 at two different schools in Holt, MI. In this role she taught a combination of visual art, dance, music, theatre and technology collaborating with teachers to create integrated lessons that expanded upon classroom material. Janelle loves when students discover something they are truly passionate about that will shape their entire lives. Her own passions include dancing, singing, running, reading, crafting, baking, and traveling. Drawn to the inviting community and inspiring staff at VCES, Janelle says she felt part of the team from day one.
Adam Myman, Fourth Grade
Adam Myman was born and raised in Los Angeles. He graduated from Pacific Oaks College with a multi-subject teaching credential and a Master’s Degree in Human Development. Adam also holds a Master of Fine Arts from the American Film Institute. He loves integrating character skills such integrity, responsibility, and effort into his lessons. Adam wrote an article for Independent Schools Magazine titled Old Rules, New Twist, which discusses his character education curriculum. Adam was also featured in a book titled, Breaking Into The Heart of Character by David Streight. He has presented workshops on building character at Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teachers and Teaching and CSULB. Adam also holds a Master's Degree in Educational Administration from California State University Northridge where he also received his administrative credential. Adam came to Valley Charter Elementary School because he loves planting the seeds of curiosity. For him, watching a student discover and grow is incredible. When Adam is not in school, he can be found swimming or hiking with his son, daughter, and wife.
Liz Adams, Fifth Grade
Liz Adams joins VCES after nine years of teaching at Billy Mitchell Elementary School in the Lawndale School District. Although most of her career thus far has been spent teaching fifth grade, she also has taught second grade and fourth-fifth combination classes. Liz grew up primarily in Thousand Oaks and now lives in Simi Valley with her husband and young son. Ever since she was a child and taught stuffed animals as if they were students, she knew she wanted to be a teacher. Liz attended Loyola Marymount University, where she earned her bachelor’s degree and teaching credential. She later returned to earn a Master’s in Literacy, a Reading Certificate, and a Reading Specialist credential. Liz credits her fellowship with the Cotsen Foundation’s Art of Teaching program as the greatest influence on her development as an educator. Through this opportunity, she has learned from many of the leading researchers behind Reader’s Workshop and Writer’s Workshop. The Cotsen fellowship also allowed Liz to attend Columbia University’s summer reading institute twice. Liz is excited to work with an amazing group of teachers and families, who value the same constructivist approach to teaching that she does. When not at school, Liz is likely to be traveling, at Disneyland, or playing trains with her son.
Haleigh Baker, Fifth Grade
After spending a year as a teacher’s assistant in Robin Purcell’s kindergarten class, Haleigh Baker became a third grade teacher in the fall of 2011. Haleigh comes from a family of educators and is a teacher because she loves children. Born and raised in Northridge, CA, she received a BA in Liberal Studies with a focus in Education from University of California, Riverside in 2009. Thereafter, she returned to Northridge and earned her Multiple Subject Teaching Credential from CSUN. Throughout her college career, she worked as a tutor for Princeton Review and Hope Through Housing. Haleigh was drawn to Valley Charter because of the school’s educational philosophy, sense of community and dedicated staff. Each year she looks forward to getting to know her students and watching them learn and grow. When not at school, Haleigh enjoys Zumba, volleyball and travel, where she can try new foods and learn about new cultures.
Cayla K. Schneider, Resource Specialist
Cayla K. Schneider loves children, loves listening to their perspective and helping them reach their potential. She also loves teaching as every day offers something different. Cayla brings a vast educational repertoire to VCES. This Wilmington, Delaware native earned a degree from the American University in Washington, D.C. in Early Childhood and Elementary Education and a minor in Special Education, focusing on learning disabilities, and two graduate degrees spanning special education and curriculum and supervision. Cayla chose elementary special education as her focus thanks to a professor in college who was a pioneer in the field of learning disabilities. She taught at Ivanhoe Elementary School in Silver Lake as a resource specialist teacher and at Glassell Park Elementary School in East Los Angeles as a special day class teacher. Cayla is the Director of Every Child’s Dream Foundation, which distributes blankets and teddy bears to orphans ages 0-2 worldwide.
Ylla De Leon, Special Education Coordinator
Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Ylla De Leon graduated from Ohio State University with a BS degree in Speech Therapy and a minor in Remedial Reading. After moving to California, she completed a fifth year at UCLA earning her California Standard Teaching credential. She continued her studies earning a Master's degree in Education from California State University Dominguez Hills and an Administrative Credential at the same time. Although she had originally planned to work as a speech therapist, LAUSD offered her a position as a special education teacher in an Aphasia classroom and she simply loved the work. After spending 20 years in the special education classroom at Palms Elementary and Playa Del Rey Elementary, she went on to work as a Program Specialist for the Speech/Language Unit of LAUSD, a Specialist with the Special Education Compliance Department for the Division of Special Education, and a Specialist with the Educational Equity Compliance Office for the Office of General Counsel. She retired from LAUSD in June 2009 as Coordinator of Charter Schools/Private Schools/Alternative Education for the Division of Special Education. Following her retirement from LAUSD, she decided to make the move to VCES because she believes VCES truly cares about its students and she enjoys being part of the VCES team. Ylla feels it is “magical” when she sees the light go on in a child’s eyes as he or she learns to read or solve a math problem, and says that, “Watching them discover strategies, or come up with solutions or just understand why something works is fantastic!”
Gina Hairapetian, Physical Education
Coach Gina Hairapetian has been teaching and running physical education programs since she began her career at Woodland Hills Elementary in 1996. In 2004, Coach Gina started teaching P.E. at Serrania Elementary. That same year, she started running the P.E. program at Welby Way Elementary, where she continues to this day. The San Fernando Valley native comes to Valley Charter Elementary with a deep knowledge about physical education programs and getting children involved at all levels. She loves to put together creative, fun and challenging activities for her students and enjoys helping them grow, thrive and gain confidence. Coach Gina has also been the head softball coach at Chaminade High School in West Hills, California since 2004. Under her leadership, the softball team has won two CIF Championships. In her spare time, Coach Gina enjoys the beach, reading a good book and spending time with friends and family.
John Frantzen, Music
John obtained a Bachelor of Music in instrumental music from Arizona State University and a Master of Music in composition from the Manhattan School of Music in New York City. He received his Orff Schulwerk Level Certification from the University of Memphis, University of Arizona, and Northern Arizona University. Among the Orff Schulwerk educators John has studied with are Jos Wuytack, Grace Nash, and Konnie Saliba. As a Master Orff Schulwerk teacher himself, John has worked in schools in Arizona, Massachusetts, Maryland and California. "I enjoy helping young people discover and nurture their innate inner musician," he says. The Maquoketa, Iowa native has been a guest lecturer at the University of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Music Educators State Convention, and Midori and Friends in New York City. He is also an accomplished composer and conductor.