Teachers & Leadership

  Our Teachers

Magdalena Garcia – Head of Education & Nature Growers (ages 6-8) Lead Teacher, Founding Teacher

Lena is a UC Santa Cruz alum with a bachelors in Psychology as well as a UCLA graduate with a masters degree in education. She has been an elementary school teacher for over 15 years working as a classroom teacher, a teacher coach and mentor teacher. She has served as an educational consultant for the Natural History Museum helping to create project-based, art infused resources to support museum exhibits. Lena strives to create connection with children through listening and playing and is always looking for an opportunity for collaboration and learning with adults and children alike. Lena joined TKG when her daughter enrolled in the first year of the school.  She served as the founding teacher’s mentor and curriculum consultant and in 2013 became the School Builder and 7 to 9 Classroom teacher to answer the call of designing a school where a student’s potential comes first. In her role as Head of School, she is responsible for overseeing the teaching staff and developing a proprietary school curriculum.


Jennifer Ceci, 10-12 Class Lead Teacher

Jennifer’s unconventional path to teaching began while she worked as an architectural intern after completing her Bachelor of Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin. She volunteered to lead an after-school program designed to inspire middle school girls to take interest in math and science and realized that her true calling was in the classroom. Since getting her teaching certification in Texas, she has been able to hone her craft for seven years as a Middle School math teacher at public and private schools, deepening her enthusiasm for bringing real-world experiences into the classroom as a source of inspiration for students. She enjoys biking and going to the beach with her husband and two children and exploring her beautiful city and world.

Jill Vengerik, Redwoods (ages 8-10) Lead Teacher

With 8 years experience in the MD public school system and 3 years as a private tutor serving the Beach Cities communities, Jill is happy to continue her professional growth with TKG! As a certified teacher with a masters degree in Curriculum and Instruction, she has experience working with kids ranging from ages 3 to 13. The things she finds most rewarding, no matter the age, are the connections she builds with each family and child, and the chance to nurture a lifelong love for learning. Jill lives in Redondo Beach with her husband, daughter, and their awesome cat and dog.


Lacey LaCour, Acorns (ages 4-5) Teacher

Lacey LaCour’s passion for working with young children began from the tender age of seven. From assisting her own mom in caring for her two premature younger brothers to connecting with the elementary school at The Westminster Schools during her senior year of high school, she knew early on that educating and caring for children would be an important part of her life. While earning her bachelors degree at Georgia State University, she continued to pursue this passion working as a nanny, and upon graduation, become an early childhood educator. She taught for 7 years in the classroom with children ages 3 to 5. During her years of teaching she took multiple professional development courses increasing her knowledge about emergent literacy, pre-writing skills, and learning through play. She was chosen by her Director to organize and develop a summer program camps for children ages 3 to 6 as the Summer Director.

Lacey is qualified for a Master Teacher Child Development Permit and is finishing her Early Childhood Education Certificate through UCLA Extension. Lacey joins us after a 6 year reprieve from teaching when she focused on growing her family. However, she never lost her interest in child development and continued to take online child development workshops over the past few years.

Lacey and her family, husband Jonathan, daughter Colette (Nature Grower), son William (future Acorn), and doggies Winston and Nelson, have put down roots in the South Bay and have found their home in The Knowing Garden Community. She looks forward to sharing her passion for learning with her Acorns and the entire TKG community.


Heather Kornman, Acorns Teacher & Parent and Me Group Facilitator

Heather has had a love for children since she was a child, and that love has grown into adulthood. She knew early on teaching young children was her destiny. She studied early childhood development in college, completed her non-violent communication training, along with 10 years + of educational workshops to further her knowledge, and understanding to meet the needs of the children she works with as best as possible. Heather has been teaching preschool in NVC, constructivist, play based settings for the past 8 years. She also spent 2 years co-teaching elementary, and middle school in a project based setting. Heather lives in Redondo Beach with her husband, 2 children, 2 cats, and dog; where they enjoy gardening, creating, cooking, dancing, making music, and spending endless hours at the beach.

