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Meet the Team

Marlo Bagsik  |  Elizabeth Blackwell  |  Alejandra Cheever  |  Dan Connelly  |  Nina Finci  |  Sabbie Hopkins 

Julia Kempkey  |  Molly Kovacs  |  Brian Simmons  |  Jessica Valera  |  Daniel Wekselgreene

Marlo Bagsik

Marlo Bagsik headshot

I’m Marlo Bagsik and I’ve served SMUHSD since 2016. I’m an Instructional Lead Team Member, District PD Coordinator, PHS MTSS Coordinator and an 11th grade English teacher. 

From the onset of choosing education as a career path, my aspirations were to serve marginalized, underprivileged, underserved and underrepresented communities. 

Early in my pursuit of becoming an educator, I was enlightened to see all students and their narratives as “Gifts” that they offer to us, teachers and educators. The unfortunate reality is that not every teacher or educator will see them as “Gift” so it becomes natural that students secure the wrapping or even protect their gifts by being cautious to who they offer it to. At its worst, it can be hard for them to even offer their “Gifts” to us because they’ve lost trust that anyone will receive it graciously. 

Students who have been historically underserved come to us fearful, skeptical and sometimes even defensive because they just don’t want to feel like their “Gifts” aren’t valued. I believe, as an educator, it's a great honor to unwrap their “Gifts” and celebrate with them what’s inside. This is what keeps me inspired--the feeling in working with students to become truer and freer versions of themselves is a sentiment that is worth being addicted to. 

My hope is that this team I have the privilege of serving on will help students celebrate and embrace who they are and the colorful narratives that they bring along with them. 

Elizabeth Blackwell

Elizabeth Blackwell headshot

My name is Elizabeth Blackwell and I am excited to join the Instructional Lead Team this year!  My post-secondary education began at University of California Santa Cruz where I received my Bachelor’s degree in History. I began working in the education field right out of college as a general education instructional aide at several elementary schools in wealthy areas; the ones that can afford aides in general education.  Following that, I became a special education instructional aide at a middle school in Bayview/Hunters Point in San Francisco.  I was blown away by the extreme differences in access to resources that students in different regions received, and addressing this disparity became a focus for me.  It was at this school that I began to love teaching and knew I wanted to work in Special Education.

I received a dual teaching credential in Multiple Subjects and as an Education Specialist in Mild/Moderate disabilities from CSU East Bay. In addition I earned my Master’s Degree in Reading Education and a Reading Specialist certificate from the same institution.  I have always had a passion for helping students who sometimes exist on the margins of our educational system, and who often need not only some targeted academic support and different ways of accessing education, but also who need to feel seen, heard and loved. This school year, I am fortunate to have narrowed my teaching focus to basic reading instruction, providing targeted dyslexia instruction for those who have been overlooked by our system for too long. 

Our system does not often support those who learn differently, and this can have a huge effect on the confidence and spirit of our youth.  In special education, we are seeing unprecedented referrals of students who are struggling with their mental health and are dealing with extreme anxiety, depression and feelings of isolation. It is one of my main missions as a teacher to find ways to help our students, staff and educational systems to heal.

Alejandra Cheever

Alejandra Cheever headshot

Hello, I am Alejandra Cheever and I have been part of the SMUHSD community since 2013. However, I have been an educator for 19 years. I currently teach AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) and Spanish for Native Speakers at Aragon High School.  I also serve as co-department head for World Languages at AHS. 

In my 19 years as an educator I have seen it as my mission to empower students by helping them achieve their academic potential and work towards a successful future.  I walk everyday into my classroom hoping that I can be a teacher for my students that I would want for my own children.  I have the same hopes and dreams for my students as I do for my own children.  Some of the ways I demonstrate this is by continuing my education through professional development that promotes equitable practices.  My work as an AVID teacher has been eye opening and has helped me become a better teacher.  The AVID curriculum taught me how to make my classroom environment more equitable and nurturing. Through my experience as an AVID teacher I learned about Zaretta Hammond’s work, Culturally Relevant Teaching & the Brain, which has been instrumental in transforming my instructional practices. 

I previously served as co-content lead for World Languages here at SMUHSD.  My experience as a co-content lead inspired my work with Standards Based Grading in my Spanish classes.  It is exciting to see that many of the grading practices in our Spanish classes are Aragon HS are aligned with the work presented in Grading for Equity by Joe Feldman.  In my experience as WL co-content lead I also learned about Universal Design for Learning guidelines and how powerful they can be to help all students access learning.  I hope to continue to grow in these areas so that I can better serve my students and community. 

