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     "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change        the world; indeed, it's the only thing  

             that ever has."  -  Margaret Mead

2016 Founding Team


Ruth Dutton, M.Ed.

Ruth attended VUSD schools from kindergarten through 12th grade, where she enjoyed academic acceleration opportunities through VUSD’s GATE resources. She has a love for her hometown and a drive to make similar, if not better, opportunities available for Visalia students today. After her education in Visalia, Ruth earned a BA degree from New York University in philosophy. She returned to her hometown to teach, and earned a single subject teaching credential in English from Chapman University. While teaching, Ruth finished her MA in Education, Curriculum and Instruction from Chapman University and an Administrative Credential as well. Ruth was a talented teacher who built meaningful rapport with her students through her constructivist teaching methods, and earned the respect of her peers and administrators through her continuous efforts to improve the schools where she taught. She has taught in traditional schools, Strathmore High and Dinuba High, and at Visalia Charter Independent Study, where she was inspired by the possibilities of the charter movement to meet specific student needs through targeted programs. Ruth led the process of initial charter development for Sycamore Valley Academy in 2011, and served as its first Principal/Superintendent of the school. Building from the school’s initial success, she led the school through strategic planning in preparation for charter renewal, and has served as Lead Petitioner on SVA’s renewal and Blue Oak Academy’s founding charter petitions. She led Sycamore Valley Academy through a transition to become a Charter Management Organization and continue to model “the change [she wishes] to see” in our community and in the education space. Ruth is an SVA parent, a parent of gifted children, and an educator and change-maker at heart. She is committed to using her professional knowledge and her intimate understanding of the needs of gifted individuals and children to continue to shape an effective program and see the vision realized.

Tiffany Andrews 

Tiffany Andrews has a passion for contributing to the discovery and growth of young scholars and providing engaging and developmentally appropriate education to all children. This goal inspired Tiffany to become an Early Childhood Educator. Originally from Salt Lake City, Utah, Tiffany attended Boston University before graduating from Brigham Young University, Magna Cum Laude, in Early Childhood Education. She has teaching experience from Kindergarten to third grade in Utah, Arizona, and California. She treasured the two years she spent immersing herself in teaching first and second grade at Sycamore Valley Academy and discovering the effectiveness of its principles first-hand as she watched scholars grow in her SVA classroom. During that time, she became passionate about the powerful impact that project-based learning can have to make the educational experience of young children come alive and increase student motivation and engagement. When her first son was born, Tiffany transitioned out of the classroom to working with teachers as the project-based learning instructional coach at SVA. Tiffany joined the team of founders because she recognizes the need to spread the powerful impact of quality, engaging, and authentic education and to provide an exciting and challenging curricular alternative to more children and families in Visalia.

Alejandra Yado

Alejandra Yado has been working with children since 2010. She began her career in education as a Migrant Tutor with the Butte County Office of Education. Working with Migrant families is a passion of Alejandra’s, as she relates to the struggles that migrant families face. Miss Yado’s first school placement was at Highland Elementary, where she immediately fell in love with the staff and students she worked with every day. Many successes were shared, and her love for teaching deepened over her time there. Alejandra was inspired by students who looked to her for guidance and that is when she knew she would pursue a life in education. Miss Yado faced many challenges growing up and persevered to earn first her associate’s degree from College of the Sequoias and then her bachelor’s degree from California State University, Fresno. She is the first in her family to graduate from high school or college. Recognizing the impact her education has on her life, and desiring to help others feel empowered by their own education, Alejandra enrolled in a teaching credential program immediately after graduation. Alejandra envisions a world where everyone has access to an excellent education, and she strongly believes in the mission of Sycamore Valley Academy. Miss Yado joined the staff at SVA in the fall of 2014. Full of love for life and learning, she is known to say that she is growing and learning every day right alongside her students. Alejandra is excited to be part of the Blue Oak Academy founding team and to continue to move ever toward her vision of providing excellence in education for all in our community.