MGJMichelle Goldbach-Johnson, Founding Teacher & Field Day Lead Teacher

Michelle knew she wanted to be in education when her high school English Lit teacher assigned a “Carpe Diem” project. She spent the following days running in sprinklers, writing poems about mud, and waking up in time for sunrise. From this exercise, she discovered that THIS is where the real learning takes place and thus what kind of teacher she wanted to be. Years later she earned her BA in Liberal Studies and Multiple Subject Teacher Credential at CSU Long Beach. Michelle has worked as a teacher in several districts in the region and was especially affected by her experience at the Art Zone. The Artzone 4 Kids, in Hemosa Beach, provided an opportunity to practice her skills in empathetic language in a rich and supportive environment. Michelle has been teaching for 5 years and continues to be enthusiastic about implementing hands-on-minds-on learning at the Knowing Garden! Aside from teaching, she is a kid at heart and enjoys spending time with her husband, dog, reading, gardening, camping, crafting, practicing yoga, traveling, and occasionally bungee jumping.

Leticia Barahona, Nature Growers Co-Teacher

Leticia is a Humboldt State University graduate with a BA in Spanish Education and a minor in Scuba Diving. During her studies she had the opportunity to participate in a study abroad program in Chiapas, Mexico. That experience ignited her passion for traveling and experiencing the rich culture that Latin America offers. She traveled from Southern Mexico, through Central America to Panama. Most recently, she has been to South America and has plans to exploring Europe next. Leticia feels fortunate that she can use her traveling experiences, when teaching in the classroom, to show children different perspectives from different cultures and places. Her regular travel also includes hiking through the United States. When she’s not backpacking you can find her in a gym, at the beach, or walking her dog.  Leticia is advancing her studies at Grand Canyon University and will be completing her MA in Education in the Spring.



Natalie Stone, Lead Teacher

Natalie Stone was born and raised in New Jersey and graduated from Georgian Court University with a BA in English/Secondary Education with a Special Ed endorsement. Throughout her teaching career she has earned standardized teaching certificates as a ‘Teacher of English’ as well as a ‘Teacher of Students with Disabilities’. Her teaching career began in 2009 at The Empowered Learning Center working with children and adults of differing cognitive abilities. There, she worked to unmedicate as many of their clients as possible, in addition to improving grades, behavior, and quality of life. In 2013, she began working in a public school setting teaching English, Effective Oral Communication, and offering assistance as an inclusion specialist. Since, she has continued to pursue her love of teaching. Natalie says, “fortunately I have found a passionate group of educators, whom I look forward to learning from, as well as working along side as part of the Knowing Garden family.”

Nicolette Rodriguez, Redwoods Co-Teacher

Nicolette  is a neurodivergent Salvadorian woman that prides herself on rescuing plants, activism, and watching too much Netflix. Her undergrad degree is in Psychology, which she even went to graduate school for. However, after working in a LAUSD middle school for 2 years, she knew teaching was her calling. She is currently at Antioch University, in their Preliminary Teacher Credential program and plans to receive her Masters soon after. Nicolette loves teaching for the students and the relationships she develops with them. She relies on art, mental health, and social justice to immerse her students further into the curriculum. Nicolette is also an activist that spends her time doing community outreach, wellness circles, and rallies. Her most favorite hobby is art; she loves to paint murals, partake in chalk festivals, and writing. Presently, Nicolette and her fiance are planning their October wedding while taking care of their adorable two cats and clever dog.


Business Management


260968_670359911_1210928752_nTrish Valdez, Business Manager & Founder

Trish Valdez was inspired to start TKG when she felt stuck between choosing between “we’re doing the best we can” and “you can’t afford it.” Thinking that a different, innovative and student-centered choice should be available to more families and un-willing to accept the status quo, she began to create opportunities for like-minded parents to help build the vision that was the foundation for TKG. Funneling her skills as a student of sociology, a marketing and PR executive and passionate parent, she manages the business logistics & operations structure of our school.


Bria Biesmon-Simons, Bookkeeper

Bio forthcoming

2016-2017 Community Board

Shannon Minor

Shannon is the mother of two students at TKG. They have been a part of the community since 2013 and they are grateful for growing as students, as individuals, and as a family through their experiences here. Shannon has an A.S. in Business Management, an A.S. in Business Administration, an A.A. in Administration of Justice, and an A.S. in General Studies with emphasis in Social and Behavioral Sciences from El Camino College. She is currently a fulltime student at CSU Dominguez Hills, pursuing a B.S. in Public Administration with emphasis in Administrative Management and a Minor in Behavioral Science. She also continues to take courses at El Camino to complete the requirements for an A.A. in Child Development and an A.S. in Marketing. Shannon serves as Vice Chair of an auxiliary fundraising group that plans events and raises money for Rainbow Services, a local nonprofit that provides services for victims of domestic abuse. Shannon is passionate about nonprofit work and is dedicated to helping to grow TKG’s mission and reach. She believes all children should have access to the type of education TKG provides because, among other things, she fully believes it empowers young people to have healthy relationships with themselves and with others.

