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Grade Level Teams

Grade Level Teams

  • Ms. Medina
  • Mrs. Barry
  • Ms. O'Neill
Kindergarten Team
  • Mrs. Bird
  • Ms. DellaValle
  • Mrs. Fish
  • Mrs. Jones
  • Ms. Lane
  • Mrs. Thacher
First Grade Team
  • Mrs. Austin (MTSS Coach)
  • Ms. Cutkomp
  • Mrs. Garwood
  • Ms. Haboian
  • Ms. McManigal
  • Ms. Pluimer
  • Mrs. Potwora
Second Grade Team
  • Ms. Mao
  • Mrs. Hornig
  • Ms. Huffman
  • Mrs. Okumura
  • Mrs. Sweaney
  • Ms. Kennedy
Third Grade Team
  • Ms. Alvarez
  • Ms. Donskey
  • Ms. Terhardt
  • Ms. Barnes
  • Mrs. Whitaker
  • Ms. Raffterty
Fourth Grade Team
  • Ms. Angelici
  • Mrs. Cuevas
  • Mrs. Danner
  • Ms. Folks
  • Ms. Peterson
Fifth Grade Team
  • Mrs. Berger
  • Mrs. Burkhardt
  • Mrs. Bell
  • Ms. Boothe
SAI Team
  • Ms. Franks
  • Ms. King
  • Mr. Zamora

Meet the Esencia Elementary Teachers


Jennifer Austin has been teaching for 25 years in CUSD. She earned her Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from UC Berkeley and her Master’s degree in Reading Education with an additional Reading Language Arts Specialist Credential from California State University, Fullerton. Additionally, she has received extensive training in Cognitively Guided Instruction in math. Throughout her years in the district, she has been involved with teacher development in the areas of reading and math and has been an instructional coach in math/CGI. Her classroom is an engaging, risk-taking, constructive community of learners where every student is celebrated and encouraged to achieve. She believes EVERY child can learn at high levels! She has been married for 25 years to her high school sweetheart. She has two active teenage children, a son who attends Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and a daughter who attends Mission Viejo High School. She and her family enjoy a healthy, active lifestyle. She is an avid runner and has run 15 marathons. Besides running, she enjoys reading or relaxing at the beach. Jennifer is so excited to be on the Esencia team and looks forward to building a community of life-long learners!

Andrea Barry is enthusiastic to be a part of the Esencia K-8 community!  She has been teaching since 2002, with a variety of grade levels under her belt.  From her alma mater, CSUF, she earned a Bachelor of Science in Child & Adolescent Development, as well as her Multiple Subject Teaching Credential.  Andrea received a Master’s Degree in Educational Technology from National University.  Over the years, Andrea has been a coordinator on various school and district organizations.  When you walk into her room, you will find a warm place where children feel loved, respected, and encouraged to be the best that they can be.  She has been married since 2003 and enjoys raising her three children in the local community of Ladera Ranch.  Outside the classroom, Andrea enjoys hiking, world travel, scuba diving, and simply making memories with family and friends.  Andrea Barry is an Esencia Hawk and proud of it!


jennifer oneill
Jennifer O’Neill
Jennifer O’Neill is so excited to be a part of the Esencia family! She grew up in Irvine, California, and has experience teaching 1st and 4th grade in IUSD. Jennifer received her Bachelor’s Degree in Child and Family Development at San Diego State University and earned her Master’s Degree in Teaching at the University of California, Irvine. Jennifer’s educational philosophy is that all children deserve an opportunity to have an equitable education. She loves to allow children space to engage in hands-on opportunities to discover and construct knowledge. Some of her educational passions include mathematics, educational technology, and promoting an inclusive learning environment. Her goal is to help all of her students become the best possible versions of themselves! Outside of school, Jennifer loves to craft, watch Netflix, and read. She is ready for a great year of learning and fun!


