Ms. Katelyn Gerhardt
Co-Founder & Owner
I’ve always been drawn to connecting with kids; listening to their quirky stories, watching them as they figure out new things and observing their joy in the simplest of things. For the past 17 years, I’ve been immersed in working with toddlers through teenagers. While studying Human Development at the University of California San Diego, I grew increasingly fascinated with how the brain works and specifically what factors contribute to overall emotional intelligence and happiness. I quickly learned that these foundations are set in early childhood. I know that we have a critical window of opportunity from birth to five to set these solid foundations. When my family, my husband, two children and I, moved to North Carolina in 2013 we realized that Western Harnett County offered scarce educational resources. After in depth studies, I knew that the Montessori Philosophy and it’s practices provided a rich environment for my, then very young, children to thrive within. In the fall of 2015, with the combination of my passion for early childhood development and the Montessori philosophy, IMA opened it’s doors to impact the lives of our communities’ youth. In the last 7 years, the school has had immense growth. As a lifelong learner myself, I am always striving to continue to grow our programs and practices and serve our community even better than the year before. This is why we expanded to embrace the Reggio philosophy in early 2021, hence transforming our name to Independence Academy, since we offered both Montessori and Reggio inspirations. I truly believe that our kids and their families deserve an environment that will give them the tools to elevate their social-emotional growth and foster their independent thinking. With an incredible educator team at the heart of all we do here, we continue to accomplish the goal of providing community and connection. When I’m not living and breathing all things Independence Academy, I am spending time with my two growing kiddos at the lake, doing yard-work with my husband, reading, doing my favorite HIIT work-out and cooking!
Ms. Martha Myers
I have been with Independence since 2017. Starting as a substitute and knitting teacher, I soon transitioned to lead toddler teacher. At the start of 2020, I began training for my new role in the office while continuing to have a presence in the classrooms. I was one of those kids who always loved taking care of younger children. When I first entered college I knew I wanted to be a teacher and was focused on elementary special education. When I found classes in early childhood education I truly found my passion. The early ages, with a focus on social emotional growth and learning independence, is what excited me most. With a Bachelor’s Degree in Early Childhood Education from UNC, Chapel Hill, and extensive experience with many models of education, including Reggio, Montessori, and Waldorf, I am so excited to add my knowledge to the administrative team. One of my favorite memories from my time at UNC, is that of student teaching for a month in China. For fun, I love all things crafty, especially knitting, spinning, and sewing.
Ms. Raylee Crawford
Director of Community
I grew up in McDonough, GA with a love for everything nature. Following my passion, I received a Bachelor’s Degree in Biological Sciences with a focus in Fish & Wildlife Ecology & Management from Montana State University in Bozeman, MT. While in college, I worked at Bozeman FunZone where I ran their summer camp program. After graduation, I moved to Jacksonville, FL with my husband where I spent a year and a half as a kids camp supervisor for Omni Resorts on Amelia Island. In my spare time, I enjoy photography, reading, and exploring the outdoors with my family. My favorite aspect of working with children is to see the “wonderment” in their eyes when exploring and learning about the outdoors and nature. I came to IA to help start the Inde Nature program, and have been so lucky to see it grow to what it is now! Being in the classroom of the Nature program for a year and a half was such an enriching experience! After taking a break to have my daughter, I am so excited to be back in this new role where I can really focus on helping our community of families, and further bring my passion for teaching younger generations about all things nature and the outdoors to Independence Academy for years to come!
Ms. Lynette Vergara
Hola, Me llamo Lynette and I am so excited to be a part of the team. I am originally from the beautiful island of Puerto Rico and it is the country that shaped me into the person that I am today. I received my teaching certificate and taught for seven years in my native town before meeting my husband and moving with him once he enlisted into the US ARMY. Once settled stateside, I began working for the US Child Youth and School Services. While there, I contributed to curriculum building, nutrition and fitness awareness and child mentor-ship. Teaching has been my passion since I was little; I love to help others and I’m also big believer that we are the role models for our future leaders. Being with them and helping them build their confidence and that love and respect for others is where everything starts. I will always give each child the opportunity to bloom at their level. In The Lily Room I will give them a safe environment where they can build with their curiosity and my guidance. The children create their own space where they can build their own knowledge. I am also a Spanish instructor for children from 3 to 12, and I love teach my language to others, especially to the younger ones. When not teaching others, I enjoy spending quality time with my husband and our three niños ranging in ages 7 to 13. I have my associates degree in Early Childhood Education from FTCC and plan to continue to become an elementary school teacher. I absolutely love contributing to the developmental growth of a child and to watch them become better than they were the day before!
