-~- OUR STAFF -~-
PATRICIA HUNTER MCGRATH EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR / ATELIERISTA
Patricia Hunter McGrath is the Executive Director / Atelierista of Branches Atelier in Culver City, California. Over the past 18 years she has developed an innovated early childhood program inspired by the Reggio Emilia Approach. From 2005 to 2007 Patricia developed the role of the Atelierista at Bold Park Community School in Perth, Australia. From 1998 to 2005 she was the Atelierista at Evergreen Community School where she developed a unique approach to children’s symbolic languages. Using clay, wire, paint, dance, etc. children enter into relationship with the materials and express, clarify and modify their ideas and theories. She also taught at the Growing Place in Santa Monica for 7 years.
Patricia is an artist and has over 20 years experience in Early Childhood Education. Patricia has taught the Reggio Emilia Class at Santa Monica College and at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia. Patricia graduated with a Masters degree in Human development from Pacific Oaks College in Pasadena, California. She also speaks at conferences throughout the United States and abroad and has visited Reggio Emilia, Italy six times. She is also a contributing author of the book In the Spirit of the Atelier published by Davis Press and Insights and Inspiration from Reggio Emilia also published by Davis Press.
BECKY ZLOTOFF – ASSISTANT DIRECTOR/ TEACHER
Becky Zlotoff graduated cum laude from St John’s College, Annapolis Maryland, after receiving a unique liberal arts education.
She raised three sons and a daughter in Santa Monica and now enjoys spending time with her three granddaughters. After being a very involved parent in the Santa Monica Public Schools, she got her early childhood units from Santa Monica College.
Becky created and has taught a preschool program at Santa Monica Synagogue for more than twenty-five years. She has been a California Mentor for nine years, working in the classroom with college students, supporting the practical application of good early childhood practices.
For twelve years, she was a teacher at First Presbyterian Nursery School. In addition to attending many workshops about the Reggio Approach in the United States, she has been on two learning tours to Reggio Emilia, Italy. Becky has presented her work at many local workshops and at NAEYC. With Mary Hartzell and Ami Cohen, she co-authored the chapter “Parents As Partners” in Next Steps Toward Teaching The Reggio Way.
CHRISTINA BIANCHI - TEACHER / NATURALIST
Born in Boston, MA Christina Bianchi has been involved with education since her early teens. She took her first position as a camp counselor at Holliston Elementary Camp, an environmentally themed day camp, in Holliston, MA at the age of thirteen. There she instructed and eventually created curricula in arts, ecology, and woodworking. She went on to study fine art and public works at the Museum of Fine Arts School in Boston, and at Emerson College. Christina began her exploration into the Reggio Emilia philosophy at the Cididad Jardim School, in SP, Brazil in an infant immersion program, working to help recently immigrated children adjust to cultural and environmental changes. Upon returning to the US, she continued serving children while working with at-risk students transferring from schools that had lost their funding due to the NCLB act. Later, as a State-Accredited instructor for early education and elementary school, Christina tutored students with learning disabilities such as ADD, mild autism, ADHD, and visual and auditory processing disorders.
Most recently Christina worked as the Program Director for The Childrens Nature Institute bringing her passions for teaching, children and promoting environmental literacy to the agency. In addition to overseeing both the design and implementation of all new education programs and curricula; Christina also worked with Development staff on grants related to program development, managed a staff of Environmental Educators and coordinated and implemented volunteer training.
Allison Kohler – TEACHER
Allison Kohler was born in Lansing, Michigan and studied Early Childhood Education at The Ohio State University, with a minor in Women's Studies. Working with children is her passion and vocation and she has been teaching in both public and private settings for over 10 years. Her experience with Reggio-inspired education began at a non-profit in Columbus, Ohio. As a novice in her field, she was mentored by a veteran teacher and activist committed to questioning cultural norms, fostering intrinsic motivation and integrity, and nurturing the future stewards of our environment and fellow beings. This formative encounter continues to challenge and inspire her both personally and professionally.