heather bird
Heather Bird
Being an advocate for children as they learn to investigate their world is an incredible feeling and duty. She grew up in Ventura, CA, and thus spent the first eight years of her career with Ventura Unified before finding her true family here with Capistrano Unified. She has experience teaching most grade levels, including  middle school and coaching at the high school level. She welcomes this new challenge and is more than thrilled to teach her little hawks how to read and write! On top of teaching with passion, she is an avid surfer, snowshoer, hiker, cyclist, and swimmer. She loves cooking, hanging with her family, and listening to a variety of different podcasts. 
Devyn Stea is overjoyed to be a part of the Esencia community! She grew up in Solvang, California and relocated to Orange County to pursue her education at Chapman University and the University of California, Irvine. Mrs. Stea graduated from Chapman with two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Integrated Educational Studies and Strategic and Corporate Communication. She then went on to earn her Master of Arts in Teaching and her teaching credential at UC Irvine. She has experience teaching in 6th, 3rd, 2nd, 1st, and kindergarten. Mrs. Stea believes that the most powerful learning is done through hands-on construction of knowledge and continuous inquiry. She is committed to fostering a classroom environment that supports students’ academic and social-emotional growth. Outside of the classroom, she enjoys cooking, traveling, and spin class.
manisha fish
Manisha Fish
Manisha Fish has been teaching for 25 years, 22 in CUSD. She has grown up in the Mission Viejo area and attended La Paz Middle School and Mission Viejo High School. She attended CSUF and received her Bachelor’s degree in Liberal Studies with an Emphasis in Early Childhood Education, She holds her Teaching Credential and Masters Degree from Claremont Graduate University. She is also involved with CUEA as a Board Member and a State Council Representative for CTA. She loves teaching Kindergarten because the children show amazing growth in all areas of the curriculum. She loves to see them light up and smile when they walk into her classroom every day. She has been married for 25 years to her high school sweetheart. She has two children, a son who attends the University of San Francisco, and a daughter who attends Tesoro High School. She loves to travel with her family, read, attend musicals, do yoga, take walks, and spend time with her three dogs. She truly enjoys teaching and is excited to be a part of the Esencia team.
ashley jones
Ashley Jones
Ashley Jones is proud to be an Esencia hawk.  She has been teaching for 8 years and is one of the kindergarten teachers at Esencia.  Ashley grew up in Mission Viejo and is a Capistrano Unified alumni.  She attended Bathgate Elementary School, Las Flores Middle School, and Capistrano Valley High School.  Ashley loves teaching in the district she grew up in as a student.  Ashley currently lives in San Clemente with her husband, son, baby girl and stepdaughter.  She graduated from Cal State Long Beach with her teaching credential and bachelor’s degree in Liberal Studies.  Ashley completed her master’s degree in Education: Curriculum and Instruction at Concordia University, Irvine.  Before teaching in CUSD, Ashley taught 2nd and 3rd grade in Fountain Valley School District.  She also taught first grade at Bathgate Elementary, before coming to Esencia.  Ashley is excited for her second year teaching kindergarten.  She loves to watch the little hawks SOAR while building individual relationships with each of her students and their families.
Katherine Lane is proud to be a part of the Esencia Family and can't wait to help your child learn and grow! She grew up in Tustin Unified and then moved to Australia to obtain her Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Bond University. After, she attended Brandman University in Irvine to earn her Master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy and later her Multiple Subject Teaching Credential.
shellie thacher
Shellie Thacher
Mrs. Shellie Thacher is so happy to be a part of the Esencia Hawks. She has been teaching for 16 years. Shellie is originally from Colorado, but moved to Southern California after high school. She got her degree in business management from the University of San Diego. Shellie then got her teaching credential from Cal State Long Beach and began her teaching career in Garden Grove Unified School District. Shellie taught 6th grade, 3rd grade, 2nd grade, 1st grade and kindergarten in Garden Grove. She then moved to Capo Unified School District 3 years ago. Shellie is married and has four young children, all of whom attend school in the district. She lives nearby in Ladera Ranch. When not teaching, you will find Shellie out for an early morning run, hiking, snowboarding, or at the beach. Shellie enjoys traveling and being outdoors. Teaching is truly her passion and brings her joy every day. Shellie can’t wait to get to know you and your child and spend the year laughing and learning together. Shellie is proud to be an Esencia Hawk and looks forward to continuing her growth as a professional educator.


