Susan Johnstone
, Assistant Head of School, Montessori Coach


Susan, a Montessori teacher since 1987 and administrator since 2003, co-founded a small progressive middle and high school in Raleigh, NC called Raleigh Progressive School. Most recently, she taught in a Lower Elementary classroom at Sterling Montessori Charter School in Morrisville. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English from North Carolina State University and a Master of Arts in progressive community education from Goddard College. Susan is married to fellow Montessori teacher, Don Henchel, who has been teaching for over 30 years, and is presently teaching at Montessori Community School in Durham. Her three boys attended Montessori schools up to the 6th grade. Susan has served as a coach, mentor, and consultant for Montessori teachers and administrators. She holds an American Montessori Society Lower Elementary credential.

Catherine Oudjit, 
Assistant Head of School, Montessori Coach

Catherine was born and raised in France, where she earned a J.D. in International Business Law. In 1995, she started her Montessori career at the Montessori School of Raleigh (MSR) where, having earned her AMS Infant/Toddler Certification from CMTE/NY, she directed a Toddler section for almost ten years. In 2005, Catherine started teaching at the Lower Elementary level at MSR, then continued in 2010 at the same level at Sterling Montessori Academy and Charter School in Morrisville, NC. She earned her AMI Montessori credential for 6 to 12 year olds and her Master of Education in Montessori Elementary Education from the Washington Montessori Institute and Loyola University in Maryland. Beginning in 2013, Catherine worked as the Director of Programs and Curriculum for the Primary Level at Sterling Montessori, and she most recently took on additional responsibilities to support the leadership transition there. Catherine and her husband Zack have two sons and a daughter who all started their Montessori education at the toddler level. She is passionate about authentic Montessori education, and is excited to join the Willow Oak Montessori team. During her down time, Catherine enjoys reading, cross-stitching and quilting.

Jen McMurray,
Adolescent (Middle School) Co-Teacher

Jen spent her first seven years of teaching in an outdoor therapeutic program for at-risk adolescents.  She facilitated team-building experiences, used outdoor living skills as a launch pad for academic learning, and helped young people discover their ability to support themselves and others in their living group.  She felt called to Montessori education and received her Upper Elementary training in 2009.  She has taught at both private and public Montessori schools.  When she’s not teaching, she dabbles in yoga, running, swimming, canoeing, gardening, playing music, and writing poetry.  A naturalist at heart, Jen is most at peace when hiking and exploring the outdoors with her two daughters and her husband.   She is excited about the promising work of growing an authentic Montessori adolescent program with the team at Willow Oak.

Charlie Cook, Adolescent (Middle School) Co-Teacher

Charlie comes to Willow Oak from Athens, Ohio, where for years he worked with organizations and individuals dedicated to creating a sustainable regional economy based on principles of social, economic, and environmental justice. He has been a baker, builder, and member of cooperatively owned and operated businesses whose missions are to provide for the health of their local and global communities. He is a student of the world, seeking always to better understand the myriad realms of human coexistence with the natural world and each other. This led to his study of holistic sustainability, natural and organic food systems, environmental studies, human ecology, and ultimately education. As a homeschooling father, he discovered a deep interest in spiritually sound and integrative pedagogy, the Montessori approach, and his aspiration to become a teacher. Charlie graduated from Ohio University with a Bachelor of Science in Middle Childhood Education and holds an Associate in Science. He has worked in various capacities with children of all ages and can think of no greater honor than supporting young people on their paths of self-discovery as they become engaged world citizens. He is very excited to be joining the Willow Oak learning community, and will begin his Montessori Secondary training this summer. Charlie enjoys gardening, cooking, learning, playing music, contemplating the transcendental nature of the universe and our places therein, losing himself in the woods, and spending the days with his wife, Jennifer, watching his sons learn and grow.