Gerald Benton

Gerald Benton is a retired superintendent of the Tulare Joint Union High School District. He served in the high school district for thirty-six years holding the positions of teacher, assistant principal, principal, assistant superintendent for business services/ personnel and, for the final eight years, superintendent. In these various roles he gained experience in almost every aspect of a school district’s functioning – classroom teaching, school wide discipline, staff/program evaluation, curriculum development, financial management, construction/maintenance, public relations and strategic planning. He also served in the community at large in many capacities some of which were Kiwanis Club, Chamber of Commerce, Special Olympics committee, Historical Museum board and chairman of the College of the Sequoias bond committee that conducted a successful campaign which resulted in passing a sixty-million-dollar bond to help build the College of the Sequoias Tulare campus. Gerald believes that families should have choices as to where and how their students receive an education, that charter schools are one of many options that should be available, and that competition in the education marketplace is an effective way to improve education for all students.

Kelly Theofanis

Kelly Theofanis, Director of Client Management at EdTec, Inc., manages a portfolio of charter schools across California, serving as each school’s finance lead and main point of contact for cross-functional outsourced business and development support services. She comes from a nonprofit consulting background and has partnered with clients in education, arts, and social service on projects ranging from strategic planning to fundraising. The complexity of business in the nonprofit sector, as well as the disparity between the capacity of nonprofits to provide services and the populations of people in need, inspired Kelly to continue her work in public education and to pursue a degree in business. Kelly is an Education Pioneers alumna and worked with Green Dot Public Schools in Los Angeles while in business school. Kelly also served on the founding team and as Treasurer of the Board of Directors for Futuro College Preparatory Elementary School (now Endeavor College Prep). Kelly is originally from Los Angeles and graduated from Yale University with a BA in English and from the USC Marshall School of Business with an MBA. Kelly wishes to advance our vision and mission, and believes the exceptional instructional model we provide is promising for future dissemination of best practices and for influence toward change in public education.

Leila Gates-Wai

Leila was born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Growing up, Leila’s parents had to make many sacrifices in order to send her to private school, as public schools were facing many challenges; teachers were paid unfairly, resources were scarce, and school administration would often go on strike. Leila is thankful for the wonderful teachers who motivated her to always want to learn more. Leila holds a Bachelor of Art in Early Childhood Education from Fresno Pacific University and is currently working on her teaching credential and Masters in Education at Brandman University. Leila has been a part of the Sycamore Valley Academy community since 2013 as a parent volunteer, and since 2015 as a Spanish teacher. Leila believes in the mission of The Academies; one that has positive effects, not only on its students and families but in the community at large. Leila is thrilled to have been a part of our founding team, knowing that this new school will allow more families in Visalia to have access to high-quality education.


Jesus Pelayo

Mr. Pelayo is architect and principal of Hedron Architecture Design and Consulting, a firm he founded following extensive work serving private, public and corporate clients across California for over 15 years. A native of Corcoran, California, where he was a Boswell Scholar, Jesus went on to graduate of from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, one of the nation’s top architecture programs, and obtained his Masters of Business Administration from the Craig School of Business at California State University, Fresno, where he received the Graduate Award of the Year for Business. Jesus’ experience as an educator started at a young age when he served as a teacher to migrant families during summers, visiting migrant students at their homes so that they could continue their education. Jesus is passionate about building the communities we seek to leave for our children, and only accepting the best of ourselves in that effort. He uses his talents as an architect, business owner, entrepreneur and educator to further this work. Mr. Pelayo is a Certified Emergency Service Professional for the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, Historical Preservation Commissioner for the City of Dinuba, Alta Historical District Society Board Member, Rotarian, and founding member of the Kiwanis Bilingue Chapter in Dinuba, CA. Jesus is a proud father to two young daughters, Sarah Lucia and Elena Maria, who attend Montessori and Sycamore Valley Academy schools respectively.


