Meet the Cypress Junction Montessori Team
Karen Winningham, Executive Director, Founder
I was born and raised in the Bronx, NY and graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (New York) with a Bachelor of Science degree in Industrial and Management Engineering. Upon graduation in 2003, I began my career as an Industrial Engineer for the United States Postal Service in Columbia, SC. Since then I have worked in various positions across the eastern United States and ultimately worked for USPS Headquarters as an Operations Industrial Engineer implementing process improvement methods and coaching a national network of Industrial Engineers as a critical component of our Lean Deployment. I hold a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt certification from the USPS and am an ASQ Certified Six Sigma Black Belt (CSSBB). I moved to Winter Haven in 2012 with my family and quickly realized this is where we were meant to be. In 2014 we created the founding group to open a Montessori charter school in order to provide this unique educational choice to all children of our community. In August of 2016 Cypress Junction Montessori opened its doors because of the passion, commitment, and dedication of this group, and I am honored to serve as CJM’s Executive Director. As a Montessori mother, and now a Montessori administrator, I commit to ensuring our students, families, and extended community experience the Montessori environment as intended by the teachings of Dr. Maria Montessori. Welcome to our school! Welcome to your school!
Aurielle McKnight-Hollinger, Principal
Greetings CJM Families! I am a passionate educator whose leadership approach is deeply rooted in the global, collaborative, and facilitative nature of the Montessori pedagogy. I am best described as professional and personable, meticulous and magical. I have more than 15 years of teaching and administrative experience, including 5 years as an Administrator. Prior to coming to Cypress Junction Montessori, I served as Assistant Director at Millhopper Montessori School in Gainesville, Florida, and Director of Education at Magnolia Montessori Academy in Lakeland, Florida.
My passion for Montessori education developed after enrolling my son in a local Montessori school when he was 3 years old. I was immediately intrigued. Being introduced to the philosophy was “life-changing”. I began to study and train through an AMS accredited institution and became MACTE certified in Primary 3-6. I have spent most of my years in early childhood education. I attended Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University where I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English Education, and Nova Southeastern University where I graduated with a Master of Science degree in Educational Leadership. Currently, I am pursuing my Doctorate of Education degree in Leadership and Innovation at St. Thomas University. In addition to my professional ties to Montessori, my husband and I are proud parents of four Montessori-educated children. In my spare time, I enjoy theme parks, baking and spending time with my family. I look forward to meeting each of you.
Katrina Hill, Grant Programs Director, Founder
I have been a part of the Cypress Junction Montessori family since the earliest days as a co-founder alongside Karen and Tasha and as the president of the school’s board of directors for the last six years. I am excited to step in to a new role on campus to help ensure the school and staff have everything they need to be successful! I have two children who attend CJM, and I’m loving getting to know all the other CJM students while on campus.
ReNata Baker, Executive Administrative Assistant
I am excited to be a part of the Cypress Junction Montessori family. I was born and raised in Polk County and graduated from Winter Haven High School in 2001. I received a Bachelor’s Degree in Sport Management from Webber International University in 2006 and started my career in the Polk County School Board system in 2009. I really enjoy working with kids. I have two girls that keep me on the go with a variety of sports. I also volunteer coaching basketball for the Auburndale Youth Basketball League.
Robyn Pospichal, ESE Teacher/ LEA Facilitator / Instructional Coach
Hello Cypress Junction Montessori family! I am very excited to join CJM and would love to share a bit about myself. I was born and raised in Central Florida and have lived locally my whole life. I received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Exceptional Student Education from Warner University in 2010 and began my education career at Achievement Academy right here in Winter Haven. During my time at Achievement Academy I earned my Master of Education degree in Exceptional Student Education and my Certificate in Autism Spectrum Disorders from UCF in 2015. I was also voted first runner-up Polk County Charter School’s Teacher of the Year 2014 – 2015. In addition to educating young children, I currently teach adult learners at Polk State College as an adjunct professor in the Early Childhood Education and Management program. My experiences in the field of education have led me to CJM eager to inspire students to develop a passion for learning and participate in hands on engaged learning. In my time apart from school, my husband and I have a seven year old daughter who is such a joy. Together we all enjoy visiting Disney parks and spending time with our large extended families.
Amanda Dustal, Physical Education Teacher
My name is Amanda Dustal, I am a certified k-12 PE teacher. I graduated from the University of South Florida with a bachelor’s in PE. This is my fifth year teaching and so far I have taught k-8 with the past few years being exclusively middle school. My passion in life is artistic gymnastics and the Tampa Bay Lightning (Go Bolts!). I am so excited to be joining CJM and developing what will surely be an impeccable PE program!