Sheldon Bae, Lower Elementary Co-Teacher

Sheldon graduated from Appalachian State University with a Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education. She taught for a year in Wake County before accepting a summer job with Nortel Networks that led to a career in Supply Chain Management. After 13 years at Nortel, she returned to the classroom because she discovered Montessori when she enrolled her son at Pittsboro Montessori School. Sheldon was an Assistant in one of the Primary classrooms at Willow Oak Montessori Children's House while she completed her Montessori training. She successfully obtained her American Montessori Society Early Childhood credential in 2012 and was a Lead Teacher in a Primary classroom this past school year. She is excited about the opportunity to use her traditional education and Montessori skill sets to help Willow Oak Montessori meet the needs of all of its students. Sheldon has lived in Chatham County for 13 years with her husband, Andrew, and two sons, Mason and Brooks. She enjoys giving back to the community by being a peaceful influence to the hearts and minds of children.

April Cibulski, Teacher Assistant

April joined Willow Oak Montessori Charter in March 2016, as a substitute teacher and volunteer for The WOM Children's House as well as Chatham County Schools.  April is originally from Long Island, N.Y.  After graduating High School, she moved to Hawaii working in retail, while attending Leeward Community College.  Four years later, April moved to California.  With a rapid growing family of 4 children, she decided to take a break from Business Management and Founder of Baby Loves Earth, to focus more on her two newly adopted children. April and her family moved to North Carolina in 2012.April saw and learned the benefits of a Montessori education after her youngest attended Willow Oak Children's House.  While away from work, April enjoys family camping trips to the mountains of NC, hiking, firing up a good meal and singing songs at the campfire.  Heading to the coast is also a favorite, as April is a former surfer and diver.  Yoga and Pilates, are part of her daily routine. April plans on pursuing her degree in education and her Montessori certification.  She is looking forward to a long term future with Willow Oak Montessori.

Jennifer Hughes, Lower Elementary Co-Teacher

Jennifer, originally from Orange County, has spent the past 9 years in Chatham County living and learning. After many years crafting fine furniture for a local company, Jennifer decided to return to school and in 2012, she received her Bachelor of Arts in Education from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The blending of the Montessori philosophy with that of public school was very appealing to Jennifer, so she enrolled her daughter in the inaugural year of Willow Oak Montessori Charter School, and has been thoroughly pleased. Jennifer is very excited to bring her love of learning to the Willow Oak Montessori community. When not in the classroom, Jennifer loves to dance, go camping near a rolling river, traveling to charming locales, and most of all, being with her family.

Britiney Fife,
Lower Elementary Co-Teacher

Britiney comes to Willow Oak from Knoxville, TN where she has been an educator for the past fourteen years. Britiney holds a master's degree in Holistic Education and completed her Montessori training through the North American Montessori Center. During her time in Knoxville, she taught elementary grades K-4 before having her son and deciding to transition to the Montessori environment. She is excited to become part of the Willow Oak team and combine her passion for teaching in public education with her passion for the Montessori method. In her free time, Britiney enjoys spending time with her family, the beach and container gardening.

Jennifer Warren,
Upper Elementary Co-Teacher

Jennifer Warren graduated with her Bachelor of Arts in Early Childhood and English Literature from William Paterson University in 2013.
 She started her teaching career at a private school in NJ, teaching Language Arts and Social Studies in a mixed aged classroom (7-12 years old) part time. After a year, Jennifer moved to a full time position at a Head Start preschool where she taught for 3 and half years.  In February of 2018, Jennifer moved to Sanford, North Carolina with her husband. She began to substitute at Willow Oak Montessori in March and immediately fell in love with the school and Montessori style. Wanting to continue her teaching career in this new state, Jennifer became NC State certified in K-6. She is excited to start her Montessori journey with the Willow Oak family.

