Free Union Country School Faculty and Staff
Co-Director of Teaching and Learning, Second and Third Grade Teacher
Having grown up in northern Virginia, Blair has called Charlottesville home since graduating from the University of Virginia with a degree in Economics. A life-changing stint as a summer camp counselor followed by a post-college position as a PE teacher led Blair to pursue a Masters in Elementary and Special Education from Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia. He loved his first years as a classroom teacher, during which he taught 4th grade at Brownsville Elementary School in Crozet. Then the time was right to chase his long-time dream to open a record store, and he started Speakertree Records in downtown Lynchburg, VA. After two exciting years as a small business pioneer, Blair missed the classroom and the joy of working with young people. He sold the store and is now delighted to be teaching at Free Union. Blair has two children, one of whom graduated from Free Union. Blair lives in Charlottesville with family and lots and lots of records.
Marisa Swope Benforado
Kindergarten and First Grade Assistant Teacher
Marisa is thrilled to be joining the Free Union Country School Community as an assistant to Kindergarten and First Grade. She recently received her provisional teaching license through Shenandoah University's Career Switcher Program, completing her student teaching at Greenbrier Elementary in Charlottesville. A Class of '04 graduate of UVA, Marisa spent time traveling and teaching abroad before beginning a career in international educational travel as a tour operator in New York City. In 2015, she and her husband, Nate, decided it was time to get back to their Virginia roots and are grateful to call Charlottesville home. They have an almost five-year-old daughter and a very old cat, Charlotte! In addition to her family, some of the things Marisa loves most: Italian food, travel, ballet, and spending time outdoors (especially in beautiful Free Union and the Shenandoah Valley, where she grew up!)
First Grade Teacher
Starting with homeschooling her own children, Marguerite has been an educator for over twenty years. Those include teaching elementary students, tutoring for the Boy's and Girl's Club and doing pre-service for teachers. She teaches best practice in elementary reading, math, and gifted education for UVA's Curry School of Education where she earned an educational specialist degree. Marguerite loves the outdoors and enjoys daily nature walks with her four dogs, hiking with her family, and traveling to new places. We don't know if she travels with her ukulele, but she does have one.
Sabbatical in Germany
A native of northern Michigan, Grace traveled south to the University of Michigan where she received a bachelor’s degree in anthropology. Before venturing further south for the first time to the beautiful Blue Ridge and Charlottesville, Grace taught environmental science in outdoor programs in Utah and Maine. She particularly valued the infinite connections that could inspire wonder and joy within children while using the natural world as a classroom. She loves fishing, hiking, and reading, especially the works of Joan Didion, having just finished The Year of Magical Thinking. Something you may not know about Grace is that growing up she competed in Scottish highland dance. Ask her to bring in her ghillies.
Fourth and Fifth Grade Teacher
Born and raised in South Carolina, Sarah moved to Charlottesville in 2009. A lifelong love of books and history took her from Davidson College to Clemson University (after a stint in textbook publishing) and finally to Miami University where she earned a Ph.D. in early modern history. After spending the last four years co-oping at Chancellor Street Preschool Cooperative, she discovered that teaching was her calling. When not playing, reading books, and being silly at Free Union, Sarah can be found with her children, Eleanor and William; her husband, Jim; or reading, running, and knitting.
Systems of all types have been of great interest to Marc since a young age: networks of blocks, domestic and international political systems, computers and their networks, defense/security arrangements, transportation, regional management, education, to list just a few. Marc's responsibilities at Free Union are as varied as his interests: he assists others with their management of information; provides consultation into systemic resilience; mends and configures information systems; pokes, prods, and nudges. He's also a parent of a Free Union graduate and a current student.
Fourth and Fifth Grade Teacher
John was born and raised in Washington D.C. but spent a good bit of his life in Milton, Delaware and Capon Bridge, West Virginia. After graduating from Guilford College with a degree in geology, John went into the field of Outdoor Education and then into the classroom. In 2002, after teaching fourth and fifth grade math, language arts, social studies, and science at an independent school in Alexandria for six years, he relocated to Albemarle County. After some pretty serious home renovations, John began teaching at Free Union in 2004 and has never looked back. He spends his free moments trying to slow the entropy of his surroundings, going on nice walks, and playing music. He lives in Free Union with his lovely wife, Jessica.