Allison enjoys snuggling her animals, spending hours at the thrift store, and collaborating with artists and scientists of all ages. She grew up in a large family that values community involvement and service to others and volunteerism remains one of her most avid interests. You may see her around Culver City, participating in a variety of activities and events, and finding great joy in the process.
Allison is looking forward to getting to know the Branches community and eager to develop her practice in such an exceptionally innovative and socially conscious environment.
JILL ADAMSON - Teacher
Jill Adamson grew up in the Midwest and has lived in the Northeast, South and has now happily landed in Los Angeles. After getting her MFA in Communications and Film Studies at DePauw University, Jill pursued wardrobe styling for film and photography. After some time, Jill decided that she wanted to combine her creative talents with her love of children, and decided to go back to school to get her Masters in Elementary Education at Loyola University of Chicago.
Jill became engrossed in the study of progressive education, which became her passion. Her first experience with the Reggio Emilia philosophy was during an internship at the Chicago Children's Museum, working in their art studio. There she discovered the richness of the Reggio Emilia approach, and enjoyed facilitating open-ended art projects with small groups of children and adults. Jill then got a job at a progressive Reggio inspired preschool in Richmond Virginia, where she was mentored by a master teacher. She has also worked at a Reggio inspired school in Providence Rhode Island.
In her free time she enjoys sewing projects, film, tennis and traveling. Jill is overjoyed to be a teacher at Branches! She particularly is excited to do long term investigations with the children and looks forward to being a part of the warm and caring Branches community.
SHIRLEY Seki –Teacher
Shirley Vien grew up in San Gabriel Valley as an only child in a house of adults. She graduated California State University, Northridge with a BS in Family Studies Childcare Administration.
Shirley’s desire to be an early childhood educator took root in college when she became a part of Jumpstart a non-profit literacy program. She started out as a Corp-member and gradually became the Program Associate of Jumpstart Northridge. Her passion for teaching grew along with her experience working with the children and families of low-income backgrounds in the San Fernando Valley. After college, Shirley’s experience deepened as a substitute teacher at Hope Street Friends in Downtown LA where she eventually immersed herself in infant education as an Infant Resource Teacher.
A jack of all trades and a master of some, Shirley finds pleasure in the simplest of things, from organizing a storage room to singing in traffic on her commute to Branches. She loves hiking with her fiancé and long four-legged friend, Lani. She enjoys cozy nooks, engrossing in a book, long bike rides, rain or shine, picnics, volleyball Tuesdays, and traveling to new places.
Shirley is truly grateful for the opportunity to be a part of Branches and is looking forward to enriching her journey as a teacher and parent partner here.
Berenice Vallejo – TEACHER
Berenice Vallejo earned her BA Degree in Early Childhood Education from Cal State Los Angeles University. During her college years, she discovered her passion for working with children. Her teaching experiences started as a volunteer in Head Start program in East Los Angeles Occupational Center. Later she became an assistant teacher at the Vine Street and Commonwealth Elementary Schools in the LA Unified School District and then a teacher in private preschools in Downtown LA. including the Infant and Toddler Program at Hope Street Friends. While taking Reggio-inspired courses at Santa Monica College, she was a substitute teacher at Branches Atelier for a year before joining the community as a full time teacher.
Berenice was born in Mexico and immigrated to Los Angeles in her high school years. She has a 12-year-old daughter, and loves going on hikes with her, her husband, and her Chihuahua dog “Tili”. She enjoys traveling and having family and friends over to her house and cooking for them. Being both a mother and working with children has given Berenice a variety of perspectives when building relationships with other parents and families. Berenice believes that the early years’ experiences are the core foundation to a child’s future and that together parents and educators help children build strong foundations for life.
Berenice is thrilled to be part of the Branches Atelier community! She is looking forward to taking on new challenges while learning and growing here at Branches.