Beth Main, ESE Paraeducator
Mark Martin, Facilities Manager
Carlos Johnson, Extended Care / Substitute Guide
Shay Matthews, Extended Care / Substitute Guide
Sue Benjamin, Sassafras Room
I am so excited to be part of the CJM family! I am from Iowa, but I have taught over 21 years in Florida. Most of those years have been in kindergarten or first grade. I love teaching, reading, dancing, and getting outdoors in nature. In my spare time I enjoy spending time with my creative husband, 5 wonderful kids, and 4 precious grandchildren. I look forward to meeting you and your family!
Sharaya Striker, Sassafras Room
Hello my name is Sharaya Striker! I’m 22 years old and I have been teaching in daycares since I was 17. I decided to join the primary classroom because I love teaching kids and watching them learn and grow! Some of my favorite things to do is play soccer and hangout with friends.
Kalani Schlenker, Willow Room
Hello! I am super excited to be a part of the Cypress Junction Montessori family. I was born in Puerto Rico and grew up all over the United States (PA, TX, TN, KY, and FL). My family moved to Florida during my freshman year in college and have made this our home ever since! I graduated from Warner University with my BA in Elementary Education in January of 2009. My education career began at Lake Marion Creek Elementary School teaching several grade levels over the span of four years (Dual Language Kindergarten, 3rd, 4th, and 5th). In 2012, I switched over to virtual school where I gained an immense amount of knowledge in regards to instructional technology and working one-on-one with families to individualize learning. I taught Kindergarten and 1st grade in the virtual setting and my love for primary flourished! My desire to teach Montessori began in college when I had to do a report on Dr. Maria’s philosophy. From then on, it has been a dream of mine to become a part of a Montessori school! Dreams really do come true!
My husband and I have one child, Elian, who is very curious, energetic, playful, and social! We love to spend time building at LEGOLAND and exploring Bok Tower gardens. I am beyond blessed to be a part of the Cypress Junction Montessori family!
Brenda Hart, Willow Room
I am a Florida native. My hobbies center around my family and our mini farm. My backyard is a tropical barnyard filled with mature bamboo, a small orchard of fruit trees and chickens, quail, ducks and three dogs. I also dabble in gardening!
I hold a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Science and have had the pleasure of working with Kindergarten children for the past 15 years. I am thrilled to be a part of Cypress Junction Montessori and honored to be a link in the Founding Staff. What an exciting journey we will have as we nurture, guide and cultivate our children to have a passion for learning.
Lower Elementary Team
Natalie Helms, Magnolia Room
I am so excited to join the Lower Elementary team at Cypress Junction Montessori! I graduated from Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, GA in 2005 with a BFA, and later completed my graduate studies with the University of Nebraska at Kearney in 2012 earning a Master of Arts in Art Education. I have been teaching elementary Art with Polk County Public Schools for the past 13 years, and the last 11 years at Elbert Elementary School. Since 2008 I have also taught summer art camp and some adult courses with the Polk Museum of Art. I am certified in Elementary Education K-6 and Art K-12, and am looking forward to guiding my students in their studies in a Montessori setting. I feel like my experience in collaborating with classroom teachers with my lessons, and fostering creativity and problem solving in the art classroom has prepared me for this type of position. I look forward to getting to know my students and their families as we work together toward a common goal of cultivating creative thought and problem solving in order to raise independent learners.
Alicia Newhall, Magnolia Room
Greetings CJM! I am a recent and proud graduate from The University of Florida with a Bachelor degree in Sociology, Go Gators! I have lived in Florida since I was six years old, though I consider myself a true Florida native! I have two children named Eva and Alana. Any free moment we have we are either with friends or at the beach! I have spent the last three years working at Winter Haven Christian School spending most of my time there in the classrooms as a long term substitute and Teacher Liaison. I am an admirer of Maria Montessori and I am committed to her legacy and embracing the Montessori method from the heart. I am very thrilled to be a part of the CJM family and look forward to the school years to come!
Candice Perez, Royal Palm Room
Hello CJM families! I am so excited to embark on this Montessori journey with you all! I was born and raised right here in Polk County, Florida where I graduated high school from Polk Community College Collegiate High School in 2006. From there, I began substitute teaching right away and took a year off to be a long term substitute, which is where I fell in love with educating young minds. I received my Bachelor’s Degree in Elementary Education in 2010 from the University of Central Florida and began teaching at Lake Marion Creek Elementary School in Poinciana. I spent several years at Lake Marion teaching primarily third grade before transitioning to Inwood Elementary where I have had the pleasure of teaching grades 1-4. I am married to my high school sweetheart, Christopher, and we have 3 amazing children. My oldest daughter is currently in primary at CJM and played an integral role in helping to open my eyes to the astonishing benefits that a Montessori foundation has to offer young learners. I look forward to meeting you all!
Krystal Hallack, Royal Palm Room
Hello! I’m a Florida native and have been a Winter Havenite for 16 years. I’m married to an awesome Guy and we have two beautiful children, Hayes and Harmony that have been students at our beloved CJM since opening day. I’m a lover of music, art, nature, and people! I’ve been a dancer all of my life, have practiced yoga in my adult life, and have recently learned to water ski. I love to swivel ski with The Florida Aquamaids when it’s warm. I am very excited to become a full-time employee with Cypress Junction. I have thoroughly enjoyed being a substitute this school year. My love for our Montessori community grows more every day.