Preschool Assistant Teacher
Laura is excited to come full circle—returning to the wonderful town of Free Union where she grew up to join the Free Union Country School staff! Laura earned her BA from Warren Wilson College and adventured around the Midwest with Americorps NCCC before returning to Virginia. She was most recently living in Madison County, where she spent several beautiful years working at Grymes Memorial School in the Jr Kindergarten program, hiking along the Rapidan River, and teaching herself various crafting skills. These days Laura lives in Earlysville with her husband, Colin, and her two kids. When she isn't at school, Laura can be found exploring the woods, creating new projects, enjoying outdoor yoga, and traveling with her family.
After-school Enrichment Teacher and Early Childhood Assistant Teacher
Originally from Northern Virginia, Meg earned a degree in theatre from Ithaca College, and went on to live in New York City for seven years where she worked in the colorful arena of costume for film, tv, and theatre. Meg has always delighted in the curious minds and uninhibited silliness of children. She has led theatre and storytelling workshops for early childhood and elementary aged kids, and even spent a semester as a teaching intern at a public school in Vienna, Austria. Meg is thrilled to be at Free Union where she looks forward to getting to know this community and learning through play and exploration. When she is not at school, Meg enjoys sewing, singing, cooking hearty meals, playing board games with friends and family, and exploring the outdoors.
Outdoor Education Teacher/Physical Education
Daniel is a passionate explorer and reader, with a love of history and music. He hails from the far off land of Massachusetts, and is enjoying the warm winters here in Virginia! He can often be found drawing, hiking, or playing guitar for his dog during his free time. Graduating from UMass Dartmouth with a degree in history, Daniel is honored to return to Free Union Country School!
Mariclaire hails from Baltimore but has called Charlottesville home for a long time now. She has the great honor of being an alumni- and present-day parent here at Free Union. She just can't get enough of the beautiful campus and the wonderful people that fill her days. No matter whether it's reminiscing about days gone by or reveling in the fun of learning in the moment, she can't imagine a better place to come to work every day. As Mariclaire dispenses bandages and comfort throughout the year she loves seeing the confidence blossom in the students proving they are not just a student of Free Union but a student of life.
Jolee Nail Horn
Director of Communications, Alumni Relations, & Events
Jolee came to Free Union Country School in 1992 when her daughter was enrolled in kindergarten. With a degree in English and museum education employment experience at the Smithsonian and Monticello, she found at Free Union the perfect combination of endearing children and paperwork to organize. Her contributions to the School include coordinating admissions inquiries, organizing special events and school programs, and creating the school newsletter. She also has a rather large, full band aid box for injuries, both real and almost real. Jolee and her husband have two daughters, Emily and Callie, who are alums of Free Union. Her hobbies include knitting, reading books for grown-ups and children, collecting fabric (making something with it too!), and finding interesting art projects for students and teachers. She would like to bring back the art of letter writing with smooth paper and good pens.
Stephanie comes to Free Union Country School with 25 years of experience as a teacher, almost all in Kindergarten in Albemarle County. Born in Tennessee, she has been a native of Virginia since she was in the third grade in Charlottesville. Her love of young children and their particular kind of magic began early on and was cemented when she worked in an orphanage in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, for part of one summer, just after turning 19. She originally studied for a Bachelor of Social Work degree from Virginia Commonwealth University, and later went back to school for Early Childhood Education certification at James Madison University. Some of the things she has always loved are camping, hiking, reading, dancing, reading and writing poetry, and creating quirky, artistic crafts. Spending time outside with children, watching and listening to how they interact with the natural world and with each other, and observing their growth as unique individuals are constant sources of joy for her.
Logistical Magician and Sustainer of Morale
Janel attended UVA for undergraduate and graduate school and enjoyed a career in Information Technology serving the hospitality, not-for-profit, and manufacturing industries. She joined the Free Union family in 2007 when her son Jack enrolled in preschool and has had a special place in her heart for the school ever since. Jack and his brother Henry are now Free Union alumni and still love to bike up to the school to play hoops. Janel loves the outdoors and exploring the world. Obesrving her easy competency you would never suspect that in an earlier time she tracked dragons on the island of Komodo, watched Black Crested Macaques swim in the Mulucca Sea, dived for pygmy seahorses in the Lembeh Strait, and saw up close a tarantula in the wild. Janel still loves spending time outdoors with family and friends and caring for the furred and feathered. She lives with her husband, John, and sons just north of campus at the base of an ancient volcano.