MikeDMike Dokmanovich

Mike Dokmanovich is Executive Vice President and head of Middle Market Banking for Comerica Bank, Southern California.

Dokmanovich is responsible for leading all middle market growth strategies, providing business solutions and developing financial initiatives and relationships for companies that have revenue ranging from $20 million to

$500 million. He oversees Comerica’s eight middle market offices located in Los Angeles, Orange, San Fernando and San Diego Counties. Southern California middle market offices service a number of industries and business sectors, including industrial products, business services, consumer products, retail, technology, apparel and textile, among others.

Dokmanovich has been a Comerica officer in California since 1991 and is a former senior vice president and regional manager for the middle market division in Los Angeles, Calif.

The Ohio native holds a bachelor’s degree in finance and an MBA from Ohio State University. Dokmanovich currently serves on the Board of Directors for AbilityFirst, a Pasadena-based nonprofit organization serving children and adults with developmental disabilities, including autism, cerebral palsy and Down syndrome. He and his family reside in Redondo Beach, Calif.


Monica EvangelistMonica Evangelist

Monica is an independent contractor with over 20 years of experience in operations, consulting and financial planning & analysis in both corporate and non-profit organizations. Hailing from Boston by way of Dallas, Monica earned her MBA from Southern Methodist University Cox School of Business and received a BBA in Operations Management at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.   Her daughters attended The Knowing Garden from 2011-2017.  Prior to her role as a director on the TKG Board, she held the role of Board President.


Adam Barshay

Adam Barshay began investing in real estate over 20 years ago when he formed his first real estate investment vehicle, The Equity Investment Group.  Adam has invested in over 200 properties throughout Southern California, many of which required significant rehabilitation. Adam formed Smith & Barshay Realty, Inc. in 2002, currently Barshay Real Estate, Inc.  The primary purpose for the formation of this entity was to meet the brokerage requirements of his friends and family, while also allowing him to bring this critical component of real estate investments in-house. Since its inception, Barshay Real Estate, Inc. has transacted over $500 million in real estate investment and residential sales on behalf of its principals and clients. In early 2009, Adam formed Anacapa Ventures to capitalize on real estate investment opportunities resulting from the collapse of the real estate market in what turned out to be the beginning of a time, which would later be coined “the great recession.” In early 2011, Adam saw a niche in the market with the federal reserve promoting a historically low interest rate environment creating a lack of affordability in the residential housing segment and thus in turn a limited supply of available apartment rentals. Foreseeing the increase in rental demand, Adam formed Anacapa Realty Investments, which primary focus was acquiring multi-family apartment buildings in the Los Angeles market. Recently, Adam formed Barshay & Peters Management Company, Inc. a real estate management corporation that specializes in managing multi-family, residential and commercial real estate.



Jae Lee

Bio Forthcoming


Trish Valdez 

Founder and Principal at Elbie Studio, Trish has led award-winning, million dollar marketing and publicity campaigns around the globe. She combines her experience and entrepreneurial energies to develop creative solutions for Independent Producers of Art, Cinema, Culture as well as creative entrepreneurs. A UCLA graduate with over 20 years of communications experience, her scope ranges the big screen to hometown. In her role as Business Manager, Trish oversees administration, marketing and operations.

Magdalena Garcia 

Lena is a UC Santa Cruz alum with a bachelors in Psychology as well as a UCLA graduate with a masters degree in education. She has been an elementary school teacher for over 15 years working as a classroom teacher, a teacher coach and mentor teacher. She has served as an educational consultant for the Natural History Museum helping to create project-based, art infused resources to support museum exhibits. Lena strives to create connection with children through listening and playing and is always looking for an opportunity for collaboration and learning with adults and children alike. Lena joined TKG when her daughter enrolled in the first year of the school.  She served as the founding teacher’s mentor and curriculum consultant and in 2013 became the School Builder and 7 to 9 Classroom teacher to answer the call of designing a school where a student’s potential comes first. In her role as Head of School, she is responsible for overseeing the teaching staff and developing a proprietary school curriculum.