Erin Davis

Erin Davis, principal at Davis Communications Group, has worked in the agriculture, conservation, building and the non- profit sector for over a decade and has built a broad network of relationships spanning the length of California. Her extensive background in marketing, communications, event planning, fundraising, and animal and food production has served her clients well. Her ability to apply her education and career experience in communications with her hands on knowledge in working with trade association memberships, agencies, coalitions, the public, builders, and various media outlets has allowed her to successfully manage unique public relations situations from crisis management communications to grassroots network building. Prior to forming Davis Communications Group in 2009, Davis served as Director of Communications for the California Rangeland Trust following her role as Director of Public Relations and Events for the California Cattlemen’s Association where in both roles she was lead staff for all communications, organizational branding, fundraising, and content generation in print and online. Seeing the great need for effective communication among the public, agricultural producers, agencies, funders, and the various intermediary groups, Davis felt compelled to form her own business to serve this critical need more directly. She specializes in streamlining the context of complex issues, creating practical solutions for her clients, and bridging the communication gap between divergent groups and like-minded groups as well. Davis previously served as Media Specialist at the American Simmental Association in Bozeman, MT. Here, she led their national advertising campaign, managed cost-share programs for members and the association at large, and worked with cooperator herds to improve genetic performance. Her unique combination of intellect and hands-on experience throughout her career has given Davis an unconventional edge in relating to her clients and their constituents across many professional and industry genres. Davis earned her Bachelor of Science in Agriculture in 2001 from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo and has completed her course work for her Masters of Science in Agricultural Communications with an emphasis in Animal Science, her thesis defense is pending. She has also earned a certificate of fundraising from Indiana University School of Philanthropy. Davis is a member of California Cattlemen’s Association, the Tulare County Farm Bureau, Tulare County Cattlemen’s and Women’s Associations and San Luis Obispo County Cattlemen’s Association. She also serves on the Outreach Committee for the California Rangeland Conservation Coalition. She and her family continue to ranch and farm in Paso Robles, CA. Davis was raised on the Central Coast of California but has been based in the Central Valley since 2007.


Shauna Dolin

Shauna is a proud SVA mom and advocate. Determined to see her daughter get the very best education possible, she researched various charter schools and found SVA to be the best of the best. As a school of choice, SVA encourages parent involvement resulting in academic growth. Shauna believes that all children and parents should have access to the finest education. With a broad professional background, Shauna possesses office management and assistant experience along with a 11 keen mind for technology. Born and raised in Visalia, CA, Shauna attended Visalia public schools from grades K-12. She graduated from Golden West High School and went to work in the banking industry moving up in the ranks to Assistant Manager. During that time, her daughter was born and quickly Shauna’s focus changed. She decided to change careers and work with a local non-profit as a Project Technician and Office Assistant. This move gave Shauna more time at home raising her daughter as well as increased opportunities for professional growth. Ms. Dolin joined the SVA staff as the Administrative Assistant in July 2015. She believes strongly in SVA’s mission and is proud to be a part of this wonderful child-centered community as a parent and staff member. 


Claudia Van Groningen

Claudia Van Groningen was born and raised in a foothill community of Southern California where access to rich cultural experiences and an excellent education shaped her unique worldview. She and her young son moved to Visalia in 2006 where she attended College of the Sequoias. She later transferred to UC Berkeley where she graduated with honors, earning her BS degree in Conservation and Resource Studies. As a lifelong learner and adventurous spirit, Claudia found Sycamore Valley Academy to be a natural fit. She identifies with the Mission to challenge curiosity and creativity in a nurturing environment and appreciates that this applies to the school staff as much as to the students. The collaborative community of top-notch people at The Academies inspires Claudia every day and she is grateful to be part of such an excellent staff. Claudia has been a part of the Sycamore Valley Academy community since 2013, first as a parent then later joining the administrative staff as Director of Operations in 2015. She is grateful to be part of the founding team to help provide this excellent educational opportunity to more children in our community.


Kole Devereaux

Kole’s early years were spent in Hudsonville, Michigan, where he lived until 2012 when he came to live with his mom and his step-dad in California. The beginning of his education started in Michigan at two different schools. He attended Alward Elementary for Pre-K through 2nd. He moved to Georgetown Elementary for 3rd. When he moved to California, he attended Linwood Elementary for 4th and 5th grades. While there, he was active in student council and received an award for leadership. For his 6th grade year, he attended Veva Blunt Elementary, where he achieved the Golden Award for Academics signed by the President. In his 7th and 8th grade years, he attended Sycamore Valley Academy. Kole believes he has grown more at SVA than any other of his four schools, and is pleased with the decision to be an SVA scholar. Kole strives to be his best when it comes to education, and also when it comes to being a leader within his home, his school, his church, and within the U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Program. He values everything he has learned and knows he will find learning a lifelong pleasure.


