Meet the Cypress Junction Montessori Team

Administrative Team

Kris Newman-Lake, Ed.S., Principal, Head of School

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Ms. Newman-Lake comes to us with seventeen years of experience in public education. Ms. Newman-Lake was born and raised in Winter Haven, graduating from Lake Region High School. Her career includes twelve years in the classroom, with a primary focus on exceptional student education and three years as an assistant principal at Citrus Ridge in Davenport. Most recently, Ms. Newman-Lake became familiar with CJM as she worked alongside our current administration in her role as the ESE Senior Manager with Polk County Public Schools. Ms. Newman-Lake shared the following with our search committee: “I am passionate about the children here in our community. My desire is to leave a deep footprint here in the Winter Haven community and this is done through the education of our children, where the needs of every single child in our school community are respected and met. It is vital to recognize each child as an individual, while also preparing them for all aspects of life.” 

Teresa Hilliard, Acting Assistant Principal

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Mrs. Hilliard comes to CJM with 16 years of experience in public education, and holds a master’s degree in K-12 Educational Leadership. She has spent many years as a teacher leader and classroom teacher, working with students from PreK – 8th grade. Mrs. Hilliard is currently pursuing her Montessori Leadership certification.

Karen Winningham, Chief Financial Officer, Founder

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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!

Krystal Hallack, Executive Administrative Assistant

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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.

Support Staff

Kurt Weidner, Facilities Manager

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I have 12 years experience working in Polk County Public Schools. I was born and raised in Ohio. I love working with children and have extensive training in teaching ESE students. I am happy to serve in the capacity of CJM’s facilities manager. The best part of my work day is seeing each of the children’s smiling faces.

Amanda Dustal, Physical Education Teacher

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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

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Virginia O’Neal, Paraeducator

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Tatiana Reyes, ESE/ESOL Teacher

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Carlos Johnson, Extended Care / Substitute Guide

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Shay Matthews, Extended Care / Substitute Guide

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Dr. Kristen Hathcock, Reading Interventionist

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Over 10 plus years of Social Science experience working with at-risk populations (adults and youth) in a variety of capacities ranging from the criminal justice system to the educational system as a Career and Technical Education Instructor, Criminal Justice Adjunct Faculty member and Social Science Researcher. I find excitement in giving back to my community through multiple avenues such as my Sorority: Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Incorporated, my church outreach, The Lakeland Rotary Club outreach, Leadership Lakeland Class 39, and serving in various organizations in Polk County as a Board of Director for Heartland Crime Stoppers and Read Lakeland, as well as recently Founding and serving as CEO of an emerging non-profit that seeks to restore, empower, and advocate for successful reentry in Polk County through a holistic approach to self sufficiency. As a published author and curriculum developer I find that literacy and civic engagement are a few ingredients to effective and fervent social impact, and when those ingredients are fueled with passion and an intrinsic desire to serve, there’s no task out of your reach! I am excited to now support Cypress Junction Montessori’s literacy department and will continue my collision with vision while leaving imprints of encouragement along the way! 

Primary Team

Sue Benjamin, Sassafras Room

  • Lead Guide

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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

  • Classroom Assistant

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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

  • Lead Guide

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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

  • Classroom Assistant

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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

  • Co-Lead Guide
  • Art Teacher

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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.

Heather Poole, Magnolia Room,

  • Co-Lead Guide

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Alicia Newhall, Royal Palm Room

  • Lead Guide

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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!

Betty Parmerter, Royal Palm Room

  • Classroom Assistant

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TBD

Upper Elementary Team

Jill Clark, Banyan Room

  • Co-Lead Guide
  • Montessori Instructional Coach
  • Music Teacher

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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

  • Classroom Assistant

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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

  • Co-Lead Guide
  • Team Lead

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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

Co-Lead Guide

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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!

Secondary Team

Kimberly-Jo Foster, Sequoia Room

  • Social Studies Guide
  • Team Lead
  • Network Manager
  • Testing Coordinator

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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

  • Science Guide
  • ELA Guide

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Hello! My name is Scottee Brower and I was born in Boise, Idaho. My family moved frequently and have lived in multiple states and areas of the U.S.  I was homeschooled on and off throughout my childhood and high school years. I love to learn and especially love science, reading, music and art. 

I attended my first semester of College and Utah Valley University in Orem, Utah for ASL. I ended up getting married and finished my bachelors awhile later with Western Governors University; majoring in teaching and biology. I was introduced to the Montessori Method during my studies and continue to learn more about the method each year I am here at Cypress Junction Montessori. 

I have four children, two boys and two girls and am thankful for the opportunity they have of attending Cypress Junction Montessori.

Sarah Bisesi, Sequoia Room

  • Classroom Assistant

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Hi everyone! 

I’m so happy to be here at Cypress Junction Montessori, walking alongside our staff to help cultivate a healthy and authentic Montessori environment for our student community. Montessori is my passion! Guiding our children to be independent, respectful of their environment, kind to all living creatures, and encouraging their natural curiosity and healthy social development. Each child’s unique personality, and the students’ ability to apply their strengths individually is a beautiful thing to witness. It’s what first attracted me to the Montessori method over 10 years ago. 

Here’s a little bit about me. I was born and raised in Kissimmee, Fl. After which, I studied early childhood education in Rome, GA. My husband Keith and I moved back to his hometown, Winter Haven, in 2002 and have thoroughly enjoyed putting our roots down here with our family ever since. We have two daughters, both Montessori educated, originally at Magnolia Montessori and now we call Cypress Junction our home. We have one daughter in the secondary program here at Cypress Junction, and the other is in the Cambridge program at Winter Haven High School. I’m also a professional photographer! This is my other passion that I’m so grateful to be able to do on the weekends and after my workday here at the school. 

I’m so grateful for the opportunity to be here at Cypress Junction Montessori, and I look forward to many years of growth and progress with my students and fellow guides here at CJM. Montessori communities have the world to offer their fellow man, especially the community. Getting the privilege to be a part of something so critical is both exciting and humbling. 

Erik Roldan, Sequoia Room

  • Math Lead
  • Math Interventionist

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