2017 Advisory Board


LauraPLaura Premi, Counsel

Laura Premi has over a decade of litigation experience serving a wide range of clients involved in entertainment, employment and contract disputes. She represents small and large businesses as well as individuals and has extensive experience in multi-party complex litigation. She has worked on matters for banks, government entities, property owners, movie studios and business owners. Laura works hard to achieve the best results for her clients, whether that means resolving a dispute prior to commencing litigation or taking a case to trial or arbitration. Prior to joining Cypress, Laura practiced law for 11 years at Glaser, Weil, Fink, Jacobs, Howard & Shapiro, LLP.

Laura received her law degree from the University of Southern California Law Center in 2000. While at USC, Laura was a member of the Southern California Interdisciplinary Law Journal and the president of the Student Bar Association. She was awarded a summer grant from USC’s Public Interest Law Foundation, which she used to litigate on behalf of tenants to ensure their landlord was providing habitable living conditions. Laura earned her Bachelor of Arts in Sociology from the University of California, Los Angeles.

Rick Valdez, Financial/CPA

Richard Valdez, CPA, Sr. Vice President, has over 25 years experience providing financial services to individuals in and throughout the entertainment industry, having participated in the business and financial management of some its most successful members.

As such his experience handling both beginning and established clientele gives him a unique opportunity to help the soon to be successful individual deal with greater financial resources, as well as understand the responsibilities accompanying that wealth.

Mr. Valdez’s area of expertise includes tax planning for high income and net worth individuals. He participates regularly in tax and financial planning courses, has been involved in the planning of major acquisitions and sales of real estate and business assets, having successfully assisted his clients in acquiring millions of dollars of financing for these endeavors. Specific entertainment industry experience includes assistance in the negotiation of the financial structuring of employment related contracts, in addition to supervising the audits of motion picture profit participation accountings.

He has been a member of the California Society of CPA’s since 1990, in addition to obtaining a California Real Estate Sales’ Persons License in 1998.


Yvette B. Fenton, Teacher

Yvette finds that the curiosity of children fuels her love of learning. She sees her role in the classroom as a collaborator, learner, and researcher. She received her BA in Child & Adolescent Development from California State University Fullerton. She then attended Loyola Marymount University, where she received her MA in Literacy & Language and multiple subject teaching credential. She has taught in various capacities in Huntington Beach, Santa Monica, Lawndale and Hawthorne. Yvette also enjoys spending time with her husband and daughter. They often spend their time together outdoors, camping, swimming in lakes, building sandcastles and snowboarding.


aliceshippeeAlice Shippee, Curriculum

Alice earned a BA in English from UCLA & her MA in Education at Stanford University. She holds a Single Subject Clear Credential in English, as well as credentials in Cross-Cultural Language & Development and photography. At Beverly Hills High School from 1995-2005, Alice taught World, British & European, & American Literature; dance; and photography, while also earning several teaching awards. She was also the English Department chair & professional development coordinator.

Alice is very excited to be teaching at the elementary level now, particularly because of all the possibilities that TKG offers to teachers in designing truly meaningful and relevant interdisciplinary curricula to students. The whole-child approach to learning means that teachers are able to harness all the disciplines into a cohesive study of the world and of life with a 360-degree view through multiple lenses, incorporating a students’ unique backgrounds, personalities, skills, & passions. Her approach is that the classroom is a theatre wherein the subjects we study can come alive, & that learning is an aesthetic experience that engages all the senses. Alice’s background in high school education informs the TKG community about where our students will be headed after middle school.


Shane Evangelist, Management & Finance

Shane Evangelist has been Chief Executive Officer at US AutoParts since October 2007. From August 2004 to September 2007, Mr. Evangelist served as Senior Vice President and General Manager of BLOCKBUSTER Online, a division of Blockbuster Inc., which he joined in 2001, where he was responsible for leading the creation, development and launch of Blockbuster’s online movie rental service. Prior to that, from January 2001 to July 2004, Mr. Evangelist served as Vice President of Strategic Planning for Blockbuster Inc., with responsibility for strategy development, mergers and acquisitions, marketing and capital deployment. Prior to Blockbuster, Mr. Evangelist began his career at IBM where he served from 1997 to 2001 as a business executive responsible for media and entertainment accounts. Mr. Evangelist holds a B.A. degree in Business Administration from the University of New Mexico and an M.B.A. from Southern Methodist University.


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