Jocelyn Davila-Gonzalez

Jocelyn was born in the city of Tepatitlan de Morelos, Jalisco on October 29, 2001 and she lived there until July of 2007, when she and her family moved to California, where they have lived since. Jocelyn’s education started in Mexico where she attended kindergarten. She later attended Oak Grove and continued her elementary years in Manuel F. Hernandez, then Jocelyn attended Sycamore Valley Academy’s middle School. In the last 10 years of education she has received at least one recognition or award from her teachers each year. In the 8th grade, Jocelyn received three awards in total. Jocelyn enjoys reading about world topics and speaking out about the things that matter in today's society. She believes that any voice can make a difference, no matter the size. Because of it she has joined Ruth Dutton and her team to create Blue Oak Academy to better the future of young people. Jocelyn’s dream is to change the world and make an impact. She's always been an outspoken person and hopes to use her courage to help others. Now, heading into her freshman year of high school, Jocelyn feels ready to take on any challenges that face her in the future, and is prepared to continue striving in her education in hopes of making herself and her family proud.



2011 Founding Team

Ruth Dutton, M. Ed. 

Also in 2016 founding team, see above for bio.

Karin Dixon, Ed.D.


Karin worked very closely with Ruth as a lead petitioner for Sycamore Valley Academy, and then served the school as the Secretary of the SVA Board of Directors. She has worked in private and public education from the pre-K to university levels for over two decades. Karin holds a doctorate degree from UCLA in Educational Leadership, and her BA was earned from UC Berkeley. She has been a teacher, consultant, assistant professor, Fulbright scholar, Director of Research and Evaluation for Lindsay Unified School District, an adjunct professor at Chapman/Brandman University, and is now a Charter School Administrator. In addition to her local experience, Karin has worked as an educator in Turkey, Sweden, and Saudi Arabia. She is the mother of two academically adventurous children and contributes her time and ideas to this project because she believes this school will meet a distinct need in our community.


Ethan Dutton


A Visalia native, Ethan attended VUSD schools for his entire K-12 education, during which time he was moved to Royal Oaks Elementary for GATE cluster classes and took honors and accelerated courses to meet his academic needs until he graduated from Golden West High School. He is involved in this project because SVA fills a void in our current set of educational options, and he is grateful for the opportunity to send his children to Sycamore Valley Academy. He is a graduate of UC San Diego, Revelle College, with a BA in philosophy. Ethan has several years of nonprofit management and grant-writing experience and works for Self-Help Enterprises as a Management Analyst, where he focuses on operations, human resources, and marketing/public relations.


Jim Spence, Ed.D.


Jim holds a doctorate degree from the University of Kansas in Educational Administration. He has an MA in American History from the University of Missouri at Kansas City. Additionally, he has a BS in Education as well as a double major of Social Studies and English from Missouri State University. He has taught English and history in high school before becoming a school administrator. Jim worked in a variety of roles in several different states. In California alone he has served as a principal, assistant superintendent, county superintendent, and a district superintendent. Mostly recently he worked as Assistant Superintendent in Hanford Joint Union High School District. Previous to that, he was Hanford High School Principal. Jim is a professor at Chapman/Brandman University. 


Barry Sommer, LEP, MFT


Barry Sommer is a licensed Educational Psychologist, certified school psychologist, and a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice with the Helix Group in Visalia. Teaching, training, consultation and facilitation for schools, businesses, and health organizations is his special interest. His primary goal is to support personal, family, community, and organizational development and health. Barry is a graduate from Cornell University and Queens College of the City of New York, with degrees in Human Development, Psychology, and Education. For almost thirty years, Barry served as the Director of Student and Family Services for the Pixley Union School District, overseeing Gifted and Special Education. He has directed the Collaborative Leadership Institute, a project of the Tulare County Office of Education designed to ensure the continuing vitality of emerging leaders, and motivating them to work together. Currently, in addition to private practice in psychology, training and consultation, Barry serves as the Director of School and Community Development for the Lindsay Unified School District, with primary responsibility for District grant-writing. In addition, Barry is teaching graduate courses for Columbia University and the Tulare County Impact Intern Program, is the co-author of You Can Choose Your Own Life, a decision-making curriculum for middle grade students (Consulting Psychologist Press, 1994). His interest in gifted education and constructivist pedagogy led him to support the Sycamore Valley Academy as a founding member.


Rachele Berglund, Esq.