I am grateful to be a new member of the Instructional Lead Team this year. I am excited to continue learning and shifting my teaching practice towards being an anti-racist educator.  I look forward to growing and learning about this critical work with our team members and our community.

Dan Connelly

Dan Connelly headshot

Lilla Watson, a Murri artist and activist said “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” 

My work is not about helping others. It’s about collective liberation. 

I am grateful to have been raised by a single mother, aunts, cousins and grandparents in New York.  And I am grateful for my single father, grandmother, and friend’s families who helped me transition to life in Chicago when I had to move as a young child. 

My work is not about individualism. It’s about community and interdependence.

I spent a lot of my high school career in hallways, dean’s offices, and detention. The counseling department enrolled me in welding, auto CAD, and wood shop instead of AP classes. My family made plans for me to apprentice as an electrician after my high school graduation. Instead, I enrolled myself in a few courses at a nearby community college while working part-time to pay for them. A year later, I was accepted to Western Illinois University. It took me six years, but I am the first in my family to graduate from college. 

My work is not about catering to careers or serving the economy. It’s about self-discovery and personal exploration.

I began my teaching career on the southside of Chicago. It was during this time that it became very clear to me that there is no such thing as a neutral education process. As Paulo Freire has stated, “education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate the integration of generations into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes the ‘practice of freedom’, the means by which men and women deal critically with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.” 

My work is not about assimilation or maintaining the status quo. It’s about resistance and transformation.

I am inspired by the potential of public education. 

I am invigorated by our potential to transform the systems and structures we’ve inherited. 

I am optimistic about our potential to construct a future that includes each and every one of us.

Nina Finci

Nina Finci headshot

Zdravo moje ime je Nina Finci and I’m an ELD teacher at Bridge and a member of the instructional lead team. Having immigrated to the United States and been an ELD student in high school, has inspired me to work with emerging bilinguals my entire career, starting at Balboa High School in San Francisco. 

My greatest professional growth and personal transformations occurred during the ten years I taught English and ELD at Peninsula High School, where I learned the importance of creating safe spaces and building curriculum around students’ background and interests. This was also the time I became a mom and wrote a memoir about my family’s immigrant experience in the backdrop of the civil war in my home country. It is these identities – educator, mother and writer – that I have been trying to merge and balance ever since.

After taking a brief pause from teaching to be an instructional and literacy coach, I soon realized that my roots are back in the classroom. Having visited many classrooms and worked with a variety of teachers in the district, I yearned to try some of those great ideas and strategies with my own students again. So six years ago, I found my true home at Bridge, a place of belonging, love, justice, hope and joy for myself and up to 72 newcomers to our district. This year I am excited to bring ethnic studies tenants into my classroom and am challenging myself to allow the students to lead the learning. I’m looking forward to learning alongside my colleagues and growing in my practice towards being a more anti-racist educator this year. Hvala na povjerenju i vidimo se uskoro!

Fun facts:

  • In high school, my favorite subjects were keyboarding and driver’s ed.

  • My first job was at Baskin Robbins 31 Flavors 

  • My all time favorite songs are Black by Pearl Jam and Killing Me Softly by The Fugees

  • If I wasn’t a teacher, I’d be a traveling food critic.

  • My dream is to publish my book Peel Me a Pomegranate

Sabbie Hopkins

Sabbie Hopkins headshot

Hi Everyone!  I’m Sabbie (aka Sabarijah) Hopkins, a member of our ILT team and serve as our district Manager of Teacher Induction and Professional Learning. I began my journey with SMUSHD in  2003 at Burlingame High School, where I taught Biology and Environmental Science for 15 years. Fun fact- freshman year is my favorite year to teach! Most of the work I do in my current role involves supporting our instructional coaches, the certificated evaluation system, the new teacher support program, and the induction program. Although I love to travel, the Bay Area is my home. I was raised in San Mateo, graduated from Hillsdale High School, attended SFSU and CSUEB, and currently reside in San Carlos with my partner and two boys.

I am very excited about the work our ILT team will be engaged with this year.

I believe all of our classrooms should be places of joy, exploration, curiosity, and belonging. I also believe it is our collective responsibility to create the conditions that ensure equitable outcomes for our most underserved students. I am incredibly excited about the work of our Instructional Lead Team, and it is my hope that we will celebrate and magnify places of innovation while creating opportunities for all of us to learn from and grow with one another. 

Julia Kempkey

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My name is Julia Kempkey and I am a member of the Instructional Leadership Team and also serve as the Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction.