Emily Barrick,
Upper Elementary Co-Teacher

After graduating from Brevard College with a B.A. in Integrated Studies: Elementary Education and completing the requirements to receive her K-6 teaching license, Emily realized that she was not comfortable with the traditional approach to teaching. She spent the next few years working as a camp and after school counselor and outdoor educator at Chestnut Ridge Camp and Retreat Center. She also worked during that time as a sales associate and nanny/babysitter. This time at different jobs taught her a great deal and helped her realize how much she truly loved teaching. However, she knew that she did not want to return to a traditional setting. At that time, through a Willow Oak family, she learned of Montessori. During the 2014-2015 school year, she completed her American Montessori Society Lower Elementary certification and spent time in the school's upper elementary classroom. The time she spent there helped her make the decision to pursue her upper elementary certification, which she will do during the 2015-2016 school year. She is looking forward to learning from all of her students just as much as she teaches them.

Hetal Amin,
Upper Elementary Co-Teacher

Having visited 25 preschools in 2007 in search for the perfect start for her son’s education, she stumbled into a Montessori classroom and it has been a unique trip ever since. Hetal graduated with a BS in Molecular Biology and Microbiology from the University of Central Florida. Whilst this was an interesting academic experience, Hetal soon realized she was not quite working with people in the same way as she had always imagined when running tests in a lab. She transitioned into pharmaceuticals for a while, until her husband brought her to Chapel Hill, NC in 2003. It was here that she continued working in the hospitality industry until she had twins in 2010. The opportunity of volunteering at her son’s Montessori school led to a desire to further engage with the classroom dynamics, so she became a substitute and then a teacher assistant. She is currently undertaking the Montessori training for Lower and Upper Elementary. She is excited to join Willow Oak this year and she plans to bring with her a certain mix of wit, enthusiasm, and desire for the Montessori model.

Leslie Kasell
, Upper Elementary Co-Teacher                

Leslie grew up the youngest of four sisters in Springfield, Virginia, studying Spanish from the age of 8. Upon graduating from the University of Virginia with a degree in Anthropology, Leslie taught English for a year in central China, returning to the U.S. to study at the Institute for Advanced Montessori Studies in Silver Spring, MD, where she received her Elementary Montessori teaching certification in 2009. Leslie completed her internship year working at the Montessori School of Northern Virginia and then became a volunteer at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.
Leslie received her Master of Arts in Teaching degree through Trinity Washington University in December 2011. She was a Lower Elementary teacher at the Latin American Montessori Bilingual Public Charter School in Washington, DC for three years before coming to work at Willow Oak Montessori. She is dedicated to advancing her bilingualism, including orchestrating a trip to Panama in 2011 for Spanish studies. Leslie is excited to be working at Willow Oak Montessori in this inspiring time of expansion. She is committed to providing high quality Montessori education to all children in her care that promotes a love of life and learning, and a sense of responsibility to the world at large.

Erica Halter
, Upper Elementar
y Co-Teacher

Erica grew up exploring, skiing, and enjoying life in Fort Collins, Colorado. She decided to move to the South to attend college at Clemson University.  While at Clemson, she studied Elementary Education with a Math and Science Emphasis. During this time, her parents decided to follow her and moved to Chapel Hill. This led to her spending summers in Chapel Hill working as a nanny for children who attend a Montessori school and as a summer camp counselor/director at Montessori Community School in Durham. There she was introduced to the Montessori philosophy, and was impressed by the students' intelligence, compassion, and independence. She spent a year teaching at a public school in Bluffton, SC before realizing that a Montessori school would be a great fit. She is very excited about joining the Willow Oak Family! In her free time, she loves to be active, eat delicious food, travel, laugh with friends and family, and play games. 

Jessy Durizch
Diverse Learning Community Specialist

Jessy holds a Bachelor of Science in Special Education with a minor in Elementary Education from Mansfield University of Pennsylvania. In 2004, she moved from upstate New York to Raleigh, where she began her teaching career and love for the Montessori philosophy at a public Montessori magnet school. During this time, she completed her Montessori training and obtained the Lower Elementary Credential from the American Montessori Society.  Jessy earned her National Board Certification in 2011, and completed her Master of Arts in Education from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University in 2012. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, the beach, spending time with her family and friends. After spending a few years in a traditional classroom setting, Jessy felt her heart as a teacher calling her back to Montessori. She feels very grateful to be a part of the Willow Oak community, and is happy to be part of the team as the school continues to blossom and grow.

