Core Teachers

Bob Defandorf, Middle School Teacher
B.A. English Wesleyan University
M.Ed. Lesley University 

Ruma Dutta, Middle School Core Teacher
B.A., Cum Laude, Philosophy, Mount Holyoke College
M.Ed. Elementary Education, Lesley University

More about Ruma Dutta

Ruma comes to us from the Odyssey Day School, where she served as co-head teacher as well as English and Social Studies teacher for grades 7 and 8. Her classroom experience includes teaching 6th grade humanities at the Pike School in Andover and working with students with reading vulnerabilities at the British School of Boston. Before discovering her love of teaching and working with adolescents in 2009, Ruma enjoyed a distinguished career as an experienced writer and editor, working with authors signed by large publishing houses such as McGraw Hill and Wiley, and writing for the Times of India and the New York public television channel WNET. Ruma has gone to school in India, Iran, the UK and the US, and is familiar with four languages next to English. We are looking forward to welcoming her as our new Middle School humanities teacher for the 2016-17 school year!

Eric Fishman, Upper Elementary Teacher
B.A., English, Yale University

More about Eric Fishman

Eric loves building communities of curious learners. Before coming to Acera, Eric was a middle and high school science teacher in Philadelphia. Previously, he directed an experiential summer program for gifted New Haven middle school students.

He has studied secondary science education at Penn and elementary science education at Bank Street College of Education. In addition to being a science nerd, however, Eric is deeply passionate about literature. As an undergraduate, his English study focused on poetry, with a particular emphasis on poetic translation. His own wide-ranging interests come together in trajectories of learning that help students discover surprising interdisciplinary connections. In his spare time, Eric is a cellist and chamber musician, and also enjoys distance running and backpacking.

Anastasia Leyden, Intermediate Elementary Teacher
B.A. Williams College
B.A. Comparative Literature, Williams College
M.Ed. Lesley University

More about Anastasia Leyden

Anastasia studied comparative literature as an undergrad and is especially interested in how we can learn by comparing different cultures across time and space. She worked as a medical writer in the pharmaceutical industry for ten years, providing a rich STEM background. She completed her M.Ed. with a simultaneous full-time internship at the Buckingham Browne & Nichols Lower School. She is certified in Elementary Education and was a lead teacher in third grade before joining Acera. She strives to plan lessons where learners have a high level of input into what they learn and how, at the same time scaffolding lesson design to support each individual so children achieve a balance of challenge and joyous discovery. One of her favorite teaching tasks is finding captivating literature to support students’ growth as readers. Anastasia has two young children who surprise her daily with their keen intuition and observations. Her varied interests include reading a good book, gardening, and scuba diving.

Kim Machnik, Upper Elementary Teacher
B.A. International and Global Studies, Brandeis University

More about Kim Machnik

Kim comes to Acera School from Heifer International, where she specialized in curriculum design, teacher training, and global education outreach. As a former teacher of elementary gifted students, she is passionate about teaching children to be global citizens of a healthy, thriving planet. Kim started at our school as a cross-classroom teacher before taking over her own classroom in fall 2015. She also launched our first summer program in 2015.

Nicole Notaro, Upper Elementary Teacher
B.A., Child Development, Tufts University
M.Ed., Education and Child Development, Tufts University

More about Nicole Notaro

Nicole joined the Acera staff in 2014 after teaching at Atrium School for 7 years. She is a passionate, enthusiastic and creative teacher with a strong desire to help each learner grow to his or her fullest potential. Nicole works closely with students, faculty and families, and has taught independently and with co-teachers. She has experience creating meaningful, engaging, theme-based curriculum in all subject areas for 4th and 6th grades, and is experienced with differentiating instruction between students of varying abilities and learning styles in many different settings. Nicole believes that effective teachers must be knowledgeable in subject matter content and able to choose between a range of pedagogies. As such, Nicole has striven to acquire a strong foundation in both academic content and developmental approaches. Nicole believes that teaching is both a moral and ethical endeavor characterized by sound judgment and mindful choices made as part of conscious planning. As a teacher, she seeks to create meaningful relationships with her students and support them in becoming more knowledgeable, able, and thoughtful individuals. Nicole believes teaching is an art form that requires the swift coordination of subject content and knowledge of ones’ own students, a process she finds intellectually challenging and extremely rewarding. She responds to children’s thinking, inquiries, confusions, learning needs and world views by listening to children’s expressed ideas and observing learning behaviors. Nicole uses these observations to influence her instruction.

