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Our Team

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"Teaching is not about answering questions but about raising questions-

opening doors for them in places that they could not imagine"

-Yawar Baig

We would like to think of ourselves as facilitators, motivators, or guides. 

Learners are encouraged to take more control of their learning process. 

Our role is to embrace each child's unique qualities, equip and support them

with resources to be problem solvers and creative thinkers even through failures, 

empowering and motivating them to find what they want to accomplish in the world.

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Alyssa has taken an unconventional approach to education. Her sophomore year was a challenging time where she began to question the meaning of everything around her. The curriculum provided to her did not give her the answers that she sought. She decided to leave school and join the earth. She walked alone in the woods while contemplating some of life’s deepest questions. She built a relationship with the earth and the universe that provides an endless amount of creative energy as long as she is willing to receive it. As she began her journey through adulthood and joining the work force, she began to watch her light dim. The stress and over stimulation occupied her mind and she drifted farther away from her creative energy. Coming to River Oak Academy happened by chance. When she was a teenager, she imagined the perfect school, a school centered in nature with freedom for children to learn about the questions that they have for their experience in life. Alyssa is a student of life seeking sanctuary under the old oak trees of River Oak Academy. She is currently pursuing her Montessori certification in Early Childhood. She is reactivating the seeker within her by observing the travelers of River Oak Academy freely express themselves. The serenity calms her soul and allows her creativity to shine through. She hopes to inspire creative freedom within the travelers of River Oak Academy by expressing her own wonderment of the world around her. 

Alyssa Bush

Apprentice Guide

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Alyssa has taken an unconventional approach to education. Her sophomore year was a challenging time where she began to question the meaning of everything around her. The curriculum provided to her did not give her the answers that she sought. She decided to leave school and join the earth. She walked alone in the woods while contemplating some of life’s deepest questions. She built a relationship with the earth and the universe that provides an endless amount of creative energy as long as she is willing to receive it. As she began her journey through adulthood and joining the work force, she began to watch her light dim. The stress and over stimulation occupied her mind and she drifted farther away from her creative energy. Coming to River Oak Academy happened by chance. When she was a teenager, she imagined the perfect school, a school centered in nature with freedom for children to learn about the questions that they have for their experience in life. Alyssa is a student of life seeking sanctuary under the old oak trees of River Oak Academy. She is reactivating the seeker within her by observing the travelers of River Oak Academy freely express themselves. The serenity calms her soul and allows her creativity to shine through. She hopes to inspire creative freedom within the travelers of River Oak Academy by expressing her own wonderment of the world around her. 
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Melanie has over 12 years of experience in the field of education working with hundreds of teens. Her Hero's Journey has led her down a path where she has worked as a  teacher, an Academic Life Coach for teens, and a yoga and mindfulness instructor for kids as well as adults. Along this journey, Melanie learned a lot from the students and parents she worked with, which inspired a passion in holistic education. She believes that a student's social emotional well-being is just as important as their academic progress. Melanie has published several workbooks and created various products to help teens have less stress and achieve more success. When she found River Oak Academy and learned about the Acton philosophy, she knew that it would be a great school for her curious, nature-loving son to grow and learn. The opportunity to serve as an MS Guide is an honor and in line with Melanie's passion to help students succeed in school and life. Her youngest child has recently joined ROA as well.

Melanie Black

Guide

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Melanie has over 12 years of experience in the field of education working with hundreds of teens. Her Hero's Journey has led her down a path where she has worked as a  teacher, an Academic Life Coach for teens, and a yoga and mindfulness instructor for kids as well as adults. Along this journey Melanie learned a lot from the students and parents she worked with, which inspired a passion for holistic education. She believes that a student's social-emotional well-being is just as important as their academic progress. Melanie has published several workbooks and created various products to help teens have less stress and achieve more success. When she found River Oak Academy and learned about the Acton philosophy she knew that it would be a great school for her curious, nature-loving son to grow and learn. The opportunity to serve as an MS Guide is an honor and in line with Melanie's passion to help students succeed in school and life. 
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Dinah is co-founder of Connecting Thru Music and Music Teacher for Conneting Thru Music (CTM). She graduated from Douglas Anderson School of the Arts in 99’ and studied Vocal Performance at Jacksonville University. She is a private voice, piano, and guitar instructor at Orange Park School of Music and a Licensed Kindermusik Educator. Her band, Cain’t Never Could, is partnered with CTM and provides live music and support for their fundraising initiatives. She is the lead song writer for CTM. 

As a music teacher and working musician, her goal is to connect to others through the powerful medium of music. She believes that music is the universal language, the common bond that connects us and soothes our souls. Having seen first hand the success that comes from using music as a tool for learning, she strongly believes in the benefits of music enrichment for children. She welcomes opportunities that allow her to share her love and appreciation for music with others! 

