Chicago Free School

All Understanding Begins With Wonder

Teachers and Board Members

Staff Photo

2016-2017 staff, from left: Simone Wesley, Lauren Beitler, Heba Abassi, Lisa Rademacher, DeeAnn Reed, Joe Ochiltree, Gabrielle Ellison

We are a group of parents and experienced educators creating a school where students take the lead in their own educations.


Lauren Beitler taught middle-school math for six years in the Woodlawn, North Lawndale, and Englewood neighborhoods of Chicago before leaving traditional school teaching to work on founding Chicago Free School.  Before becoming a teacher she got her BA in Mathematics and her MAT from the Urban Teacher Education Program at the University of Chicago.  She spent the 2012-2013 school year teaching at the Free School in Albany, NY, a democratic free school that has been serving a diverse group of learners in downtown Albany since 1969.  Because she attended a democratic school as a child, she knows firsthand the joy in learning that students can experience when given responsibility and freedom. She advises the 3rd-5th grade students and facilitates newspaper club, social studies group, and science group with grades 3-8.

DeeAnn Reed was born and raised on the sunny coast of California, and enjoyed running bare foot through the redwood forest and diving head first into the giant saltwater waves of the Pacific Ocean. She says the earth was her teacher and she was an enthusiastic student. She has always been a free and caring spirit. She has held on to this joy for learning and brings it into the classroom. She earned her Bachelor’s Degree from the University of California Santa Cruz, where she studied Art and Early Childhood Education. Now she will forever be a UCSC “Banana Slug”! She has traveled to the colorful land of Guatemala and eaten fresh sushi on a little island in Japan. She is also the mother of two very unique young ladies. Rosalie and Lilyanna, who are both Free School students! They inspire creativity and patience. DeeAnn’s family has been in Hyde Park for several years. They were welcomed with open arms by the diverse community and they love it here. DeeAnn is honored to serve the children of Chicago, with the Chicago Free School.

Heba Abbasi taught in the Chicago Public Schools for most of her teaching career before coming to CFS. She’s passionate about teaching, learning and facilitating educational opportunities for young minds. After earning her Masters in Curriculum and Instruction from National Louis University, Heba spent the four years as part of an administrative team working as an Instructional Leader and educational consultant before joining the Chicago Free School team. As a mother of two young girls, she says she is constantly reminded how fascinating the world is and is eager to work with students to create curriculum to serve their interests. As a naturalist she loves spending plenty of times outdoors. Heba enjoys reading, biking and swimming as forms of relaxation. As an accomplished triathlete she integrates plenty of movement and physical activity in her lessons. Heba is the homeroom teacher for the 1st/2nd grade group.  Heba is excited to be part of The Chicago Free School community as both an educator and parent!

Lisa Rademacher has been teaching for over 20 years in Rome, New York, and all sides of Chicago. She has taught in non-profits working with refugee communities, private schools, and at Chicago Public Schools. She has taught three-year-olds to adults and has loved it all, although her niche is early childhood. She has a Bachelor of Science in Religious Studies and Music from Edgewood College in Madison, WI. She received a Master of Arts in Theological Studies with a concentration in Peace and Justice from the Maryknoll School of Theology in New York. She has a Master of Arts in Teaching in Early Childhood from National Louis University. She founded and lives in the Sophia Community in Hyde Park with her husband, two daughters, and many others. She is passionate about co-creating a joyful community of learners in which inquiry and creativity are fostered.

Joe Ochiltree joined our teaching staff as our middle school teacher for the 2016-2017 school year. Joe says, “This year at CFS will be my 10th year of teaching. I have taught 7th-12th grades in New York City, Mexico City, and Chicago. I like to integrate games and projects into my teaching. I am super excited to join the dedicated and creative community at CFS!”

Simone Wesley is our PreK/K aide and joined us at the beginning of the 2016-2017 year. SIn addition to bringing the smiles and positive vibes to our youngest class, she is a mom of four kids.

