Chris Aguero – Principal
Firm at the center of all of his beliefs about education is the notion that all students can learn. Chris believes that all students arrive to school with valuable knowledge from their own experiences, no matter how young they are and where they come from. Curriculum emerges through acknowledging these experiences and this expertise on the part of the child.
After graduating from UT Austin, Chris nurtured a community of life-long friends and family in New York City, working for the Union for Reform Judaism Press, studying at the Jewish Theological Seminary and Columbia University, and interning with the Department of Education for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Chris also volunteered for an evening literacy program at the Harlem Branch of the New York Public Library, falling in love with teaching. In New Haven, Connecticut, he joined the Ezra Academy, family a Solomon Schechter day school, where he taught an array of grades and subjects. While in Connecticut, Chris earned a master’s degree in education. In 2012, he moved to Austin to begin a doctoral program in education at UT. He taught at ACE Academy, a K-8 school specializing in gifted education, receiving training in the Renzulli Learning System through the University of Connecticut. Chris first joined AJA as a middle school teacher.
Chris has served on the board of directors at Congregation Agudas Achim, where he is a proud member. He is an avid challah baker, a lover of books and stories, and has a fondness for public radio. Chris has served this community as principal since 2018.
Karen Tarantolo – Office Manager
Karen is a native Texan who moved to Austin in 1985. She previously attended Baylor University, completing degrees in both education and business management, and then worked in the corporate sector for 10 years, before choosing to be a stay at home mom for her 3 children. Later, she worked for a local non-profit for many years before joining the team at AJA in 2019. Karen and her husband Joe are currently enjoying their grown children and first grandchild.
Susan Snyder – Business Officer
AJA welcomes Susan Snyder to the office as its new business officer. Susan has lived in Austin since 1984 and, even though she wasn’t born in Austin, she considers herself an Austinite. She is the proud mother of two daughters, ages 28 and 26, both born and raised in Austin, and a seven-year-old wire-haired dachshund. Susan prides herself in being a highly organized leader with a propensity to streamline and improve work processes. She joins the AJA family with a combination of technical, financial, and business expertise. She has worked for Hospice Austin, Mitel, Inc., and Advanced Micro Devices. She also served eight years as the office manager and program manager for a local Tae Kwon Do studio, serving its after school and summer camp programs.
Susan believes in the benefits of meditation and meditates daily. When she isn’t working, she practices yoga and enjoys hiking, reading, knitting and solving Sudoku puzzles. Her favorite pastime is exploring Austin with her dog Zoom (and yes, he lives up to his name!).
Valerie Luna – School Nurse
Valerie has been a dedicated nurse for the past 13 years. She has practiced in both acute and outpatient care settings. Valerie loves and enjoys her work as a nurse. She feels privileged in helping people through difficulties and life changing events. She looks at every individual as a whole, and tries to see the overall picture. Valerie has had the privilege of working with some of the most talented multidisciplinary teams of doctors and nurses in both Denver and Austin.
Valerie was born and raised in El Paso, TX. She lived in Denver for 13 years before moving to Austin, and she is bilingual speaking both English and Spanish. When Valerie is not working, she loves spending time with her husband exploring the city and state. She has two large older greyhound dogs. She loves coffee, tea, listening to music/audio books and working out.
Aileen Duncan – Kindergarten
I have taught KG at Austin Jewish Academy for twenty years. From the very beginning I have felt a remarkably strong connection to the school itself, what it represents, and the families that I have come to know and love. One of the things I treasure most about being a part of this community is staying connected to the students as they move from grade to grade; it truly warms my heart. I think that is why one of my favorite quotes comes from Helen Keller: “What we have once enjoyed we can never lose. All that we love deeply becomes a part of us.”
I love children; I love teaching kindergarten, and I love AJA!
Catherine Robinson – Kindergarten
“Teachers who love teaching, teach children to love learning.”- Unknown
Young children are born with an innate curiosity about the world. They use these curiosities to investigate the world around them. As a teacher, Ms. Robinson helps to feed those curiosities, as well as demonstrate to the children problem solving abilities through creativity, communication and an understanding of self. She does this by looking at the world through the eyes of each child in her classroom. In doing so, children begin to understand that she is an equal partner in their education and together they build a trusting and reciprocal relationship in learning. Ms. Robinson’s goal throughout the year is to build a foundation of a love of learning in all children, as well as the framework for the children to become investigators and take a hold of their education through inquiry. Ms. Robinson found a love of learning and teaching during her undergraduate years at The University of Texas at Austin. During this time, she participated in hands-on learning experiences in child development, positive guidance, and developmentally appropriate practices with young children. She continued this love while obtaining her Master’s degree in elementary education from Texas State University. While attending Texas State, Ms. Robinson also continued to work as a classroom support assistant for a child with special needs. After graduating, she spent seven years as Master Teacher of a Kindergarten Laboratory class. This experience provided her with opportunities to use project-based learning, as well as lead young adults in developing knowledge of how best to work with young children and their families. She looks forward to continuing to develop as a leader in education through working with children and families at the Austin Jewish Academy. As a true Austinite (born and raised), she enjoys spending time with her two beautiful daughters, Addie and Piper, listening to live music, cooking, reading, and running. Catherine will join our kindergarten team.