Sandy Vidal - Teacher
Sandy is originally from New York, where she graduated from Binghamton University with a Bachelor’s degree in Human Development and completed over 30 credit hours at the Masters level in Social Science, with a concentration in Early Childhood Education. Her passion for teaching began her senior year of college while completing her practicum at a local school in Binghamton, New York. Since relocating to beautiful Southern California, she has taught preschool aged children for the past nine years.
Sandy’s love of learning goes beyond the classroom. She has volunteered at an orphanage in Haiti, serving the children and local families in Fond Doux. It was there, her appreciation for materials began as she watched children experience painting with oils for the first time in their lives. Since then, Sandy continues to help raise annual funds to sponsor children’s education in Haiti. Sandy has also partnered with various local community events to celebrate children, such as ELAC’s Dia De Los Ninos and Elisha C.’s Expo in West LA. In her spare time, Sandy loves to go to the beach, paint, and travel with her family.
Jasmine Canales - Teacher
Jasmine was born and raised in the Los Angeles area and has worked with children and families in a variety of settings throughout her life from the classroom, to wellness festivals and summer camps.
She worked as a fitness professional for many years while attending Golden West College studying Creative Writing. In 2011, became a certified Yoga teacher and therapist. Soon after, she completed a Kids Yoga teacher training and began leading parent-child and children's classes throughout Los Angeles and Orange County.
Through her experience teaching Kids Yoga at Little Owl Preschool in Bixby Knolls, she was soon offered a teaching position. There she was introduced to the Reggio Emilia approach and emergent curriculum investigating playful inquiry and using materials as languages. Jasmine has since maintained her license certificate in Early Children Education through UCLA extension and enjoys attending workshops and reading about compassionate, progressive teaching, sustainability, and personal healing. She also worked as an assistant teacher for Ms. Sherrie's school where she participated in daily hikes and nature explorations. She considers herself an activist and believes in the importance of community and diversity.
Jasmine has an abundance of interests; including writing music and performing with her band in Long Beach, teaching and practicing yoga, reading, dancing, spending time with family, traveling, healthy living, art, and nature. Jasmine is fascinated by the wisdom children have to offer! She feels joy in facilitating children's learning and is elated to be a part of the Branches family!
FRANCESCA Schifrin - Teacher
Franceska is a lifelong painter, student of natural sciences, education and social justice. After studying at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, her international career took her to multiple places where she also worked with children and their families – refugee camps in Bosnia during the wars, orphanages in Haiti, Lakota reservations in South Dakota and Cuban villages, to name but a few.
Franceska has always been dedicated to children, during her time in the East Village of NYC she made sure she had a shelf of early reader books for the local children who treated her apartment like an after school center. During the Balkan wars, she used her knowledge of visual arts and human compassion to share therapeutic art with the children in refugee camps. Deeply involved with Haiti since 1985, she has spent years working there with children in a multitude of ways.
Franceska is the mother of 2 children and has a personal passion for helping multi-race families and their children navigate their paths. Her experiences with adoption have made her a constant student of the subject, studying family dynamics and child development from all angles.
Her introduction to Reggio Emilia began with her 17-year-old son's preschool in Cambridge, MA. She chose the school because it fit so well her concepts of care and respect of children. She was raised by educators, artists, and anthropologists. Franceska's formal training in ECE has been at UCLA. She has taught school for over eight years, the past six as a lead teacher and assistant director at aJewish preschool in Venice, California.
Rhena Magaziner - Teacher
Born and raised in Montgomery County, outside of Philadelphia, Rhena’s primary education reflected the dichotomy of being raised by an artist, lyricist and author mother and a lawyer father in Philadelphia’s district attorneys office with deep roots in the Jewish community. Originally a student of theater, dance and piano Rhena felt truly able to spread her wings within the warm, diverse, multicultural and brilliant walls of Philadelphia’s Creative and Performing Arts School. At 16 she matriculated early from highschool as she was offered a full scholarship and grant to begin college at the University of Arts.