Nicole hails from Idaho where she grew up, earned a Bachelor's in Elementary Education from Montana State University in 2006, and comes to us loaded with experience teaching and nurturing young children. Prior to landing in Central Virginia, Nicole taught on the other side of the world, Tauranga, New Zealand, and then devoted her first six years in this state to public school teaching as an intervention specialist and a teacher of first, third, and fourth-graders. Inspired in 2013 to create a nature-based preschool for her son Henry and other children, Nicole founded the highly regarded Round House Playschool in Crozet. Nicole currently is pursuing a Masters in Environmental Based Learning from Mary Baldwin. When she is not at school, Nicole enjoys hiking, biking, camping with family, do-it-yourself projects, and vegetable and flower gardening. She is excited to be at Free Union and we are thrilled to have her as a coworker.
Social Media Coordinator
As an alumnus of Free Union Country School, Maxwell Mandell grew up in Earlysville, Virginia. He has always been interested in the arts, including music, video, and photography. In January 2019, he joined the board of directors of a filmmaking group on Facebook. His immediate efforts prompted the addition of 10,000 new members. Maxwell is now a lead administrator for the group which has rebranded into a creativity-based mental health community. He engages the community with health-oriented posts every other day and creative intermittant prompts. Maxwell is majoring in Cinema with a minor in Strategic Communications at Virginia Tech and is on the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences Marketing and Communications teams. He is interested in applying his desire to create high quality art to help tell the unique story of Free Union Country School -- particularly its values, interests, and purposes. Maxwell has a special heart for telling the stories of diverse personalities with honesty and integrity. We are fortunate to have him at Free Union.
Physical Education Teacher
Tom’s three sons are all Free Union alumni. A retired floor trader on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and a nuclear physicist by educational background, Tom has been the Physical Education teacher for grades two through five since 1988. Tom has served several terms on the Free Union Board of Trustees and has played an indispensible role in the development of the campus over the past two decades. When he’s not running kids around the playing field, he volunteers for the Nature Conservancy and the Virginia Men’s Rowing Team.
Interim Head of School
We are thrilled to welcome Ronée to Free Union Country School. Ronée comes to Virginia most recently from California, but her professional career has taken her from coast to coast and abroad. She brings a diverse background of expertise stemming from a love for child-centered education and independent schools, to student advocacy, diversity and inclusion, social ethics, extensive teaching, and the law. The board of trustees was determined to find a leader with the capacity to build on Eric's legacy and the wisdom to enrich it. They note, "Ronée immediately stood out for her warmth, insightfulness, ease in answering student questions, ability to connect, and indelible combination of wisdom and humanity." Upon her arrival at school in July, Ronée hit the ground running, setting up appointments, visiting staff and faculty, introducing herself to fellow heads of independent schools, and moving into a house near our campus. Her MBA sensibilities already are evident in the importance she places on listening to staff, identifying planning solutions, and presenting fresh ideas for discussion. Ronée has rapidly become a key part of the community, hiking the area, exploring restaurants, and quickly understanding the culture. Welcome, Ronée!
Pamela was brought to yoga in 2007 seeking grounding after a family tragedy. In 2010, she participated in a Permaculture Design course at Sivananda Ashram, immersing herself in daily yogic practices while working on 77 acres in the Catskills. Pamela was encouraged by the mental and physical shifts Hatha yoga provided her and completed her 200 hrs. certification in 2012 in Grass Valley CA, where she also led yoga KidsCamp. She has gone on to teach in San Francisco, Chicago, New York, and Austin, and completed 500 hrs. in 2016. Pamela continues the study of Ayurveda and Sanskrit and loves sharing this ancient knowledge with young yogis. In addition to yoga and gardening, Pamela is finishing her Elementary Education B.A. in hopes of enriching young ones for years to come.
Website, Inbound Marketing
Howard earned a Bachelor of Arts degree at Lafayette College and a Master of Science in animal behavior at The University of Rhode Island. Following a tour of duty in the Navy he worked at the Pennsylvania State University, earning a doctorate in education. Howard came to Free Union as a substitute teacher and because of the joy in learning he found there came out of retirement to serve as interim head of school. Previously, he worked for the State of New Jersey as a representative to the nine state universities. After that, he served as executive director of a non-profit in New Jersey and as a science teacher at Stuart Country Day School in Princeton, where he established an inquiry-based science program for grades one through four. Howard believes in listening to children as a way of valuing and connecting. He lives in Charlottesville with his wife.
Called by the mountains, the culture, and the community, Christine moved to central Virginia twelve years ago with her husband and two sons. She watched her boys grow into teenagers while pursuing a twenty-year passion in early childhood education as both a teacher and a specialist for three years supporting Virginia's early childhood quality rating and improvement system (teaching the teachers). Christine’s formal education began at St. Mary's College of Maryland and continued at Goddard College, a progressive school in Vermont, where she earned a bachelors degree in early childhood education and studio art. Outside the classroom, Christine enjoys painting, sewing, collage, baking, and making things with her hands. Christine's many interests find their way into the classroom through her appreciation of beauty, discovery, and creativity. But she's always up for learning something new!