Kathleen Hughes
, Reading Specialist

Kathleen received her Bachelors of Arts in Elementary Education from the University of Iowa and her Masters of Education in Literacy from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She holds an Early Childhood Credential from the International Montessori Council and was a Lead Teacher at Willow Oak Montessori Children's House before accepting the Reading Specialist position at the Charter School. Kathleen feels so fortunate to be a part of the nurturing community of Willow Oak Montessori. She lives in Chatham County with her husband, David, and their sons, Hunter, Nicholas, and Ethan.

Laurie Walker, Math Specialist

Laurie grew up in the beautiful Appalachian mountains of East Tennessee.  At an early age, Laurie decided she wanted to be a teacher.  After she received her Bachelor of Science in Mathematics and Masters of Science in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Tennessee, she began her teaching journey.  She has taught a wide range of ages and subjects from a pre-school art and movement class to high school Physics.  She has also taught in a variety of settings and places.  She has taught in three states:  Tennessee, Mississippi, and North Carolina.  For the last five years, she has taught 7th grade Math and Math I at Margaret B. Pollard Middle School.  She has also worked as an AIG Specialist.  She is married to her high school sweetheart, Robert.  They have three wonderful children.  In her free time, she loves to read, travel, try new restaurants, and spend time with family.

Lisa Buckley, Spanish Teacher

Lisa began her career teaching Spanish and Humanities at an innovative school in the Hudson Valley and is delighted to return to classroom teaching at Willow Oak. Her most recent work experiences as a fundraiser at community center serving first generation college-bound youth and as a Program Coordinator in higher education have further reinforced the transformational value of education, particularly when one can reach students at a young age. She enjoys learning with her students and takes time to discover what motivates each individual.
Lisa graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a degree in History and Spanish. She moved to Durham in 2003 and completed graduate studies in Urban Planning and Environmental Management. During graduate school, she interned in the Duke Gardens education department and taught Spanish to undergraduate freshmen. Lisa is a long-time Durham resident who was raised in the Midwest. In her spare time, you can find her reading books to share with her book club, listening to podcasts, or hanging out with her family and neighbors.

Ashley Frost
, Art Teacher Assistant and Office Assistant

Ashley has lived in the Chapel Hill area for the last 30 years. She earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree with a concentration in design from UNCG and subsequently worked as a garden designer in the years before starting a family. She and her husband have 2 children and have been a part of the Willow Oak community since the inception of the Charter School. She has served on the Board of Directors and has volunteered her time in a number of ways to help support the School. Alongside assisting in the Art room, Ashley has also worked as a substitute in all classrooms and the office.

Administration & Staff

Ayize Sabater, EdD
, Head of School (effective 7/1/2019)

Ayize Sabater, EdD is a dynamic social entrepreneur, author, and twenty year veteran educator.  He has co-founded several non-profits, including an independent school, an award-winning non-profit organization, and a Montessori public charter school in Washington, DC. Dr. Ayize is an alumnus of Morehouse College, the Wesley Theological Seminary, and Morgan State University. He has also completed his Montessori primary assistant training. Dr. Ayize’s innovative social justice work positioned him to be featured as the Keynote speaker to American University’s freshman class in 2009, and he was a 2010 recipient of a White House award for his non-profit work that was presented by First Lady Michelle Obama. In 2014, he authored the book “Tellin’ Children Our Story: A Fun Technique for Teaching History…” and has lectured internationally on cultural empowerment. He has leadership, financial, and grant-writing experience, and helped grow his social justice educational non-profit from a $10,000 program to one with a budget of over $500,000. Dr. Ayize is a Montessori parent and advocate who states: “I believe that Montessori education has a great potential to transform education; however, it is far too often relegated to the wealthy and well-to-do.”