David Olson, Lower Elementary Teacher
B.A. Anthropology, University of Massachusetts 
M.Ed. Lesley University 

Katie Semine, Lower Elementary Teacher
B.A. in Anthropology, Tufts University
M.Ed., Tufts University

More about Katie Semine

Katie’s focus is in creating a strong classroom community, and interweaving social skill building within daily learning and experiences, supporting growth in self awareness and emotional intelligence. She is committed to creating curricula that delves into higher level content, making it developmentally appropriate without losing accuracy and complexity.

Administrative Staff

Courtney Dickinson, Founder and Director

B.A., Dartmouth College
Certified Teacher
Leadership & Company Culture Consultant/Culture Architect, Sapient Corporation

More about Courtney Dickinson

Courtney founded the Acera School in 2010 to serve accelerated children of all learning styles and needs. A passionate educator with a strong belief in public service, Courtney always knew she wanted to bring innovative teaching to the classroom. But how? It took some frustrating experiences as a young teacher, a successful career as a software industry leadership consultant, and her own accelerated son hitting the limitations of public schools for Courtney to realize: To get to the teaching environment she envisioned, she had to build a school from scratch. And with it, a strong, diverse community of teachers and parents devoted to innovative education.

Courtney’s vision for our school rests on three pillars: Acera is a progressive school that serves accelerated children, with a specific focus on innovation in STEM education and how scientific inquiry is driven by creativity and independent thinking. Under her leadership, Acera has grown in just five years from some 30 students to over 115; from a makeshift school in a rented church basement to a financially secure non-profit now in its own building in Winchester; and from a school no one knew to one whose 8th graders consistently place into the High Schools of their choice.

Courtney’s ability to create strong teaching-teams and an environment in which teachers can be entrepreneurs, mentoring students on their individualized learning paths, is crucial to the school’s success. So is her relentless entrepreneurial drive: On any given day, you will see Courtney work on a fundraising effort, sort out math group placements, check in with a student during recess, negotiate with contractors, huddle with a teacher over an exciting student project, or welcome the Winchester Fire Department.

The spirit of Courtney’s can-do attitude radiates through our school, allowing teachers to take ownership and be innovators in their classrooms, and allowing students to break out of the boundaries of grade-level and similar expectations. It’s how Acera gets to be not just a vibrant school that continues to grow and innovate, but a microcosm of what is possible in education.

Trent Ramsey, Director of Strategic Advancement
B.A. in English and Sociology, Birmingham-Southern College
Graduate Certificate in Grant-Writing, Fort Hays State University


More about Trent Ramsey

An experienced, well-connected fundraiser, Trent joined our school in fall 2016 as Acera’s first Director of Development. For the past ten years, Trent has worked in fundraising and youth development across the state of Massachusetts in a variety of capacities: as the Director of the Area IV Youth Center in Cambridge, MA, one of the few high poverty pockets of Cambridge; as the State Field Director for the Mass Charter School Association, building community and funding collaborations for the 60 charter schools in the state; and as the Director of Strategic Advancement for the Lowell Community Charter Public School, focusing on capacity building for the largely ELL-populated school.
Before landing in Massachusetts, Trent founded and served as executive director for 11 years of a youth service nonprofit in Alabama that focused on bringing young people from different backgrounds together to engage in community service and social justice work. Trent lives in Melrose with his wife Jennifer, his kids Abe and Maria, and a house full of pets.

Sarah Zuckerman, Director of Faculty
M.A.Ed  Harvard University, focus in Arts in Education, Recipient of the Urban Scholars Fellowship
B.A.Ed Indiana University, Indiana

More about Sarah Zuckerman

An urban public school graduate, Sarah’s life has been dedicated to giving all students high-quality education. Prior to her work in education leadership and program design, she was an art teacher in K-12 classrooms for 10 years, she has taught in the lowest- and highest-performing urban public schools. Sarah has worked on numerous policy issues advocating for students and has received numerous awards for her work, including Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Urban Scholars Fellowship and the Sontag Prize for Urban Education, and has had works published by Education Leadership, Ed Week, and Americans for the Arts.

Sandra Zuckerman, Director of Admissions
Professional Diploma, Berklee College of Music
B.A.University of Colorado
SIT School of International Training

More about Sandra Zuckerman

Sandra has worked in the admissions field since 2011. After attending the University of Colorado, Sandra moved to Boston to attend Berklee College of Music to advance her studies as a vocalist. She later joined the staff of Berklee College of Music as the International Applicant Advisor and then became the Admissions and Summer Program Enrollment Officer. At Acera, Sandra is passionate about helping students find “their voice” and help them uncover their strengths and own unique self. As the Admissions Director at Acera, Sandra excels at helping families have a positive experience regardless of the admissions outcome. Her ultimate goal is to help ensure that Acera is the best fit for a child. When Sandra isn’t working with families and students at Acera, she is a proud mom, a vocalist, practices yoga and is a foodie!