Former home-schooler and current musical enthusiast, Lani is thrilled to be spearheading Free Union Country School's fundraising and development program. Lani earned degrees in Cognitive Science and Education Science at the University of California, Irvine, landing her a position in college admissions upon graduation. Following a transitional role at Trader Joe's (her favorites are the peanut butter-covered Joe-Joe's), Lani arrived (virtually) at Free Union. While still new to the community, she sees the immense hard work that her colleagues and parent-volunteers invest in Free Union to make it a special haven for student learning and growth. Lani is determined to bring that spirit into her fundraising efforts so that the magic of this school can continue for decades to come. When she's not "developing" new ideas for Free Union, Lani can be found in her West Coast apartment whipping up new baked goods, writing her next Broadway showstopper, or napping with her cat, Little Bean.
Second and Third Grade Teacher
Michael hails from the fighting north side of Chicago, having taught eight years of classes there as a primary grades teacher at a dual-language academy. He holds a Master's degree in curriculum and instruction from the University of Illinois at Chicago, with a focus on radical pedagogy, play-based research, and foreign-language acquisition. Michael is now enjoying his one-year-old daughter, Flora, by acting like a chimpanzee. Always up for a game of tennis or chess, Michael loves to cook stews with a Blue Note jazz record spinning behind him. Arriving in Free Union and joining the faculty, Michael continues a chapter in his life where he not only contributes mightily to the school but takes the time to discover hiking trails, be close to family, and continue to explore, grow, and celebrate alongside the members of the staff.
Animator of Three-Dimensional Learning
After graduating with a degree in anthropology from Brown University Jonathan spent several years working as a painter, a carpenter, and a boat builder. Following that, he accepted a job at Mystic Seaport Museum in Mystic CT, where he worked in various roles and eventually led both the education and exhibits departments. His career has been dedicated to developing interactive learning environments. His inclination to teach using hands-on methods stems from a personal joy in creating by hand. He is a woodwright, having taught wood carving classes and built furniture, cabinets, and wooden boats. Jonathan embraces the values-based environment of Free Union Country School. Ethical behavior, the universal truths of compassion and forgiveness, and appreciation of the natural world inform his teaching. Jonathan, his wife and two dogs recently moved from Rhode Island to Free Union, VA, where he was delighted to discover the Free Union County School.
Co-Director of Teaching and Learning, Second and Third Grade Teacher
Most likely to explain that dumping toys out of a bin over and over and over again is important work for toddlers, Laura can be found exploring Charlottesville after many years teaching in New York City. With a Masters of Education from Bank Street, an abundance of curiosity about children and how to best support them, and deep empathy for learners and teachers, Laura's role as Co-Director of Teaching and Learning is a perfect one. Laura brings extensive experience in early childhood development, teacher mentoring, and curriculum design appropropriate to young learners. With work at a progressive school and teaching graduate classes at City College, Laura has at her center an understanding that children learn differently at each stage of their lives. Social justice is a theme running through Laura's professional life, even combining civics and justice to teach math as seen in her PEN conference presentation: "Making math more powerful through connections to social justice and democracy." When not at school, Laura may be gardening, ukulele strumming, playing cards -- a card shark! -- and listening to live music. Ask her about what it was like to live in Alaska and Brazil.
Director of Business and Operations
Camilla joins us after a five-year stint as HR/Admin Lead for an international research firm following a career in education, teaching in Charlottesville and Northern California. Raised mostly in Austin, Camilla followed her adventurous spirit to San Francisco, where she spent her weekends devouring coffee, training for marathons on the Pacific Coast Trail, and observing the sun set over the Golden Gate Bridge. After finishing a Masters in Education and two years of teaching middle and high schoolers in California, she packed her bags for a new adventure, relocating from one coast to the other, and landed in Charlottesville where she has been raising three children, the first of which will head to college this fall. For the last 17 years she has been coaching various youth sports; leading youth reading groups; developing a green thumb; and tutoring local children. These days, Camilla stirs many pots -- operating an Airbnb in her basement, learning from three growing children, leading group fitness classes before sunrise, editing college student essays at night, gardening, and dancing to cheesy music before an audience of eye-rolling teens. She hopes to be found digging in the dirt and shooting hoops when she’s not knee-deep in contracts and spreadsheets. Please come by and say hello!