Dinah is co-founder of Connecting Thru Music and Music Teacher for Connecting Thru Music (CTM). She graduated from Douglas Anderson School of the Arts in 99’ and studied Vocal Performance at Jacksonville University. She is a private voice, piano, and guitar instructor at Orange Park School of Music and a Licensed Kindermusik Educator. Her band, Cain’t Never Could, is partnered with CTM and provides live music and support for their fundraising initiatives. She is the lead song writer for CTM. 

As a music teacher and working musician, her goal is to connect to others through the powerful medium of music. She believes that music is the universal language, the common bond that connects us and soothes our souls. Having seen first hand the success that comes from using music as a tool for learning, she strongly believes in the benefits of music enrichment for children. She welcomes opportunities that allow her to share her love and appreciation for music with others! 

Music Guide

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Dinah Frilling

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Ana is from the small country of Costa Rica. She has always loved teaching. Almost 20 years ago, she started teaching Spanish as a second language in a language institute in her country. Then, she had the pleasure of working for two semesters at the University of Mississippi (Olemiss) in the Department of Modern Languages. She has lived in Jacksonville since 2019 and, thanks to the FALA Language Academy, she has had the opportunity to work on an important mission - teaching Spanish in a fun and immersive way. "The learning of any language is favorable at an early age to develop the skills and potential that each child has. For this reason, my goal is to sow a small seed in each learner that little by little will bear the fruits. The key is to always do it with responsibility, discipline and a lot of love."

Ana is from the small country of Costa Rica. She has always loved teaching. Almost 20 years ago, she started teaching Spanish as a second language in a language institute in her country. Then, she had the pleasure of working for two semesters at the University of Mississippi (Olemiss) in the Department of Modern Languages. She has lived in Jacksonville since 2019 and, thanks to the FALA Language Academy, she has had the opportunity to work on an important mission - teaching Spanish in a fun and immersive way. "The learning of any language is favorable at an early age to develop the skills and potential that each child has. For this reason, my goal is to sow a small seed in each learner that little by little will bear the fruits. The key is to always do it with responsibility, discipline and a lot of love."

Ana Lucia Solis

Spanish Guide

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Our Team

Mary is a graduate of Boston University and Lesley University. She currently lives in Northeast Florida. A great believer in creating the change you want to see in the world, she felt a deep calling to create a school that is very much needed but simply didn't exist. A learning community where the joy of learning is palpable and alive. With many years of trial and error, soul-searching, and great love, River Oak Academy was born. She is inspired each day to see each learner take agency over their learning. She remains a lifelong learner. She learns more from each learner on any given day than from anyone else. She believes that the true objective of education is learning, not teaching. Mary's vision is to see River Oak Academy as a place where children are seen as the best versions of themselves. A place where they feel safe, heard, and loved.
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Mary is a graduate of Boston University and Lesley University. She currently lives in Northeast Florida. A great believer in creating the change you want to see in the world, she felt a deep calling to create a school that is very much needed but simply didn't exist. A learning community where the joy of learning is palpable and alive. With many years of trial and error, soul-searching, and great love, River Oak Academy was born. She is inspired each day to see each learner take agency over their learning, respected just as much as any other adult. She remains a lifelong learner. She learns more from each learner on any given day than from anyone else. She believes that the true objective of education is learning, not teaching. Mary's vision is to see River Oak Academy as a place where children are seen as the best versions of themselves. A place where they feel safe, heard, and loved.

Mary Shaeffer

Founder/Head of School

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Mary has lived in Northeast Florida for 17 years. She graduated from Boston University School of Dental Medicine and completed a Post Doctoral Program in Oral Surgery as well as General Dentistry. She enjoyed the artistry but most especially connecting with her patients.  When her son was born, she decided to focus on being a mother. A great believer in creating the change you want in the world, she felt a deep calling after experiencing shortcomings in her son’s education. She came to a crossroads to either find a school of their dreams or to create it. She decided to participate in the Reggio Emilia approach to Education Program at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA where she applied her passion for a tailored, individualized, collaborative approach from healthcare into education. With great love, River Oak Academy was born.
Mary sees River Oak Academy as a home away from home, a place where children will be accepted as they are, a place where they feel safe, heard, and loved. 
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Laura lived on both US coasts and in between as a child, then settled into Vanderbilt University for her undergraduate studies in the College of Arts and Science. After being awarded the highly competitive Walter Wattles Fellowship at Lloyd’s of London, Laura worked in the aviation insurance industry in New York City. Deciding to follow her calling into the world of education, Laura returned to Nashville and earned her Master of Education at Peabody College. This led her to her work at the Oklahoma Arts Institute, creating fine arts education programs for teachers and talented high school students. Laura married Jeff Sandefer and is the happy mother of Sam and Charlie and step-mother to Taite. It is the inspiration of these children that led Laura and Jeff to co-found Acton Academy. Her greatest hero is her mother who was a Master Teacher. Her wisest mentor is her father who sent her off to college with two words of advice: "Be curious."