Allyson Peller – First Grade
Allyson Peller-Smith is new to our staff this year all the way from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan! She received her undergraduate degree in Elementary Education from Michigan State University and her Master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Texas-Arlington. Allyson has a passion for literacy and has taught at a variety of schools, this being her fourth year as a teacher. At MSU, she was part of the Urban Educator’s cohort program, focusing on inner city schools, and taught in an all-male first grade classroom. After that she was asked to work at a Montessori school, which she did for two years. This past year she went back to her hometown of Sault Ste. Marie and taught at a public charter school that specialized in Native American culture and traditions. She believes that every child deserves the opportunity to thrive in a school setting and get the individualized attention they all deserve. You will find her classroom to be calm, comforting, and welcoming for everyone who walks through the door. She is moving down to Austin with her husband and plans to live by her sister who has been here for over five years and Allyson could not be more excited! She loves adventures, being outside, and you can find her watching football on Saturdays and Sundays during football season. She also enjoys meeting new people and exploring new places, which Austin is perfect for! She is thrilled to be joining us and hopes to learn just as much from the school community, as her students will learn from her! Allyson Peller will serve as our new first grade teacher.
Janessa Mclean – First Grade
Janessa Mclean was born in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois. She is joining the AJA community with eight years of teaching experience. She graduated from DePaul University in Chicago with a Bachelors in Elementary Education. She has taught students of all ages, but thrives with the early elementary levels. She began her career by teaching English to elementary students in South Korea, where she lived and taught for three years. Through this experience she found her love for travel, learning and experiencing new cultures, and languages. Ms. Mclean has lived in Austin for three years and is passionate about teaching literacy, building a classroom community, and instilling a love for learning in every student. In her free time, she loves to cook, read, explore the outdoors, and relax with her two cats. She is so excited to be joining the AJA community and looks forward to meeting everyone virtually and eventually in person.
Kelly Hill – Second Grade
Kelly was born and raised in Amarillo, Texas. She is starting her second year at the AJA and has over 20 years of teaching experience. She received a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts from the University of Texas and a Masters in Counseling Psychology from Naropa University in Boulder, CO. Kelly is certified in the State of Texas to teach Elementary Education EC-6, Special Education EC-12, and Art EC-12. She has taught children of all ages but her focus has mostly been in elementary schools. In her free time, Kelly enjoys making pottery and spending time with her children Jack, 18, and Stella, 16. She has traveled to 14 countries around the world and has started art programs in orphanages in Mexico and India. Kelly’s entire career has been dedicated to teaching while always learning from children in return. Her goals in every class are to instill a love of learning in her students and help them succeed academically, emotionally and socially. Kelly is thrilled to be a part of the AJA Community and looks forward to engaging her students in every aspect of their classroom learning.
Risa Ferdman – Fourth Grade
Upon learning that AJA was opening in 1997, Risa and her family ended their search for a new home and decided to settle in Austin. Risa has worked as a volunteer at AJA since that first year. She co-founded our Parent Association, served on the Board of Directors and has been an avid volunteer fundraiser for AJA. Risa is a Jewish day school graduate, earned her B.A. from Wellesley College and has over 20 years of experience as a teacher and school administrator. She and her husband have two sons, both of whom attended AJA.
Karen Hidalgo – Fifth Grade and AJA Curriculum Coach
Mrs. Hidalgo holds a Bilingual Teaching Certification from the University of Texas along with Gifted and Talented (GT), English as a Second Language (ESL) and Bilingual Certification. She has 18 years of teaching experience in grades 3rd-6th, with most of her years focused in 5th grade. Mrs. Hidalgo has appreciated the uniqueness of the Austin Jewish Academy, where fifth grade highlights have included Environmental TED TALKS, working for an extended period of time on a farm, as well as having an annual 5th Grade Poetry Slam. With relevant and meaningful themes each year, Mrs. Hidalgo is committed to providing a differentiated, stimulating and rigorous instructional approach in which she infuses technology, and inquiry based exploration as her tools for learning. Mrs. Hidalgo is fluent in both English and Spanish and is also a certified yoga instructor and mother of three girls. She graduated on the Dean’s List with a Bachelor degree in Family Studies from the University of Arizona and then went on to the University of Texas to receive her teaching credentials. She is happy to be entering her 8th year at the Austin Jewish Academy and always excited for all that her future students will accomplish.