Mr. Luke Gerhardt
Ms. Becky Thienel
I am so excited to be part of the team here at Independence Academy. I am originally from New England, but I have been living in North Carolina since 2008. I am a mother to three boys. Prior to having children, I achieved my Associate Degree in Human Service Management followed by my Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology. My husband and I met in high school; he joined the Marine Corps after graduation and was stationed here in North Carolina. As a young girl I learned quickly how to care for children. My mother worked a second shift job at a hospital leaving me to help care for my younger siblings. Early on in our military life my husband was away a lot for long periods of time which caused me to put my career on hold in order to raise our boys. Now our kids are in school and I have been given the opportunity to grow my career. I am looking forward to serving our community here at Independence Academy!
Ms. Gabriella Rojas
Classroom Support Teacher
Hi! I am beyond excited for this opportunity with Independence Academy. I was born and raised in Maine, and graduated from the University of Southern Maine with my Bachelors Degree in Environmental Sciences. After I graduated college, I moved down to Wilmington, North Carolina which became my home for 6 years. I fell in love with Wrightsville Beach and Carolina Beach (those are two of my favorite places to be if I’m not working!). I love being outdoors with nature, meditating, reading, traveling to new places, and just learning and growing. I decided to move to Fayetteville, North Carolina this year because my oldest brother is stationed here for military. He has been stationed here for about 10 years, so I’ve always come in and out of Fayetteville. I am very close with my sister in law and I have a niece I am excited to see grow! I am Peruvian, and one of my goals is to visit Peru! I have family in Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida. Before teaching, I worked with a pharmaceutical company in Southport, NC. I was working in Quality Control and had an amazing team. I learned so much from that position and was asked to train others and realized how much I truly enjoyed teaching and helping others. I decided to change career paths and became a Substitute Teacher. I’m excited to work with Independence Academy because I enjoy learning, and being able to assist the kids with their growth as they are all on their own journey. Each student has a unique and creative side that they are able to express and its an amazing experience to be apart of. I look forward to getting to know you all!
Ms. Emily Santiago
Hola!! My name is Emily and I am from a small tropical island called Puerto Rico. I moved to NC 6 years ago when my husband joined the Army. I am a mom of 2 girls and 1 boy. I love Having family time doing road trips , nature and baking. I always love working with kids because of their innocence and their creative mind. My first language is Spanish and I am very excited to be part of this community. I am happy to be the new Spanish teacher and teach your children my language and knowledge.
Ms. Krista Sloup
Ms. Beth Pierce
Montessori Mentor Teacher
I am so happy to be back at Independence Academy. I started my journey with this amazing school when the doors first opened many years ago. The pandemic and family obligations placed a pause on my teaching but I am so glad to be back! A lot has changed and I just love seeing the many avenues the kiddos can learn and grow in! I started my teaching career 26 years ago, with 21 years of experience in the teaching field. I obtained my credentials 1&2 at Sandhills Community College in 2000. I obtained my KHT Montessori certificate in 2019. I am married and have 3 grown adult boys, a daughter in law and three grandsons. So the nest is empty! Because of this, I’m so glad to fill my days with new kiddos to love, take care of, and teach.
The Flower Rooms
Ms. Joanmarie Santiago
Lead Teacher, The Daisy Room
I have been a part of the IA Family since 2020. I was born in Humacao, Puerto Rico and attended El Turabo University in Caguas, P.R. I moved to Virginia in 2016 after the big life change of getting married! In 2020, I relocated with my husband to North Carolina. I have a deep passion for working with children. I have spend the last year and a half as the Assistant Teacher in The Magnolia Room working with children three years to six years old. For the past five years my experience has been teaching toddlers in a Montessori environment. I am so excited to work with toddlers again in The Daisy Room. My goal is to finish my Bachelor’s Degree in Early Childhood and to keep expanding my knowledge.