I started as a middle school teacher for students with IEPs and learned so much on how a teacher’s expectation can impact students' perception of self and their potential. From there, I moved to Napa and taught Political Studies at New Technology High School. When I learned the power of student voice and choice. After several years of teaching, I took my first role as an administrator and became an assistant principal at Novato High School. It was here that I learned how the tracking of students into courses resulted in de facto segregation.

As a teacher, I did not see the larger view of the school and this move was very impactful for me. From there, I vowed to be a leader who reimagined and redesigned systems in a way that ensured students were not separated based on race, income or other factors. After spending a few years as a site administrator, I moved to the district office and had great opportunities to lead at a greater level.

After eight years in Novato, I moved with my family to San Mateo to take on the next big adventure in the role of Assistant Superintendent. I have been so inspired by working in a district that serves a wide diversity of students and having this opportunity to enhance our systems in a way that will serve all students equitably. I believe that the collective efforts of our Instructional Lead has the potential to support our transformation as a learning community into a place where all students can find and reach their full potential. I am excited to be part of team that is tethered to day-to-day challenges and work of teachers while having some release time to identify realistic as well as innovative ways to transform our schools as well as the larger district community into a place where all students, staff and families feel a sense of belonging and thrive.

Our goals include creating an instructional framework, supporting professional learning and learning about the teaching and learning in the district. 

Molly Kovacs

Molly Kovacs headshot

Hello! I’m Molly Kovacs, and I’m a math teacher at Mills High School, where I’ve been teaching since 2018, and co-chair of the Math Department since 2021. 

I have known I wanted to be a math teacher since 6th grade. I have always felt like school is my ‘happy place', and my goal is to help everyone feel that way so they can access their education to the fullest extent possible. I have spent my college years pursuing this goal, first at UC Davis with a B.S. in Mathematics and minor in Spanish, and then at Stanford University with an M.A. in Math Education. I’m thrilled to be part of the Instructional Leadership Team to continue learning and building a framework that can make school accessible and joyful for all students. 

Some of my current areas of interest and focus in my teaching include:

  • building my co-teaching skills with Education Specialist AnneMarie Montani

  • implementing restorative practices in the classroom

  • articulating multiple ways for students to show mastery in standards-based assessments

  • incorporating high levels of both rigor and support systems to differentiate instruction

  • leveraging peer tutor support in Algebra 1 and Integrated 2 

When I’m not teaching, you’ll find me cuddling with my cats Spencer and Jackson, playing the latest Pokemon game with my husband, binge-watching the latest historical romance or superhero show on Netflix, or (most commonly) napping. 

Some other facts about me: 

  • My last name is Hungarian – my grandfather immigrated from Hungary in the late 1930s

  • I grew up in Encinitas, California (San Diego county)

  • I enjoy indoor rock-climbing and yoga

  • I have taught Summer Bridge to Math Success (4 years), Algebra 1 (5 years), Algebra 1 Support (2 years), Geometry (1 year), Integrated 2 (1 year), Algebra 2 (2 years), and Precalculus (2 years)

  • I advise two clubs at Mills: GSA (Gender and Sexuality Alliance) and Math Club

  • In high school, I played trumpet, trombone, french horn, euphonium, and tuba. I still play trumpet and euphonium with a local community band. 

Brian Simmons

Brian Simmons headshot

Brian Simmons has been the Director of Curriculum and Assessment for the San Mateo Union High School District since December 2015. Prior to serving in SMUHSD, Brian worked at the San Mateo County Office of Education from 2008 to 2015 where he was Director of Accountability, Innovation and Results overseeing data and innovation, and the Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP). Also, at SMCOE, he led Networks for Success, a program charged with assisting districts and schools to take a systems-approach to raising achievement levels for historically underserved students. 

Before his tenure at SMCOE, Brian served in numerous roles in facilitating reform and equity-driven professional development at the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative/Pivot Learning Partners. Mr. Simmons began his career as a history teacher and department chair at San Francisco’s Thurgood Marshall High School.  He holds a Bachelor’s degree and Master’s in Teaching degree from Occidental College, and a Master’s degree in Education from University of California Berkeley.

Jessica Valera

Jessic Valera headshot

My name is Jessica Valera and I am a partner, mother, educator, innovator and explorer. Professionally I am a science teacher, a member of the Instructional Lead Team and the District Instructional Technology Coordinator. I taught at Aragon High School for 9 years and at the American International School in Caracas, Venezuela for 6 years. I currently teach EL Science at the Bridge ELD Newcomer Program.