At the age of 21 Rhena moved to Los Angeles with an interest in pursuing the movie business and although successful she quickly found that she was not prepared for that world. With the arrival of her son and seeing that conventional teaching methods were not right for him she was inspired to learn about child development.
Dedicated to advocating for her son and supporting his growth led Rhena to a lecture entitled “Creative Experiences for Children” – and the lecturer was Patricia Hunter McGrath. Rhena left inspired and with a sense of clarity she knew she wanted to learn the Reggio Emilia approach. Rhena felt a strong tie between Reggio and the unique social and political philosophies that view children as strong and capable people. This continues to anchor and inspire Rhena to keep learning.
Rhena accepted her first teaching position as Coordinator of and Lead Teacher in the Parenting Department of Methodist Preschool, Pacific Palisades. In this role Rhena was able to observe the truly dedicated teachers and this gave her the inspiration to reinvent much of the parenting curriculum and design the MPS upstairs studio. In addition she became known as the “baby whisperer” because of her ability to communicate with the youngest of babes and develop programming in tune with their abilities and needs.
Rhena left Methodist Preschool in seach of a role and the space in which she could continue to grow and experience the continuity of a regular roster of children in a drop-off program. She found this as a Lead teacher at Piper Preschool in Santa Monica. Here she taught different classes of preschool and mixed aged children. She continued to develop an affinity for and ability to think outside the box and use materials to support children’s research and natural curiosity.
When Rhena heard that Patricia and Branches might have an opening she was ecstatic to come and continue to learn and develop her skills within a group of like-minded colleagues.
Rhena lives with her long time partner – fellow thespian, lover of classics and dedicated Vermonter – her high school senior son, cats, dogs and regularly rescued critters.
JENNIFER CROW - Teacher
Jennifer Crow grew up in Ventura, California and is currently living in Santa Monica. She completed the professional early childhood education program at Santa Monica College in the fall of 2011. During her program, she student taught at The Growing Place in Santa Monica, a Reggio inspired school. After The Growing Place, she had the privilege of being mentored at Branches Atelier by Patricia McGrath. Here she gained even more insight into the Reggio Emilia approach. She is enthusiastically learning how to integrate this approach into the classroom through her experiences with the children, parents, and staff at Branches. She is currently working towards obtaining her Masters in Child/Human Development.
In 2007, Jennifer began working for a non-profit organization called Free Arts for Abused Children. There she has been involved in organizing and facilitating special fundraising events to create awareness about the at-risk children in the community. She became very passionate about providing the emotional support needed to promote positive self-esteem, confidence, and respect within each child. Jennifer found her passion for teaching while creating several programs for various facilities in Los Angeles. She implemented and led several 10-20 week programs for children ages 3 ½ to 12 years that were in alignment with the organization’s philosophy of healing through the arts. This curriculum pertained to performing arts, movement, forms of expressionism and impressionism, and music. These programs were mainly held at Westside Children’s Center and L.A. Housing Facility.
In addition, she is also involved with an organization named Solace for the Children. She has helped children from Afghanistan to receive necessary medical care in the United States. She has had the opportunity to witness children from warring countries build friendships through this program, regardless of religion and cultural differences. Jennifer has a passion for exploring different cultures through her travels. She has been to over twenty countries and has a strong desire to continue learning through her visits to new places.
ANDREA POULTEN – COMMUNICATION AND INFORMATIOM LIAISON
Andrea Poulten was born and raised in Vancouver, Canada. She graduated from the University of Victoria, British Columbia with a BA in 1997 and moved to the United Kingdom in 1999 where she met her husband and started a family. In 2007 the family transferred to Singapore and in 2011, now with 3 children, they transferred again to Los Angeles. Andrea has held a number of administrative and customer service roles in a variety of industries both in the United Kingdom and Canada.
Andrea is a busy mother of three former Branches students and has spent the better part of 5 years as both a parent and a volunteer in the Branches community. She is currently an active volunteer at her children's elementary schools. She hopes the opportunity to join the Branches community as a member of the staff will enable her to share her insights and experiences with current and future Branches families.