Laura Sandefer, M. Ed.

Co-Founder of Acton Academy Austin / Advisor

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Mary has lived in Northeast Florida for 17 years. She graduated from Boston University School of Dental Medicine and completed a Post Doctoral Program in Oral Surgery as well as General Dentistry. She enjoyed the artistry but most especially connecting with her patients.  When her son was born, she decided to focus on being a mother. A great believer in creating the change you want in the world, she felt a deep calling after experiencing shortcomings in her son’s education. She came to a crossroads to either find a school of their dreams or to create it. She decided to participate in the Reggio Emilia approach to Education Program at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA where she applied her passion for a tailored, individualized, collaborative approach from healthcare into education. With great love, River Oak Academy was born.
Mary sees River Oak Academy as a home away from home, a place where children will be accepted as they are, a place where they feel safe, heard, and loved. 
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Jeff Sandefer lives a dual life as an entrepreneur and a Socratic Guide. As an entrepreneur, he founded his first company at age 16 and went on to found or co-found seven successful businesses. As a Socratic teacher at the University of Texas, Jeff’s students five times voted him the school’s Outstanding Teacher and Businessweek named him one of the top Entrepreneurship professors in America. Jeff went on to co-found the Acton School of Business, an MBA program perennially ranked by the Princeton Review among the best in the nation. In 2012 The Economist honored him as one of the top fifteen Business School professors in the world. Jeff is a graduate of the Harvard Business School, where he served for over twenty years on the school’s governing committees. He was a longtime director of the Philanthropy Roundtable and National Review magazine and one of the youngest members ever elected to the Texas Business Hall of Fame.

Jeff Sandefer, MBA

Co-Founder of Acton Academy Austin / Advisor

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Gina Rich is a graduate of The Art Institute Of Atlanta and is working towards obtaining a Master’s degree in mixed media and education. She has spent the last twenty years as a graphic designer for companies such as Whole Foods Market, The Home Depot and Georgia Power. Now that her children are older, Gina has relocated away from the Atlanta traffic to sunny Florida where she enjoys traveling in her Airstream trailer on her breaks. She remains focused on guiding those who may not otherwise get the support and opportunity to nurture their creative talents. She looks forward to helping River Oak Acadamy be a place where everyone feels welcome, accepted and free to be their creative best.

Gina Rich is a graduate of The Art Institute Of Atlanta and is working towards obtaining a Master’s degree in mixed media and education. She has spent the last twenty years as a graphic designer for companies such as Whole Foods Market, The Home Depot and Georgia Power. Now that her children are older, Gina has relocated away from the Atlanta traffic to sunny Florida where she enjoys traveling in her Airstream trailer on her breaks. She remains focused on guiding those who may not otherwise get the support and opportunity to nurture their creative talents. She looks forward to helping River Oak Acadamy be a place where everyone feels welcome, accepted and free to be their creative best.

Gina Rich

Art Guide

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Our Team

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Victoria is a graduate of Florida International University Honors College where she studied Education and Child Psychology. After working in a traditional school early in her career, she decided to open her own academic coaching business, Learning Made Fun Academy. She has spent the last 20 years "guiding" and mentoring hundreds of students to reach their full potential - both as students and individuals. She truly believes that all children are geniuses and capable of achieving their hearts' desires. She came to River Oak Academy in search of an empowering learning environment for her son, Nicholas, and felt inspired to become a Guide. She is honored to serve as Elementary Guide and wholeheartedly embraces her role as a part of her Hero's Journey. She is passionate about helping the River Oak Academy Family to grow and thrive. She has been married to her best friend, David, for over 23 years and loves spending time with her family, as well as going to the beach, reading, and crafting. Victoria also taught and coached swimming for many years and feels that those experiences helped to hone her ability to inspire and motivate individuals to realize and achieve their goals. She loves to make learning "fun" and supports the Acton philosophy that the purpose of education is to "learn how to learn, learn how to do, and learn how to be." 

Victoria Miller

Guide

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Victoria is a graduate of Florida International University Honors College where she studied Education and Child Psychology. After working in a traditional school early in her career, she decided to open her own academic coaching business, Learning Made Fun Academy. She has spent the last 20 years "guiding" and mentoring hundreds of students to reach their full potential - both as students and individuals. She truly believes that all children are geniuses and capable of achieving their hearts' desires. She came to River Oak Academy in search of an empowering learning environment for her son and felt inspired to become a Guide. She is honored to serve as Elementary Guide and wholeheartedly embraces her role as a part of her Hero's Journey. She is passionate about helping the River Oak Academy Family to grow and thrive. She loves spending time with her family, as well as going to the beach, reading, and crafting. Victoria also taught and coached swimming for many years and feels that those experiences helped to hone her ability to inspire and motivate individuals to realize and achieve their goals. She loves to make learning "fun" and supports the Acton philosophy that the purpose of education is to "learn how to learn, learn how to do, and learn how to be." 

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