Kathleen Rosenmann – Middle School Science, Engineering
Mrs. Rosenmann has a strong desire to help children fall in love with learning and, in turn, to see them become life-long learners. Raised in Minnesota, Mrs. Rosenmann first attended the University of Wisconsin and L’Universite d’Aix-en-Provence in France where she earned a degree in Psychology and French. After graduation, Kathleen moved to San Francisco to work in the social services. It is there that she met her husband of twenty-eight years, Yoav, and subsequently moved to Israel, her second home. Ready to return stateside, the Rosenmanns moved to Austin, Texas where Kathleen attended the University of Texas and earned an Education degree, including a Gifted and Talented certification. In 2006, Kathleen began her career as an elementary teacher at AJA working in both kindergarten and fourth grade for many years. Seven years ago, Mrs. Rosenmann went back to school and earned a Master’s degree in Middle School Science Education and since that time, has worked tirelessly to build our middle school STEM program here at AJA. When she is not educating and entertaining students, Ms. Rosenmann enjoys the outdoors, reading, traveling, building, running, and spending time with her husband and son Izzy.
Emily Ayres – Middle School
The child of two educators, Emily Ayres is a committed lifelong learner and is excited to bring her educational skills and passion to Austin Jewish Academy. Growing up, Emily summered in Round Top, Texas, where her father, Professor Emeritus James B. Ayres, founded and directed UT’s Shakespeare at Winedale program, instilling in Emily the wonder of language and literature. Surrounded by brothers, she also trained as a competitive athlete and is a raging Packers fan. Emily earned a BA in economics from Randolph-Macon Woman’s College and an MA in art history from Sotheby’s Educational School in London. In a former life, Emily worked in sales and marketing, but this will be her 13th year working as an educator in Austin. The love of her life is her fourteen-year-old daughter, Ella, who will be attending McCallum’s Fine Arts Academy this fall. Emily serves on the board of UT Camp Shakespeare and the advisory board of the Scottish Rite Theater. In her spare time, Emily loves traveling, reading, supporting local theater, keeping fit, and spending time with family and friends.
Barbara Watterson – Learning Specialist
Barbara joins the Austin Jewish Academy with extensive teaching experience in both public and private schools in West Virginia, Ohio, Connecticut and Texas. During this time, Mrs. Watterson has taught students from early childhood through eighth grade with 17 of those years teaching first grade. Her 25-year career at Eanes ISD included teaching Life Skills, RTI (Response to Intervention) and both First and Second grade. She believes that a good teacher must teach with tremendous compassion, energy and humor. Celebrating successes, both big and small, along the way is important as students learn as individuals and in groups throughout their day.
Mrs. Watterson earned a Bachelor of Science in Education from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and a Master of Science degree in Education from the University of Dayton. Her husband John is a psychologist in private practice here in Austin. They both grew up in Pittsburgh and remain fans of the Pirates and Steelers. They have season tickets for the UT trifecta–football, men’s basketball and baseball. They live in Crestview and are often seen walking their dogs Jarvis and Ozzy (a rescued tripod who zooms along in his cart) throughout the neighborhood. Their son Colin earned his Bachelor’s degree from Emory University and his JD from the University of Texas and now lives in Houston. Mrs. Watterson is a volunteer with Divine Canines for 11 years and enjoys making visits to retirement facilities and libraries with her dog Jarvis. Other hobbies include: reading, gardening and grinding out laps at Deep Eddy Pool.
Jonathan Tarbay – Math, Spanish and Technology
Jonathan Tarbay believes that learning should be a worthwhile and joyful experience. When students are engaged and understand the “why?” behind what they are learning, they can readily make connections with their own past experiences. Jonathan’s experience has taught him that every student is different and that teaching must be tailored to every individual while taking into account their personalities and preferences, as well as heritage. After earning a Bachelor’s degree in Mathematics / Economics from Pace University, he returned home to Caracas, Venezuela, and began teaching at Escuela Campo Alegre (international K-12 school). Soon after, Jonathan moved back to New York and obtained a Master’s degree in education from Bank Street College. Recently, Jonathan worked for the past six years in AISD and is eager to start a new stage of his teaching career as part of the AJA family! When not teaching and preparing for lessons, Jonathan can be found listening to music as well as taking pet photos. Jonathan will teach fifth and sixth grade math as well as Spanish and technology.