Upper Elementary Team
Jill Clark, Banyan Room
I was born in Melbourne, Florida and grew up there and in Lakeland, Florida. I obtained my Bachelor’s Degree in Music Education from The University of South Florida and my Master’s Degree from James Madison University in French Horn Performance. I have extensive experience as a professional musician in orchestras and chamber groups. I also have over 30 years of teaching experience in the areas of private music, drum corps, concert band, jazz band, marching band, general music and physical education. My classroom experience has been in homeschooling my five sons, teaching music and physical education at Lakeland Montessori Middle School, and classroom teaching in the Polk County Schools in grades one and four. I am excited to be part of Cypress Junction Montessori because I have seen the positive benefits of a Montessori education through all of my sons, graduates of Lakeland Montessori Middle School. My youngest son joined me at Cypress Junction Montessori as a student.
Jami Elliott, Banyan Room
Hello everyone! I am so excited for this opportunity here at Cypress Junction Montessori and enjoy working with all of your amazing children. I’m originally from Orlando, FL and moved to Lakeland in 2002. I have been married for 13 years and have two beautiful children. My son and daughter attend CJM. I love crafting and family and I enjoy spending our free time visiting theme parks.
When my son was born, I decided to put my career on hold; and I became a stay-at-home mom. This allowed me the privilege to help my son develop a love of learning at an early age. Once he started school, I volunteered in multiple classrooms, assisted on field trips, and helped with many school events. I had the chance to assist in my son’s third grade classroom throughout the year. I am so thankful to have had these experiences. I believe it has helped me gain the skills needed to assist your children in the classroom. I look forward to continuing my education in the philosophies of Dr. Montessori!
Kristin Martin, Mighty Oak Room
Hello! My name is Kristin Martin and I am so excited to be a part of the CJM family! I was born and raised in a small town in York, Pennsylvania. After high school, I attended Penn State University (WE ARE!) to earn my Bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education. I became a substitute teacher while actively looking for a full time job. At the same time, I met my now husband who had a travel bug in his pocket. Within seven months, we decided to make the move to the Sunshine State and have been here for four years now. I consider myself a creative individual as my major hobbies include painting and photography. My husband and I thoroughly enjoy traveling and exploring new places as well as dabbling with theme parks. I have had the privilege to work as a fifth grade teacher in a traditional classroom setting but always felt that there had to be something more to this profession. I have always known about Montessori teaching and recently began researching to find what my heart had been missing! The creativity, individuality, and philosophy that I have read and seen in person has opened my eyes to where I should have been a long time ago! I am beyond thrilled to begin this new journey and I look forward to growing in the Montessori setting alongside these amazing students!
Brooke Warner, Mighty Oak Room
I grew up right here in Winter Haven until I left to attend Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, where I earned my degree in English Language. While living in Utah, I met my husband but I was able to drag him back to Winter Haven and escape the snow and cold. We now have three very busy children: Gavin, Paige, and Maggie. We enjoy going to Legoland, Circle B, and the beach. The beginning of my career as an educator was at CJM which is what inspired me to obtain my teaching certificate. I then spent two years as a teacher in a traditional classroom setting after receiving my certificate. I am looking forward to continuing my journey as an educator at Cypress Junction and working with the fantastic Upper Elementary team!
Kimberly-Jo Foster, Sequoia Room
Hello Everyone! I was born and raised in Fredericksburg, Virginia. While enrolled in college, I worked as an assistant teacher at two private Montessori schools in the Northern Virginia/D.C. Metro Area. These experiences are what lead to my love of the Montessori Method and influenced my decision to become an educator. I moved to Polk County in 2010 where I worked at Winter Haven Montessori until I was hired by the Polk County School Board. I have taught English, Algebra 1, World History, U.S. History, and Civics at the Secondary Level during my career with PCSB. I was recognized as one of the Best and Brightest teachers in Florida last year. I have a Master’s in Educational Psychology, which focuses on how students learn. I was part of the CJM founding group during the early stages of developing a Montessori charter school in Winter Haven. I live in Auburndale with my husband Duane and our two children, Liam and Lorelai. I am hoping they will be part of the CJM family soon too. I am excited to begin this new chapter of my career and life by joining the community at Cypress Junction Montessori.
Scottee Brower, Sequoia Room
My name is Scottee Brower. I was born in Idaho but have lived throughout the U.S. I was homeschooled through high school but attended electives when I desired. I love science, reading, music and art. I have four children, two boys and two girls, with my husband of nine years.
My bachelors was obtained from Western Governors University with a focus on teaching and biology. I was introduced to the Montessori Method during my studies and love her method. Prior to that I attended a semester at Utah Valley University in Utah with a focus on ASL.