This is Ms. Sarah Cutkomp’s third year teaching 1st grade at Esencia. Miss Cutkomp is passionate about creating an inclusive classroom where students are encouraged to take risks and learn from their mistakes!
Sylvia Garwood
Sylvia Garwood
With great gratitude, Sylvia Garwood joins the Hawk family. Sylvia is a UC Irvine alumni three times over. She earned her BS in Mechanical Engineering and returned to UCI years later for her Multi-Subject Credential and Master of Arts in Teaching degree. In addition to her multi-subject credential, she also has her math and science single-subject credentials. Serving CUSD, Sylvia has taught preschool, first, fifth, and sixth grades. She hopes to cultivate student development by engaging their thinking, welcoming mistakes, and encouraging the efforts and unique student abilities toward personal achievements. Sylvia has been married 25 years and has two boys - one who graduated from Rutgers and stayed on the east coast, and the second is currently attending the University of Washington. Outside of the classroom, she enjoys eating out, watching sports, and catching up with friends. Sylvia aims for a secure and collaborative sense-making community of learners that challenges students to SOAR!
Ms. Maddie Haboian is proud to be an Esencia Hawk! Not only has she taught in Capistrano Unified for four years, but she also attended schools in CUSD as a student for K-12. She has a Bachelor’s of Science in Child Development from California Polytechnic State University, SLO. She also has a Master's in Teaching from the University of California, Irvine. In her time outside of school, she enjoys weekend trips, indoor cycling, and golfing with friends and family!
Ms. Maddison McManigal received her BS degree in education, as well as my Multiple Subject Teaching Credential at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Orange County has always been her home; she was a CAPOUSD student from grades K-12! In her free time, she enjoys yoga, walking her dogs, and spending time with her family. 
Ms. Plumier earned her Bachelor’s Degree and Teaching Credential at Vanguard University of Southern California. She has a son, Jagger, who attends Esencia and in their free time they take care of their horse and pony. She also has started showing their horse, Kalia, in show jumping
Melissa Potwora is honored to be a member of the Esencia community!  Melissa attended CSULB to receive her BA in Liberal Studies and her teaching credential.  Prior to teaching in Capistrano Unified, Melissa taught for 14 years in Cypress School District.  Melissa has been married for 25 years and has two children and two furry family members, Rosie and Patsy...her beloved rescue pups.


Amanda Kennedy is  grateful to be a part of the amazing Esencia community. She is passionate about creating a warm and supportive learning environment where scholars feel empowered to reach their goals. She has a Master’s Degree in Teaching from UCI and a B.A. in psychology from CSUF. During her free time, she enjoys hiking, swimming, camping, cooking, and spending time with her family.
Sarah Hornig
Sarah Hornig
Sarah Hornig is thrilled to join the Esencia community! She is a Capistrano Unified alumni and has enjoyed 15 years teaching for CUSD. Sarah earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Elementary Education from Indiana University and received her Master’s Degree in Educational Administration from Concordia University. In addition to her classroom experience, Sarah has been an instructional coach in the area of writing and a teaching assistant principal. As an enthusiastic lifelong learner, Sarah thrives on implementing innovative instructional strategies that bring learning to life for each unique child. Her classroom is a vibrant and positive environment that enables each child to become the best version of themselves academically, emotionally, and socially.  With two children of her own, she understands how much your child’s education means to you and looks forward to building a partnership with our Esencia families. Sarah’s family enjoys time outside and cheering each other on at the soccer field or volleyball court! Sarah also loves staying active, reading, and enjoying the beach. Sarah is excited to join the Esencia team and looks forward to the journey ahead!
Shelby Brown
Nicole Mao is grateful to be a member of the Esencia community! Nicole grew up in Danville, California and attended UC Davis to receive her BS in Human Development with minors in Education and Music. She received her Teaching Credential and Master’s of Arts in Teaching from UC Irvine. She met her husband at their church, Berean Community Church, and they got married in July 2022! Outside of school, Nicole loves ultimate frisbee, playing instruments with friends, and spending quality time with her loved ones.
Jonnelle Okumura
Jonnelle Okumura
Jonnelle Okumura is thrilled to be a member of the Esencia K-8 community! Jonnelle has been teaching elementary school for 23 years.  She earned a BA in Speech Communications and a Multiple  Subjects Teaching  Credential from CSULB,  as well as her MA in Education Administration from Alliant International University. She is a lifelong learner and has been spent several summers in New York attending Columbia University’s Reading and Writing Project.  She is also a trainer for Thinking Maps and Write from the Beginning. She facilitates a rigorous and challenging, student-centered classroom where each student is known and valued. She is also a mom of three! When she’s not teaching, you can find her coaching soccer or cheering her kids on in their activities. Jonnelle Okumura is an  Esencia Hawk,  and proud of it! 
Jill Sweaney
Jill Sweaney
Jill R. Sweaney has been teaching for 25 years.  20 of those years have been in Capistrano Unified School District.  She earned a BA in Liberal Studies with an emphasis in Psychology from CSULB and an MA in Reading Education with an additional Reading Specialist Credential from CSUF.  She has been greatly influenced by brain-based research on learning and has had the privilege of becoming a Thinking Maps Trainer for the district; helping to develop a common language for learning and helping students to gain access to more rigorous content in the classroom.  Providing a print-rich, positive learning environment, where different learning styles are nurtured and celebrated, is critical in her classroom. She feels strongly that learning is directly impacted when students feel confident and safe to take risks with their thinking. She is also a mom of twin boys who currently attend Las Flores Middle School.  She and her family enjoy staying active and spending time outdoors together. On any given Saturday, you can find her on the football field, cheering her boys on in flag football. Jill is absolutely thrilled to be a part of the Esencia K-8 family! She looks forward to watching every child who walks through Esencia K-8’s doors become a lifelong learner and thrive!