Heather Kantrowitz – Head of Jewish Studies and Jewish Studies Teacher
Heather Kantrowitz was born and raised in Tallahassee, FL, where she graduated with honors from Florida State University with a BA in Religion. She then went to Brandeis University where she earned her MA in Teaching Tanakh. After working as a Youth Director in St Paul, MN, for 2 years, Heather moved to Jerusalem, Israel to learn at the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies in their Educators Program. Heather couldn’t be happier about being part of the AJA family; she wants each of her students to find a personal connection to Tanakh and Judaism that will foster a strong Jewish identity and a lifelong love of learning. Heather loves baking, traveling, jogging, yoga, meeting new people and exploring new places!
Maya Fela – Hebrew and Jewish Studies
Maya was born and raised in Israel. Maya graduated from Bar-Ilan University with a BA in Criminology, Sociology and Anthropology, with honors. As part of her MA in Clinical Criminology, she was an intern for two years in a psychiatric hospital. In Israel, she was a teachers assistant with children from a disadvantaged socio-economic background. At Bar-Ilan, Maya tutored college students with learning and/or physical disabilities in order to reach their full potential. She volunteered at ‘ELEM’, Israel, as a personal mentor with at-risk youth, toward achieving their High School Diploma. When she moved to Austin, she worked as a Sunday school teacher at the Austin Community Hebrew School. The great educator, Janusz Korczak inspired Maya’s educational philosophy: “Children are not the people of tomorrow, but are people of today. They have a right to be taken seriously, and to be treated with tenderness and respect. They should be allowed to grow into whoever they were meant to be. ‘The unknown person’ inside of them is our hope for the future.” Maya lost her leg and has used a wheelchair since 2006. She Enjoys being outdoors with her dogs, swimming, and reading.
Rachel Levi – Hebrew
Rachel came to Texas from Israel, where she was born. Rachel has two B.A. degrees, one in Chinese Medicine, which she practiced in Israel, from Ridman College, and a Social Sciences degree (Sociology, Culture, and Art) from the Open University. Rachel earned her Teacher’s Certificate while serving in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), where she was working with at-risk youth in the Israeli rural areas. When moving to Texas, Rachel was teaching Hebrew at several Sunday Schools in Austin and at the AJA.
After eight years in Austin, Rachel moved to Lubbock, where she manages the Hebrew program for the Jewish community and teaches at the Sunday School. Since moving to Lubbock she has also been teaching healthy cooking at different NGOS in town. With moving online, Rachel rejoined the AJA Hebrew team and is going to teach MS and 5th grade. Rachel views Hebrew learning as a practical tool that goes beyond fostering Jewish identity. Knowing Hebrew is a life skill that can help you when you travel, meet people, study Jewish related texts, or do business in Israel and with Israelis. As such, Rachel’s teaching is practical and aimed at empowering students through Hebrew. At her free time Rachel love cooking, baking mainly meditrain food, running, gardening and spending time with her husband and 3 cats.
Naomi Farber – Learning Specialist
Ms. Farber was born and raised in St. Louis, MO (go Cardinals!), where she graduated with a degree in elementary education from Webster University. She holds certifications in special education, ESL, and elementary generalist education, and she’s been working with kiddos ranging from kindergarten through middle school for over 14 years. Ms. Farber strives to ensure that each student leaves her class with the confidence to take on any challenge and persevere when tasks are difficult. When she’s not in the classroom, you might find her exploring Austin’s diverse food offerings, binge watching bad TV with her sister, attempting to be crafty, traveling, or snuggling her dog, Stanley, and her two cats, Walter White and Gus. Naomi will support our students and faculty as learning specialist.
Andie Jew – Art Specialist
Originally from Chicago, Andie grew up involved in many art programs and took private lessons with a local artist, eventually studying at Minneapolis School of Art and Design and McNay Art Institute in San Antonio. In 1992, Andie and her husband moved their young family to Austin. Her four children grew up involved in the Austin Jewish community, and her two younger children attended Austin Jewish Academy. During that time, she spent nine years as an elementary school library assistant and substitute teacher for the Round Rock Independent School District. She then joined the Abrakadoodle Art Program. She went through training and classes for early childhood education and after school programming. In 2006, she became the primary and elementary art teacher for ACE Academy as well as the art teacher for the Hebrew school and Sunday school at Congregation Beth Israel. She still teaches for Congregation Beth Israel on Sundays and Wednesdays. This past year, she taught art to toddlers and preschoolers at Congregation Beth Israel Child Development Center.