Malcolm Campbell, Assistant Director of School

More about Malcolm Campbell

Malcolm is a counselor, a coach, a cook, a carpenter, and a Dad. (In any order!) Licensed in New York as a Marriage and Family Therapist, he came to our school after many years of service working in and developing residential treatment programs for youth from birth to and through age 21. Malcolm has great experience with — and enjoys working to build and support — organizations and people who are creating experiences and environments for children to learn, grow and be happy. He has always wanted to be the director of happy children, and now he got his wish!

Kara Williams, School Counselor and Student Support and Services Manager
B.A., Theatre, Eastern Connecticut State University
M.A., School Counseling, University of Saint Joseph

More about Kara Williams

Kara’s experience includes education and work in Theatre, Financial Aid, and most recently School Counseling. After earning her M.A. in School Counseling at the University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford, CT, Kara moved to Massachusetts. Kara appreciates the opportunity of working in the environment that Acera provides where she is able to interact with and help students. Kara is creative, organized, and excited to help in the many facets that her role at Acera includes.

Erica Lewy, Marketing & Design Specialist
B.F.A., Rhode Island School of Design

Sara Honeywell, Office Manager & Front Desk
B.A. Music Business, Berklee School of Music 


Research Practitioners
Gus Halwani Ph.D., Director of Research and Assessment
B.A., Biopsychology, University of South Florida
Ph.D., Neuroscience, Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences & Technology

More about Gus Halwani

Gus comes to Acera from the world of neurology research and analytics. Working together with our director of faculty and a team of world-class educators, Gus aims to bridge the science of learning with the art of teaching. In his previous roles, he studied how the brain can change (structurally and functionally) in response to different types of training, using music as a model for how the brain can adapt and change according to its environment.
Realizing how profoundly the brain can change in response to targeted interventions, Gus became interested in the science of learning, and to what extent it is used in how school programs are organized. How, he wondered, is this knowledge applied in classrooms?

Gus knew he needed a school that would facilitate the kind of evidence-based learning he wanted to explore — an environment, in other words, that aims to translate current knowledge about how students learn into teaching practice. At Acera, he found his match. Integrating tools from fields such as behavioral analytics, Gus helps Acera collect data and assess our social-emotional learning interventions, for the benefit of students, teachers and the education community. Learn more about research at Acera.

Alisha Panjwani, Design Learning and STEM TeacherPreneur, Acera SEEDS StudioLab
B.Sc., Fashion Design, Annamalai University
M.S., Media Arts and Sciences, Media Lab, MIT

More about Alisha Panjwani

Alisha is a designer and educator, and the founder of the Acera SEEDS StudioLab, where children can find tools and techniques that enable them as creators and natural innovators, and where they can make their ideas and stories come to life. SEEDS stands for Science, Engineering, Esthetics, Design and Storytelling; and for a hands-on space that breaks with the boundaries of specific fields of inquiry or practice. By engaging students in playful, experiential, inquiry-based, and collaborative learning experiences, Alisha works to nurture children’s creative confidence with new technologies and encourage their involvement in creative acts within their communities. She is the co-author of the book StartMaking! and co-founder of the Duct Tape Network. Alisha comes to our school from the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab, where she completed her master’s degree in Media Arts and Sciences and worked as a research assistant. Before coming to MIT, she worked as a design and research associate at Project Vision, an organization that builds educational tools aimed at fostering resilience through creativity in children from poor urban communities. Alisha has won awards and fellowships for her innovative approach to both design and education, for example from the Aga Khan Education Board in India, and the Future of Learning Institute at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.

Specialist and Enrichment Teachers
David Alsdorf,  LEGO Robotics Enrichment Teacher 
M.Ed, Early Childhood Education, Lesley University
A.B. Religion, Reed College

More about David Alsdorf

David is a teacher, education researcher, curriculum developer and artist who teaches robotics in Boston Public Schools and conducts research through Tufts Center for Engineering Education and Outreach (CEEO). For the last two years he has worked with The LEGO Foundation and Tufts studying makerspaces in education. As part of this research has enjoyed two teaching residencies at the International School of Billund (the birthplace of LEGO) where he was tasked with teaching “Creativity” to 9-10 year olds. He has an undergraduate degree in Religion from Reed College and a masters in Early Childhood Education from Lesley GSE.