Rachele was admitted to the California State Bar after earning her Juris Doctorate degree and graduating valedictorian from San Joaquin College of Law in 2006. As an attorney, the majority of her law practice is dedicated to serving public agencies, primarily in the area of employment and labor law. Her journey to working as an attorney began when she was employed by Community Services & Employment Training, Inc. (C-SET) where she worked to mobilize community action through education and service. She continued her efforts as School/Community Development Director with Pixley Union School District. There, Rachele was part of a team that secured millions in grant funding to establish – and manage – much-needed preschool education and family literacy programs. These experiences served to deepen her interests in shaping policy and practices in the public’s interest. Although effective education has long been an interest to Rachele, becoming a mother served to deepen that interest, and she brings her professional experiences and personal commitment to this project.  Rachele enthusiastically served SVA on the Board of Directors for many years.


Donna Sommer, M.Ed.


Donna holds a Master’s degree in Education from Fresno Pacific and Doctorate in Education from University of the Pacific. She has worked as a New Teacher Developer for the Tulare County Office of Education for several years, but has also been a National Trainer for the Josephson Institute of Ethics/ Character Counts program, a Special Education teacher, and an elementary school principal in her career. She has parented two gifted daughters, and she joined the Sycamore Valley Academy founding team because she believes such a school will be good for our community.


Donna Denham


Donna Denham is a retired teacher whose entire career was dedicated to elementary education. She has been a classroom teacher and a Special Education teacher, and she worked for Visalia Unified School District as the GATE Resource Teacher when Royal Oaks Elementary hosted a GATE magnet program. She served in that role for 10-12 years, testing children for identification, working with parents on the GATE advisory board, and training teachers in effective differentiation strategies. She also worked closely with Sandra Kaplan on GATE curriculum, and served on the board for the California Association for the Gifted for 2 years. Donna was a founding member of Sycamore Valley Academy because she believes the school offers a much-needed alternative for gifted students.


Richard Artis II, CPA


Richard has worked in public accounting in Visalia for over 30 years and, along with Lynne Hare, founded Artis & Company, Inc. in 1996. Rich earned his Bachelor of Science degree from California State University, Fresno. After graduation, he spent three years in the armed services serving his country in Vietnam and as a member of the delegation to the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks held in Vienna, Austria. Rich then joined the original firm of Artis and Company which was founded by his father, Richard J. Artis. Rich provides services in the areas of financial planning, income, gift and estate taxation, auditing, financial statement preparation, and business consulting with an emphasis on business growth. Rich has received the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants certificate of achievement in the areas of government and non-profit accounting and auditing. Rich is currently a member of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, the California Society of Certified Public Accountants, and the Tulare County Estate Planning Council. He is also active in many community service organizations and has served on the boards of: Visalia Host Lions Club, where he is a past president, Students International, Lifestream Ministries, Partners For Youth Vision, Inc., and the C.O.S. Foundation. Richard offered his accounting expertise in his role as Treasurer of the first Board of Directors for SVA because he believes in the mission of the organization, and understands that the financial health of Sycamore Valley Academy will enable the school to enrich our community for many years to come.


Moses Diaz, J.D., Esq.


From the time he started kindergarten in the community of Watts in inner-city Los Angeles, until he earned his juris doctorate degree from the University of California at Davis, Moses Diaz has attended public schools his entire life. He is firm believer that a good public education can prepare today’s students to become tomorrow’s leaders. Moses presently serves as deputy city attorney and general counsel for several cities and special districts in Tulare and Kings counties. Although he specializes in municipal law, his legal practice also includes legal representation for victims of unlawful discrimination and unfair business practices. Moses was a Member of the Board of Directors, and Secretary of, the Tulare Astronomical Association, and has been a volunteer at the Visalia Rescue Mission as well.  Moses recognizes that excellent public education will increase opportunities for local school children, so he served in the role of Vice Chair of the founding Board of Directors for Sycamore Valley Academy to contribute to high-quality public education in Visalia.


Monica Rook


Monica Rook has worked with children for over 30 years. She began her career as a self-contained 7th grade teacher in the Bay Area. When she moved to Visalia in the late 1980's, Monica began teaching at Royal Oaks Elementary School in Visalia. During her first ten years there, she was a teacher of GATE cluster classes at the upper elementary level. Beginning is 1999, Monica taught Kindergarten at Royal Oaks. She viewed this assignment as a way to start children on a lifelong journey of learning. Monica joined the Sycamore Valley Academy team of founders because she recognizes the need to present children and their parents with an exciting and challenging curricular alternative. She later joined the SVA staff as a kindergarten teacher. 


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