Meosha Thomas, affectionately known as Ms. Mo, is our Aftercare Coordinator. She joined us in 2016. Before coming to CFS, she served 10 years active duty in the United States Navy from 2000-2010 and has lived in many countries (Italy, Germany, etc.) due to her military travels. She started teaching in 2008 while still serving through the Troops to Teachers program. Meosha prides herself on being a lifelong learner and feels every moment can become an opportunity to learn, explore, and create. She holds 4 degrees and various certifications to include Early Childhood Education. Her passions are art, community service and teaching. She describes herself as “an artist and an advocate” who believes that youth voice and choice is the key to creating a world of more compassionate, understanding leaders who are motivated by service and justice for all. She looks forward to creating an aftercare environment that fosters those ideals and CFS philosophy!


Margarita Valbuena (M.S., Erikson Institute) school administrator, joined the Free School in spring of 2018. Margarita is a parent of two Free School students, a child development specialist, and the co-founder of Third Coast Birth & Family, a thriving family support agency that serves the needs of growing families across Chicago. She has 15 years of experience working with non-profits – both overseas and in the United States – in addition to her time working in the Office of Assessment and Accountability with Chicago Public Schools. She values the power of community and believes in the type of learning environment offered to students and their families at Chicago Free School.

Board of Directors:

Parent Representatives

Carissa Ábrego-Collier is VP of the Board of Directors and parent to two kids, and has been a Free School parent for 3 years and counting. In her professional life, personal life, and on the board, she’s passionate about fostering communication and community.  She holds an MA in Linguistics and works as administrative and teaching staff in the University of Chicago Writing Program. For four years, she and her husband were also live-in staff in an undergraduate dorm, where they worked with college students of many backgrounds on a wide variety of programs and issues. In her free time, Carissa likes to cook, read, and make music.

Leanne Beaudoin Ryan has served as Board Secretary for the Chicago Free School since January 2018. She is the Associate Director of Research at Erikson Institute, the premier independent institution of higher education committed to ensuring that all children have equitable opportunities to realize their potential. Leanne earned her Ph. D. in Developmental Psychology at the University of Chicago in 2012. She has worked as a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University in the Center on Media and Human Development, as well as a research consultant for the Urban Education Institute and NORC, both at the University of Chicago, and the Ounce of Prevention Fund. When she is not working, Leanne is a yoga enthusiast and avid knitter, who enjoys spending time with her husband and two young sons.

Kendra Burbank researches neuroscience and teaches statistics at the University of Chicago. She has been a CFS parent since the school’s opening, but has been interested in democratic education since attending a public democratic high school while growing up in Ithaca, NY. Kendra’s son will be in the Kindergarten class in 2017-18.

Sara Volk de Garcia, our board president, is mom of a third-grade student at CFS. Her background as a biologist first connected her to CFS when she helped us rescue a baby squirrel at the park! She brings her energy and commitment to the board with a goal of supporting stability and growth at CFS while developing a long-term vision.

Community Representatives

Jaideep Deshpande joined the Board of Chicago Free School as community representative in January 2016. Jaideep has more than 14 years of experience in project/program management and is currently working at Blue Cross Blue Shield of IL. Jaideep holds an MBA from University of Chicago Booth School of Business in Strategy, Marketing and Entrepreneurship.

AJ Walker joined the Board of Chicago Free School as a community representative in 2017. A.J. is currently the CEO and President of Lake Jericho LLC, a Chicago-based registered investment advisory firm. A.J. is a Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) charter holder, a Certified Financial Planner, and a Certified Investment Management Analyst. He earned a Bachelor of Science in Business Economics from the University of Louisville, and holds an MBA from Indiana University Southeast. A.J. brings more than 25 years of experience in the institutional investment management, wealth management, trust, real estate, foundation, endowment, and not-for-profit spaces to the Board. With more than 15 years of enterprise and solutions architecture experience in the context of organizational planning, project management, and technology deployment within complex regulatory compliance and audit environments, A.J. will bring his expertise to Board functions as we build upon the mission of the CFS.

Staff Representatives

Lauren Beitler and Meosha Thomas are the staff representatives on the board.