Josh Briggs, Woodworking & Engineering Teacher, Workshop Manager
B.S. Engineering & Environmental Science, University of Notre Dame, 1996
B.A. History, University of Notre Dame, 1996
M.S. Civil Engineering, University of New Hampshire, 2006
Registered Professional Engineer (P.E.), Massachusetts, 2012

More about Josh Briggs

Josh studied and trained as a civil engineer for more than fifteen years prior to changing careers to teaching in 2014. After graduating with dual degrees from University of Notre Dame in 1996, he worked as an engineer in contaminated groundwater assessment and remediation in the San Francisco Bay area. He relocated back to the Boston area in 2000 and worked for a small environmental firm designing restoration solutions for stream and wetlands impacted by human development and stormwater. Josh then pursued his M.S. in Civil Engineering studying the use of porous asphalt for stormwater treatment (2006). After several years of working in rainwater harvesting design and installation, he made the leap to education. He started out teaching woodworking for Eliot School’s School Partnership Program in Boston Public School classrooms. Soon thereafter, he started part time at Acera running Frugal Engineering sessions for Creativity Morning. He began working full time at Acera in the 2015-16 school year. His focus at Acera is creating exciting projects for students that leverage student creativity while developing solid construction and engineering skills. Josh originally hails from Maine, where he developed his great love for boats, building and playing in the outdoors!

Marie Delaney, Woodshop Teacher (part time)
Certificate in Furniture and Cabinet Making, North Bennet Street School 

Hannah DeRusha, Cross Classroom Teacher (part time)
B.S. in Brain and Cognitive Sciences, MIT
M.Ed., Boston University

More about Hannah DeRusha

Hannah has always loved working with children and been fascinated by how the brain works. During her time at MIT, she combined these interests by working in labs that studied childhood cognition. However, she found that interacting with children simply as test subjects was not enough, so she dove into education by interning at the Museum of Science and earning a master’s degree in early childhood education at BU. Hannah looks forward to bringing her love of science, dance, improv comedy, and play into her classroom at Acera, engaging students in hands-on, brains-on learning.  Hannah seeks to build a community of learners in her classroom, where children are independent and responsible, are confident enough to take risks, and treat each other with kindness and respect.

Danny Fain, Game Design & Computer Science teacher (part time)
S.B. Geoscience, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Teacher education program with emphasis in math and science teaching
Several Workshops in design and development of digital and Video Games, team based design, and multi media visualization

Estee Hill, Architecture Teacher
BAR, University of Cape Town South Africa
MAT Tufts University

Kate Fractal, Teacher of Mathematics
B.S., Electrical Engineering with Mathematics, Worcester Polytechnic Institute
M.Ed., Secondary Mathematics, Boston University

More about Kate Fractal

Kate engages gifted mathematical minds with a richness and a plan, customized for their needs to inspire and enable learning years beyond what is typically offered. She brings five years of electrical engineering and programming work experience to helping students create their own technology-enabled projects, while learning the fundamental concepts of computer science and engineering.

Michael Hirsch, Science Teacher, Lab Manager, Curriculum Creator
B.S., Molecular Biology, Clark University
M.A.T. Biology, Salem State University

More about Michael Hirsch

Michael began his work life as a scientist in the exciting world of Kendall Square biotech researching and creative therapeutics for metabolic disease and inflammation. During that time, he helped placed over 20 drugs into clinical trials and published several papers in the field of diabetes. Despite his success, Michael was feeling unfulfilled and realized that his favorite part of being a scientist was teaching others his research and sharing his passion of science. After receiving his masters degree and Massachusetts teaching certifications, Michael taught Biology and Chemistry in public high schools for 3 years where his zeal and excitement towards his content made him a favorite among students. His belief is that everyone can be a scientist and his goal in the classroom was simple: experiment and solve scientific problems. Michael was attracted to Acera’s vision of curiosity, inquiry based conceptual learning, and an opportunity to work with like-minded creative teachers. He loves the collaborative nature of the school, its ever-changing curriculum, and ability to provide a cutting edge, cool, safe, and unique place for many different types of student to learn and practice their skills. In addition to science, Michael is also an avid musician, playing and recording with 7 instruments and is a published pop culture media writer.