Melissa Beck, PhD, 
Assistant Head of School, Diverse Learning Community Coordinator

Melissa received her PhD in School Psychology from UNC- Chapel Hill and completed her internship and postdoctoral fellowship at the Kennedy Krieger Institute and Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. She later served as the Outpatient Coordinator of the Pediatric Psychology Clinic and Consultation Service and was an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Johns Hopkins University. After moving back to North Carolina in 2006, Melissa spent several years at home with her husband, Mike, and three children, Sarah, Anna Katherine and Michael. She then worked part-time at UNC as part of a research study investigating the early development of children at-risk for autism. She joins the staff of Willow Oak Montessori following a term as a Board member, and is looking forward to using her professional knowledge in new ways to ensure that every child's unique needs are met at Willow Oak Montessori.

Melissa Frey
, Business Manager

Originally from the Northeast, Melissa Frey has been living in Chatham County since 1993. Her two children, Tucker and Ava Marinne are native North Carolinians, and she can hardly believe they are young adults already! After earning a BA in Family Studies from Syracuse University and Messiah College, and being home with her young family, Melissa was the Founding Board President, Project Manager and Marketing/Owner Services Manager of Chatham Marketplace, our local co-op grocery from 2003-08. Gravitating towards new and growing endeavors, she has been involved in various projects including The Plenty local currency, Company Shops Market in Burlington, and administrative work with the former Community Independent School. Melissa is actively involved in the community, having served on a variety of non-profit boards and engaged in ongoing volunteer work, all while making as much time as possible for organic gardening, biking, and power walking. Melissa has been with Willow Oak Montessori, first as Board Vice President, since 2011 and is pleased to be a part of this exciting time of expansion.

Noemi Plata, Office Administrator

Born in Mexico, Noemi moved to the United States at a young age. After graduating from college with a degree in business, she started to work for hospitals to help translate documents. Noemi began working for the Chatham County school system in 2005, where she has touched the lives of many Hispanic and exceptional children. After transferring to SAGE Academy, Noemi began to assist every teacher in the school and won the Best Instructional Assistant Award for four consecutive years She continues to have an impact on students who have graduated in the past. When she isn’t helping students, Noemi is an active member of her community. She is currently president of her neighborhood’s Homeowners Association, and she was previously a board member for Habitat for Humanity for four years. For fun, Noemi loves to refurbish old furniture and has made beautiful pieces of decorative furniture. She is also a photographer and loves to spend time photographing her three children and her two dogs. Noemi is super excited about the opportunity to help the community of Willow Oak Montessori!

Contracted Service Providers

Donna Huff, Occupational Therapist

Donna is a creative, energetic licensed and registered Occupational Therapist with 37 years of experience in a wide variety of settings, including over 28 years with pediatric home health and school system settings.  She has enjoyed treating students of all ages with a wide range of disabilities.  She is well experienced in many areas of Occupational Therapy, including sensory integration, therapeutic listening, positioning and handling, spasticity management, auditory and visual processing, praxis, and a wide range of school related issues. Donna lives in Chapel Hill with her husband John, who is also an Occupational Therapist, and her two adult daughters.  Donna is especially excited to be at Willow Oak Montessori with such a cohesive and talented team, and enjoys the challenge of problem-solving the diverse learning needs of all students.

Lucia Pasquel-Lefebvre, Speech Language Pathologist

Lucia is a licensed, clinical speech-language pathologist. She received a B.A. from UNC-Chapel Hill, an M.A. from Temple University and a certificate in early childhood special education from San Francisco State University.  Lucia is trilingual in English/Spanish/French and consequently has had the opportunity to practice speech pathology in 4 continents, working in many different private and educational settings and providing support to children with various cultures, languages & learning styles.   She has been a speech pathologist for almost 18 years specializing in early and elementary-aged children.   Lucia enjoys traveling, good cuisine, yoga and kayaking in her spare time.  She lives in Durham with her husband and 11 year old son, who attends a Montessori middle school and is thrilled to be a part of the Willow Oak Montessori Community.