Molly Rafferty is a 3rd grade teacher at Esencia Elementary. She comes from a family of educators and has always had a passion for teaching. She enjoys being in the classroom helping scholars become lifelong learners. Molly loves to travel, be outdoors, and get lost in a good book. She is so honored to be a part of the Esencia team and community!
Marisa Alvarez has dreamed of becoming a teacher since she was in elementary school herself, and she is so grateful that she gets to live her dream every day! Marisa attended UCR for her undergraduate degree in Liberal Studies. After she graduated with Summa Cum Laude distinctions, she moved to Irvine to earn her Masters of Arts in Teaching and Multiple Subject Credential at UCI. When Marisa is not teaching, she enjoys hiking, dancing, watching Broadway musicals, and spending time with her loved ones. 
Samantha BENNETT earned her Master’s of Arts in Teaching from the University of California, Irvine (UCI). For her undergrad education, she attended Chico State, where she studied Health Education. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with her friends and family outdoors or relaxing with a good book!
Vanessa Terhardt received her degree in Sociology at UCLA and her Master’s in Teaching at UCI. 
She believes in creating a supportive classroom community through a student-centered approach, emphasizing collaboration and critical thinking.
Cassie Vance received her undergraduate degree from Cal State Fullerton (Go Titans!) in Child and Adolescent Development. She then continued her education at CSUF where she received her Teaching Credential and Master’s Degree. In her free time, she enjoys finding new restaurants and coffee shops, spending time with her family, and crafting. 
Leslie Whitaker
Leslie Whitaker
Leslie Whitaker is a mom, teacher, and education leader. She has worked in Capistrano Unified as a teacher, TOSA, and Math Coach for the past 20 years. She earned a BA in Psychology from USD, a multiple subject CLAD credential from SDSU, and an MA in Curriculum and Instruction from CSUF. Some of her passions within education include meeting the needs of all learners, student-centered instruction, and sense-making across the curriculum. Although Leslie has facilitated many professional learning classes on comprehension, differentiation, and mathematics, her greatest education has come from learning from colleagues and her students. From her perspective, teaching is really about learning, and learning is the journey.