Anthony Reynolds
Arts Inclusion Specialist; Percussion and Performance Teacher; After School Lead
B.A. Arts Education, Herron School of Art, Indiana University

More about Anthony Reynolds

Anthony grew up in Indianapolis, and was a student for many years under African drumming Master Blaise Zekalo of the Ivory Coast. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Creative Renewal Arts Fellowship, which took Reynolds to the Momboye Institute in Paris to study under their drum and dance masters. In Indianapolis, he founded the all ages community arts center United States of Mind (USoM) in the highest crime area of the city, giving neighborhood kids chances to study the creative holistic arts in a safe place alongside professionals and enthusiasts from across the region. USoM received the Cultural Vision Award for it’s outreach and impact. His own music has been featured on local and national radio, including his 2016 album NPR, a hip-hop remix album based on National Public Radio shows, which Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal called “brilliant” on his show.

Reynolds moved to greater Boston with his family in 2012, and shortly thereafter discovered the Acera community. His teaching reflects his varied artistic interests, helping students to express themselves in poetry, visual arts, cultural outreach, music creation and production, video production, athletics and anything else that inspires young minds.

He believes in eroding the walls between the arts and other subject areas, and the importance of creativity in any field. The foundation of this is building a confidence in students in their own creative and artistic abilities to realize that we are all artists capable of producing great work.

Vanessa Roman, Teacher in Friendship Skills, Kinetic Mathematics, Human Sexuality, Theater Arts
B.A. Magna Cum Laude, Theatre Arts, Salem State College

More about Vanessa Roman

Prior to joining Acera, Vanessa was a Yoga Instructor. At Acera, she runs the Kinetic Math class for young students, Human Sexuality for the Middle School, Theatre Arts for all ages during Creativity Morning, and Friendship Skill-Building during recess. Vanessa also leads Acera’s Tuesday After School Enrichment programs.

Specialty: Understanding, honoring and experiencing the joy and uniqueness of each child.

Debbie Seidell, Mathematics Teacher
B.A. in Mathematics, Brown University
M.S. in Mathematics, University of Washington

More about Debbie Sidell

An experienced teacher, Debbie has spent 12 years in the classroom, teaching high school and middle school math at a number of independent schools, most recently at Horace Mann School in New York.

At Acera, Debbie teaches mathematics, and also leads the Debate Club each Wednesday in our STEAM Learning Lab. Debbie loves that teachers and students follow their passions at Acera, with the freedom to design curriculum around student needs. Debbie likes to approach math as she did in her childhood: as a game with a specific set of rules; as a puzzle that requires abstract thinking and asking lots of questions. She encourages her students to ask about the Why’s in math class, and then empowers them to find and make sense of the answers. She wants her students to feel a sense of excitement and ownership over the process of doing math.

When not dabbling in number games and puzzles, Debbie enjoys a good argument. A born debater, Debbie has participated in both policy and public forum debate–as a student, coach and instructor. Though math and debate may seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum, Debbie notes that the discipline of thinking logically has served her quite well in the world of debate.

A New Yorker who loves learning languages, Debbie is proficient in Spanish but isn’t satisfied with just being bilingual. Clearly unafraid of a challenge, she continues to “dabble” in languages like German, Japanese, even Hebrew. Debbie’s love of languages goes hand-in-hand with her wanderlust–she enjoys traveling to new places, especially those where she can speak the language.

Courtney Sturgeon, Creativity Morning Printmaking Teacher (part time)
MFA, Claremont Graduate University
BFA, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago
K-12 Art Teaching Certificate, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Sarah Slubowski, Teacher Mentor
B.A., Trinity College
M.Ed., Harvard University Graduate School of Education

More about Sarah Slubowski

Sarah is an experienced educator (7 + years in independent schools), with a love of children, a passion for math, and a creative and engaging approach to teaching. She emphasizes hands-on learning and working with children’s interests as the basis for inquiry. Through a child-constructed approach to teaching and an atmosphere of trust, warmth, and curiosity, Sarah strives to maximize students’ intellectual engagement. She supports and challenges each child in her classroom and makes sure that they feel known, heard, and valued for all that they know and all that they are capable of learning and sharing with the group. Sarah places an emphasis on the whole child as a unique individual and believes that differentiated instruction and tending to students’ social and emotional growth are vital in the classroom.

Gene Stamell, Math Teacher
B.A., English, Trinity College
M.ED, Tufts University

More about Gene Stamell

Throughout his 35-year career as a second and third grade teacher (primarily in Carlisle, MA Public School), Gene loved developing multi-disciplinary lessons and curriculum strands. He often used music and drama to motivate his students and to enrich the classroom experience. As a math teacher at Acera, Gene tries to bring joy, laughter, and a sense of curiosity to his young learners. He wants them to ask and explore questions, to collaborate as data collectors and problem-solvers, to appreciate each other’s discoveries and challenges, and to connect their classroom learning to the outside world.