I strive to create equitable and engaging learning experiences for students that are relevant to their lives and impactful beyond the classroom. This professional philosophy has been influenced partially by my experiences working and living in Caracas, Venezuela. The IB approach to the sciences as inquiry-based and student-driven shifted my approach to teaching content. Field experiences with students in habitat restoration the Galapagos Islands, student-designed marine biology investigations in the Dutch antilles island of Curaçao and other projects closer to home have solidified for me that long-lasting impact learning happens free of a textbook and involves getting your hands dirty! You don’t need a tropical island or fancy equipment to do and learn science. All you need to do is to step outside and be curious with your students.

My greatest professional development experiences have been leaning in and learning alongside my students. “Is it supposed to turn out this way?” “Is this right”? I don’t know - let’s find out! Science is a dynamic process and so is the teaching and learning of science. 

The past few years my professional work has shifted from focusing on getting our district’s teachers and students through distance learning to leaning in, learning and shifting my teaching and leadership practice towards being an anti-racist educator. I look forward to engaging with all of you and this critical work. 

Daniel Wekselgreene

Daniel Wekselgreene headshot

My name is Dan Wekselgreene.  I’ve been teaching math at CHS for 12 years (22 years teaching in total), I’m the Tier 1 coordinator at CHS, and I’m a member of the ILT.

I got my BS from Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, PA in 1999, in the field of Information Systems.   I eventually figured out that, while I enjoy working with computers, it unfortunately wasn’t the direction I wanted to go in life.  At the same time, I spent my summers working at a program called Summerbridge, teaching middle school students (two summers in Pittsburgh and then two summers in Hong Kong), and realized that teaching was my passion.   It was also what helped me begin to understand the systemic inequities that exist in education.  Summerbridge programs served students from lower socio-economic levels, while being hosted by extremely wealthy private schools.  The discrepancies between resources students had access to during regular school and during the Summerbridge programs were plain to see.  I came away from these experiences with a sense for how profoundly unfair our education systems are.

After college, I came to San Jose to work as an Americorps volunteer, with a focus on developing a service learning program for middle schoolers.  Over the period of a couple of months, I visited dozens of middle schools across San Jose, with the goal of recruiting students to the program.  Again, the contrast between the schools in different parts of the city were striking, even though they were all district public schools.  Some schools had lush, beautiful campuses with space to move and play, while others were small, run-down, and fenced in.   And these physical differences, of course, were just the tip of the iceberg.  I came away from this experience more sure than ever that I wanted to go into education and work toward improving systems for all students.

After two years in Americorps, I applied for an emergency teaching credential (possible, as there was a teacher shortage at the time) and began teaching math full time in downtown San Jose.  I taught with the emergency credential for several years, and loved working with the students, so I enrolled in the credential program at SJSU in the evenings.  I remained in the same school for 10 years, and then, for a variety of reasons, needed a change.  I joined the team at Capuchino in 2011, and have been there ever since.  I’ve been the co-chair of the math department for several years, as well as the district math coordinator for the last four years.  Over the years, I read many books and journals on instruction, assessment, and curriculum, and realized how much I still needed to get better at.  My first decade was spent teaching under NCLB, in an environment where the STAR test scores were all that mattered, and this mindset definitely stunted my growth as a teacher and did harm to my students.  In 2018, I decided that I wanted to really push my learning further, so I enrolled in the masters in math education program at SFSU.  I completed my coursework in Spring 2020, but all the issues around COVID and virtual teaching prevented me from completing my research project, which I am finally now in the process of doing.

Over the years, in my department at Cap, I realized how our students’ experiences were really different from teacher to teacher, year to year.  Differences in personality and style are great, but students were experiencing very different expectations around core practices such as grading, groupwork, depth of knowledge, and math practices.  Some students were able to navigate these differences, but too many were not.  Our department finally spent the time to investigate our core values, to develop a set of shared beliefs, and to align our systems.  It’s not perfect, but we have made great strides toward a more equitable system.  Given that there were such discrepancies within a single department, I assumed that the problem would be even larger when looking across disciplines.  This is why I applied to be Tier 1 coordinator at Cap.  I wanted to investigate our systems and help align core practices, so that all students (especially those who are struggling) could have a more coherent, equitable experience, and thus have greater levels of success.

I joined the Instructional Lead Team, because I see that as the next logical extension of this kind of systems thinking.  The goal is not to make all classrooms look the same, but to investigate and find out what is really working for students, and to use those practices to establish a common instructional framework that all teachers can draw from.  If this is done well, I think it can improve the experience for all students.  It can also improve the experience for teachers, because it will give us a common language of practices that we can collaborate on, even when our curriculum is different.