Ms. Angelici was born and raised in Orange County. She attended UC Santa Barbara for undergrad, where she majored in English and was also a member of the dance team. She recently received her Masters degree in Teaching from UC Irvine. In her free time, she loves to go to the beach or find new books to read at the library!
Kristine Cuevas
Kristine Cuevas
Kristine Cuevas is honored to be a part of the Esencia K-8 community! She grew up in Mission Viejo, so she has a very special place in her heart for the Rancho Mission Viejo area and its surroundings. Kristine has been teaching for 24 years and is an alumni of CUSD. She majored in Liberal Studies & Anthropology at CSULB and received her Masters Degree in Curriculum and Technology from National University.  She is passionate about reading, writing and STEAM. She provides a creative, positive learning environment, where every child is excited to grow. Her classroom is a place to raise rainbow trout, shoot balloon rockets across the room, and to create projects to present to the class. She has been married for 23 years, has 4 children, and a brand new grandson! Kristine lives in Aliso Viejo and attends Coast Hills Church, where she has been a leader of the monthly food distribution to families in Orange County, for the last two years. She loves to travel with her family, reading historical fiction, gardening, photography, baking and going to the beach. She is excited to be at Esencia and to be a part of the memories that will be made to last a lifetime.
Bonnie Danner is thrilled to be a part of the Esencia community! She is a Capistrano Unified alumni. Bonnie earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Linguistics from UCSD and received her Teaching Credential and Master’s Degree in Education and Learning from the University of Redlands. Besides teaching, Bonnie enjoys being outdoors with her husband and two daughters.
Miss Sarah Folks is proud to be an Esencia Hawk! She has been teaching for 3 years. After graduating from the University of Washington in 2014, Sarah moved home to Southern California to pursue a career in education as she absolutely loves working with children and helping those around her. She received her teaching credential from Cal State Long Beach shortly after and began her career in CUSD. Sarah believes learning begins with a positive classroom community and strong supportive relationships. In her class students will: gain lifelong skills, problem solve, think critically, persevere, make mistakes, learn from their mistakes, celebrate success, feel safe, form friendships, and of course, love learning. In her free time you can find Sarah at the beach, paddle boarding, playing golf, or spending time with family and friends. Sarah loves being an Esencia Hawk and looks forward to continuing her growth as a professional educator.
Julie Peterson is so excited to have been a part of the Esencia family since opening in 2018. She grew up in Orange County  and attended California State University, Fullerton for both her undergraduate and graduate degrees. Julie earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Child and Adolescent Development, Multiple Subject Teaching Credential, and Master’s Degree in Curriculum Development and Instructional Design. She has experience teaching 2nd grade, transitional kindergarten, and 4th grade in Orange County. Julie is passionate about building positive relationships and creating a safe space for her students to take risks and challenge themselves. 


Ann Berger is a fifth-grade teacher at Esencia PK-8. She has worked in the Capistrano Unified School District since 1998. Mrs. Berger was named Teacher of the Year in 2008 and 2021, and she was named Capistrano Unified District Elementary Teacher of the Year in 2021.  Mrs. Berger was awarded the distinction of Orange County Teacher of the Year for 2022. Mrs. Berger has a multiple subject credential from Chapman University, and a Masters in Education from California State University, Fullerton. She holds her administrative certificate as well.  In CUSD, she works as a mentor teacher for several universities, and she enjoys learning about all things STEAM. When not teaching, she enjoys traveling with her husband and two daughters and spending time playing golf, skiing, or hanging out with her large extended family. She lives with her family in San Juan Capistrano, CA.
Beth Bell is a 5th grade teacher at Esencia Middle School. She lives in  Laguna Niguel with her husband, her sons, and her two dogs.  She loves walking with friends on the weekends and catching up on Hallmark movies whenever she can. This is her 30th year of teaching, and she couldn't be more proud to be an Esencia Hawk!
Logann Boothe is a fifth grader teacher at Esencia PK-8. She attended Capistrano Unified schools from kindergarten all the way through high school. From there, she earned a BA in Liberal Studies with an emphasis in Mathematics at San Diego State University. This past year she received a Masters of Arts in Teaching and multiple subject credential from University of California, Irvine. During her time student teaching, she enjoyed the student, staff, and community she found at Esencia. She is very happy to begin her teaching career here! Her strongest belief is that every student is capable of learning when provided the right environment. She sets the same goal for herself as she does for her students: to be a lifelong learner. 


Shawn Franks is the  Education Specialist for grades TK-2. She attended Arizona State University for her Undergraduate Degree in Psychology.  Then she went to the University of Redlands for her Master’s Degree in Special Education.  She loves spending time with her son and going to Disneyland! 
Melissa King is an Education Specialist at Esencia Elementary, primarily working with students in grades 3-5. This is her first year at Esencia, and she is thrilled to be here! Her greatest pleasure is working with families and students at all levels to help them learn to the best of their ability. She was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota but has been living in California since college. She received her BA in sociology and her MPH from UC Berkeley and her Education Specialist teaching credential from California State Fullerton. She has three grown children who are all successful products of CUSD schools. In her spare time, she loves spending time with her kids and Goldendoodle; hiking, walking, and running; traveling; reading; and learning as much as she can through professional development courses.