BRANDI SHARKEY Parent / Infant program Parent Educator
Brandi was born in Michigan City, IN, a small lake town outside of Chicago. She grew up with a love of animals, drawing, and puzzles. She also spent hours outside climbing trees and playing sports.
Brandi attended Indiana University and studied Telecommunications. Upon completing her Bachelors, she moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in television production. After working in TV for seven years, she began to search for a more fulfilling path where she could explore and continue to learn the fascinating dynamics of family relationships.
Brandi obtained her Masters in Clinical Psychology from Phillips Graduate Institute and became a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. Since 2012, Brandi has been working with families in groups, schools, individual and dyadic therapy. Her training in the Mindful Parenting philosophy really solidified her passion as a parent educator. Her emphasis is helping parents set a strong foundation for a life-long, healthy parent-child relationship. She believes that meaningful change begins within the family system.
Brandi and her husband have two sons; 3 ½-year-old Declan and nine months old Milo. Brandi also owns and operates a family yoga and wellness studio in the South Bay. She is ecstatic to be joining the Branches family and continue to teach and learn from her fellow parents.
KAREN JACOBSON PALFI – Parent / TODDLER PROGRAM PARENT EDUCATOR
Karen attended Brigham Young University where she received a Bachelor of Science Degree in Sociology, with minors in Psychology and Child Development Family Relations. She then went on to receive her Masters in Clinical Psychology at Antioch University (2003-2005). For the past ten years she has been working as a Psychotherapist intern at Miracle Mile Community Practice and in Private Practice counseling children, families, teens, couples, and adults. For the past eight years she has been leading Parent/Toddler groups at Branches Atelier and the Early Years School.
Prior to attending Antioch, Karen worked as a preschool teacher at Evergreen Community School (1997-2003), Stephen S. Wise Temple (1990-1997), and Backyard Preschool (1987-1990). From 1990-1995 Karen was also a Parent Educator at Stephen S. Wise Temple. She has attended Reggio Emilia twice.
Xiomara De Oliver - Office Manager
Born an army brat in British Columbia, Canada, Xiomara De Oliver is a working artist whose visual lexicon embraces the juxtaposition of race, class, gender and politics within the confines of American and European histories. Xiomara holds a Bachelors degree in Criminal Justice and a MFA in Environmental Art from New York University.
In addition to exhibiting work in the US and Europe, she has worked as a Grants Program Officer at The Elizabeth Foundation For The Arts in NYC. Xiomara was instrumental in the workshop relocation of legendary African American Master Printmaker & MacArthur Fellow, Robert Blackburn before his death.
Xiomara hopes her work experience and artist’s eye will help support the Branches community.
JIM MCGRATH – FINANCIAL ADMINISTRATOR / PERCUSSIONIST
Jim has been drumming since he was seven years old. He has been a professional musician for thirty five years. Prior to starting the preschool with Patricia, he recorded and performed with a wide variety of bands as well as recording for TV and film soundtracks. He also started a record label Talking Drum Records and he currently has 6 releases available.
Jim utilizes drums and percussion instruments from all over the world as well as the many drums and instruments that he creates and makes himself. His compositions draw from the diverse cultures of Africa, Cuba, Asia, Pakistan, India, Australia,Brazil, Ireland, Tibet, South America and North America, creating unique tribal-ambient grooves that truly defines World Beat.
His understanding of the breadth and power of drumming as more than a tool for entertainment has also led him to become an integral part of meditation and healing workshops as well as dance and movement workshops.
He is very passionate about sharing his love and knowledge of percussion by teaching children and adults, and especially he loves working with toddlers and preschoolers at Branches because their excitement is contagious and they enjoy themselves from head to toe. Currently Jim teaches percussion at New Roads Middle school and also is the Musical Director for the Branches parent band The MutherFathers.