Ms. Cindy Yuan
Assistant Teacher, The Daisy Room
I am originally from Chapel Hill, NC, and relocated to Fayetteville, NC, in February 2021. I am a
Taiwanese American who graduated from Mars Hill University with an Art/Graphic Design
degree and Durham Technical Community College with an Early Childhood Education degree.
Art, music, and creative expression have been an essential part of my life! I have experience
working with children ranging from age one to five. I love teaching, learning, and connecting
with young children because they are our future. I enjoy drawing, painting, designing, playing
piano, watching animation films, and studying Japanese language and culture. I am fluent in
Ms. Anamari Cintron
Lead Teacher, The Lily Room & Spanish Teacher
Hello! My name is Anamari. I was born and raised in Puerto Rico. I moved to NC with my husband and daughter in 2007. Shortly after I arrived, I had the opportunity to work in Ft. Bragg with children ages 0-12. In 2010 I had my son. During that time I began my studies in Early Childhood and had the opportunity to work in the Head Start program for 6 years from floater and bus driver to lead teacher. I am so excited to be working with the team at Independence Academy. In my free time I like to cook, hang out with my family, and find and create new ideas for our students.
Ms. Breanna Brancheau
Assistant Teacher, The Lily Room
Hello Independence Academy friends and family, I would love to introduce myself. My name is Breanna Brancheau. I grew up in a small harbor community located in Monroe, MI. Growing up, I spent a lot of time at the beach and exploring surrounding nature parks. This early exploration instilled a love for the outdoors and learning through hands-on experiences. I first moved here to North Carolina in 2013 to be with my husband who is stationed at Fort Bragg. We have been married since April of 2014. Together we have two children and two dogs. Shortly after we were married, I attended Animal Behavior College and studied behavioral science. After graduating, I noticed a lack of education for children and parents about dog safety. In 2016, I set out to fill that gap by writing and publishing a children’s book (Rosie The Pawsitive Pup). I used that book as a tool to teach dog safety classes to elementary age kids. It was then that I realized I loved teaching. I am so fortunate to be starting this journey here with you all. My goal is to continue growing as an educator while supporting the students and staff of this wonderful school. My hobbies include photography, singing, and writing poetry. Now that you know a bit about me, I’m excited for the chance to get to know you!
The Tree Rooms
Ms. Breanna Dearman
Lead Teacher, The Maple Room
Hello! My name is Breanna and I am so excited to be apart of the Independence Academy team! I am originally from Canada (born and raised), and have been living in the United States for the last decade. I have a Bachelors of Arts in Humanities from the University of Victoria, Canada and a Masters in Education from Armstrong University, now called Georgia Southern. I have really enjoyed working in early childhood education. This is a time of curiosity, innocence and exploration. The Environment is interesting, their imaginations are thriving, and it creates a really awesome student-led learning atmosphere. I especially love working in early childhood education because I know that creating a solid foundation between a student and their learning environment has a long lasting positive influence in both their educational journeys as well as their social lives. I really enjoy using sensorial works with the students, as well as encouraging them to problem solve and work together to find solutions. It’s so amazing to see students find joy in independence, whether it’s putting on their shoes, opening an applesauce pouch, or tracing their name from start to finish! As a mother of two young boys, I can appreciate how so much of this independence transfers from the classroom to the home.
When I am not teaching, you are likely to find me at home with my family. I have two boys: August (5) and Samuel (3). My husband, Gabriel, is stationed at Fort Bragg. We have two dogs: Ladybird (Boxer) and Louie (Boston terrier). I enjoy baking, cooking, reading, yard work, and exercising with my moms workout group!
Ms. Kristen Carroll
Assistant Teacher, The Maple Room
I have had a passion for working with children since I was a young child myself and I always knew I wanted to become a teacher! As a child I would always help take care of younger children and as I grew up, I would babysit and volunteer in different children’s programs at church and school! I got my first job in a childcare facility when I was sixteen and have worked with children ever since! I enjoy getting to know all of them individually, watching them grow and accomplish new skills! I am currently pursuing my Bachelor’s Degree in Elementary Education. Working while being in school has definitely given me an advantage. I am able to directly apply what I am learning in my classes to situations with my students. I am so excited to have the opportunity of being the teacher assistant in Maple Room this year!
Ms. Julia Sailer
Lead Teacher, The Oak Room & German Teacher
Hallo, ich bin Julia! I am so excited to be part of IA! I joined the team in August of 2021. I immigrated to the US two years ago after getting married to my husband when we met on his tour in Germany. Life definitely has been a rollercoaster since then and I had to face tons of challenges that helped me grow into the person I am now. I have been tutoring younger children since I was 14, I always enjoyed helping the little ones out in school and teaching them new things. Getting the position as an aftercare teacher has been a blessing, I love the environment of the school and the nature around it. It is so great to see the students smiling and enjoying their time at Independence Academy and I am so proud to be a part of this wonderful community.
Ms. Kimberly Aanerud
Assistant Teacher, The Oak Room
Hello. I am Kimberly, a mother and an army wife. I am originally from a small town in Minnesota but moved to North Carolina in 2020 with my husband and our daughter. After taking some time off to be a stay at home mom to my daughter, I am excited to start a new career here at Independence Academy! As a dedicated child-care provider, I am adept in my ability to deliver safe and effective care in children’s social development and growth. I have had several years of child-care experience, from becoming a mother to my daughter to working as a private in-home nanny in which working with children ranging in age of newborn to 12 years old. In my free time, I love doing anything crafty (especially DIY projects), fitness and health, thrifting/antiquing, family activities, crocheting, and tending to our 12 animals (a dog, a cat, and 10 chickens) on our crazy coop farm!
Ms. Latoya Toomer
Lead Teacher, The Magnolia Room & HipHop Teacher
I am so excited to begin another school year at Independence Academy! I LOVE being a child advocate and teacher. I have worked and interned at various childcare centers and elementary schools in Harnett, Lee and Chatham counties. I settled in Magnolia Room in 2020 and it instantly became my home away from home. I love learning about how young minds work and function. I am also continuing to learn all about Reggio and Montessori, and how these philosophies set up the children for success. I believe young minds deserve the chance to grow and flourish in a healthy and safe environment, and that’s what I love so much about our classroom and school. I love seeing children learn new skills that will go with them for life, like self help skills and social emotional skills. I dream of a world where play based learning is the normal for early childhood, so I advocate for it today. I aim to instill the love of lifelong learning into all the children I teach. I look forward to another fulfilling year at Independence Academy!
Ms. Mary Hebner (Ms. Liz)
Assistant Teacher, The Magnolia Room
Hello, my name is Mary Elizabeth, and I go by Liz. My husband Jeremy and I are originally from Southern Indiana and have been married for 17 years. My husband has been in the Air Force for 18 years and will be retiring in the next year. We have two kids, a girl named Abigail (10) and a boy named Peyton (14). At our home we have what we call our mini farm! We have 2 dogs, 2 cats, 9 chickens, and 2 ducks. We have lived in New Jersey, Turkey, Guam and now North Carolina. I love spending time with my family and friends, crafting, and cooking. I have taught children for over 15 years. My first job in Childcare was at a CDC at our first base and I just fell in love with working with children. It is such a great feeling to see children learn and thrive. I am looking forward to getting to know your children in such an amazing and positive environment!
The Inde Nature School
Ms. Adeline Petterson
Teacher, Inde Elementary
I grew up in Fuquay Varina, North Carolina. I received my bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Spanish at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington in 2018. I am also a certified yoga instructor, which includes children’s yoga. After college, I had the opportunity to live in Spain and teach English as a Foreign Language to preschool and elementary school kiddos. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, I returned to the US and worked in insurance. I am SO excited to be back in the education field. I am fascinated with finding the best way for children to learn. I love how IA works to encourage independence and support each individual learner. The outdoors has always been a passion of mine and Nature School would have been my dream as a kid. One of my favorite activities is to go on hikes and explore with my pup, Luna. I’m elated to have joined the Independence Academy team and I can’t wait to help your children learn and grow.
Ms. Angelina Hugaboom
Teacher, Inde Elementary
Hey there! I was adopted at the age of 3 in Miami, Florida and raised in Canton, Georgia. I have settled with my husband here at Fort Bragg! I was in the Army for 8 years as a weapon specialist and my husband is currently a combat medic and earning his flight paramedic status. Before moving here, I earned my bachelors degree in French Modern Language and Culture with a concentration in humanitarianism, which allowed for me to teach English in Benin, Africa to young children and students. I have always had a passion for teaching and helping others. When I am not in the classroom, I enjoy photography, art and being outdoors!
Ms. Laura Alderman
Lead Teacher, The Inde Nature Explorers
I am originally from Colorado, and moved to North Carolina in 2012. I was raised in a close knit extended family as one of the oldest of fourteen cousins which gave me experience and a love of caring for younger children early on. I have a passion for teaching that I have had the opportunity to explore through babysitting, nannying, coaching, and working with children with autism spectrum disorder. I find so much joy in guiding children and providing a safe, loving environment in which they can grow and develop! I decided last year that it was time to pursue my love of teaching and started working toward my Associates degree in Early Childhood Education. I was previously the lead teacher in The Lily Room before taking maternity leave. I am so excited to be back and working with our Inde Nature Explorers!
Ms. Taylor Hinson
Assistant Teacher, The Inde Nature Explorers Lead Teacher, Inde Homeschool Hangout
Hey, my name is Taylor. I was born and raised in North Carolina. I finished my bachelor’s in 2020 and I’m continuing my education at Liberty for a Masters in Family and Marriage counseling. I’ve always loved working with children and parents when babysitting, church, community activities and now in my counseling training. Working at AI I am continually watching my studies come to life! I enjoy and love watching the kiddos having those “light bulb” moments and completing a milestone. Being able to enjoy those moments with the parents and working together to continue the child’s ability to repeat and achieve other developmental milestones is an amazing feeling!
Ms. Abigail Houle
Teacher, Extended Exploration
Ms. Stephanie Lane
Teacher, Extended Exploration & American Sign Language Teacher
I am originally from Fayetteville. I am an Army veteran and was stationed at Fort Bragg for the majority of my active duty time. I’m a mother of 2 children and 3 fur kids. I have always enjoyed being around children ever since I started babysitting at age 12. Now that my own children are adults, I miss being around kiddos! I truly enjoy working with them and thrive off the joy and laughter they bring to my day. I am working on my degree in American Sign Language Interpreting at Wilson Community College and plan to transfer to UNC Greensboro to complete my Bachelor’s in the Interpreting, Deaf Education, and Advocacy program with a concentration in early childhood education to obtain my K–12 Deaf and Hard of Hearing Teacher Licensure. In my spare time I enjoy all things crafty, reading historical fiction, and thrift store treasure hunting with my family. I look forward to working with your child and creating a fun and positive learning environment for them!
Ms. Breunna Smith
Teacher, Extended Exploration
Hello! My name is Bre, and I am so excited to be a part of the team here at Independence Academy! I am originally from Arkansas but I recently moved to North Carolina in October. My hobbies include going on trips and shopping. I love connecting with children and learning more about them. In my free time, I love being around my family. Thank you for having me here, and I look forward to connection with all the students!
Ms. Magdelena Garcia
Teacher, Extended Exploration
Hello! My name is Magdelena, or as the wonderful students here at IA call me, Ms. Alena. I was born and raised in beautiful Colorado, where I grew to adore the unpredictable weather and the enchanting scenic views. Growing up in the more mountainous region of Colorado, I fell in love with everything outdoors from skiing, hiking, camping and boating. I recently moved to NC with my husband, Toni who is an Army Vet, and our 5 children: Aries, Romeo, Noah, Ariana, and Mirabella. I have spent the last several years as a stay at home mom as my husband’s military career took us overseas to South Korea and back. As much as I love teaching my own children and watching them grow into beautiful humans I look forward to utilizing my experience in early childhood education to guide the children here at IA in their educational journey and to being part of the amazing IA community.