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Staff Bios

Karen A. Cerwin

Karen A. Cerwin, WestEd K-12 Alliance Regional Director, supports local (San Bernardino/Riverside counties), statewide, and national efforts providing high-quality science and mathematics for all students. Cerwin helps develop teacher leadership skills through modeling, discussions, and opportunities for practice within a variety of grants and technical assistance. Previously, she designed and implemented professional development for multiple local grants in the Coachella Valley including three California Math and Science Partnerships (CAMSP) and three California Postsecondary Education Commission (CPEC) projects. Current efforts include a newly funded CaMSP Project Prototype developing NGSS modules for secondary students. Project Prototype is collaboration between three districts, three universities and the local business community.

Statewide projects includes being part of a WestEd facilitation team working with the California Science Expert Panel's middle school integration model, the proposed California State Implementation Plan for NGSS and part of the professional development design team for the rollout of NGSS through-out California.

She has provided technical assistance to national efforts such as Using Data Project (UDP), Curriculum Topic Study (CTS), BSCS/WestEd National Academy for Curriculum Leadership (NACL), the National Academy for Science and Mathematics Education Leadership (NASMEL) and the Center for Assessment and Evaluation of Student Learning (CAESL) and the FOSS Leadership Academy. Currently, she is providing technical assistance to Arkansas' state science supervisors through a professional development series designed to support Arkansas' NGSS statewide implementation.

Cerwin is a frequent speaker at state and national conferences. She is part of a team that authored Assessment-Centered Teaching: A Reflective Practice (2008) and a chapter in Professional Learning Communities for Science Teaching: Lessons from Research and Practice (2009).

Cerwin's expertise in designing learning sequences for professional development as well as for teaching/learning in classrooms is grounded in both theory and practice. Her teaching experience includes 24 years in elementary and middle school science, and adjunct faculty teaching pre-service science methods. She received a BS in education from Minnesota State University, Bemidji, and an MA in language development from California State University, Long Beach. In addition, she holds a California Administration credential from Azusa Pacific University.

Kathy DiRanna

Kathy DiRanna is WestEd's K-12 Alliance Statewide Director. She has been an advocate for quality science and mathematics education in California for the past 25 years.

During its 23-year history, the K-12 Alliance has worked with more than 5,000 elementary schools, 500 middle schools, and 300 high schools, impacting thousands of teachers and students.

DiRanna has conducted extensive work in systemic reform as the Co-Principal Investigator/Project Director for the National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded California Systemic Initiative and the Science Partnership for Articulation and Networking (SPAN) project. In addition to working on numerous state committees and programs, DiRanna has co-developed national projects including the WestEd National Academy for Science and Mathematics Education Leadership (NASMEL), BSCS/WestEd National Academy for Curriculum Leadership (NACL), TERC/WestEd Using Data Project (UDP), and the Center for the Evaluation and Assessment of Student Learning (CAESL) professional development programs. Currently, she is working on the FOSS Leadership Academy.

DiRanna oversees the K-12 Alliance's grant-funded programs such as the California Math and Science Partnership (CAMSP) and the California Postsecondary Education Commission (CPEC). All evaluation reports of these programs show teacher growth in content knowledge and pedagogical skills. In addition, both student achievement on classroom assessments and CST scores in mathematics and science for grades 5 and 8 have increased.

DiRanna coauthored Assessment-Centered Teaching: A Reflective Process; Making Connections; A Data Coach's Guide to Improving Learning for All: Unleashing the Power of Collaborative Inquiry. She contributed to a chapter in Professional Learning Communities for Science Teaching: Lessons from Research and Practice and coauthored an assessment article for Principal Leadership.

A featured speaker at state and national conferences, DiRanna received the California Science Teachers Association's highest award, the Margaret Nicholson Award for Distinguished Service to Science Education. She also received the WestEd Paul D. Hood Award for individual distinguished service to the field.

DiRanna received a BA in biology from Cal Western University and an MA in zoology from the University of California, Los Angeles.

Jill Grace

Jill Grace is a Regional Director for the K-12 Alliance, a program in the STEM Division of WestEd, in Southern California. Jill works with San Diego Unified as part of the CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative, now in its sixth year. She consults with several other districts across the state to help advance science education and teacher leadership initiatives, as well as implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). She is currently serving as the California Steering Committee representative for OpenSciEd, Steering Committee member and In-Service Subcommittee Co-Chair for the UC-CSU Environmental and Climate Change Literacy Summit, committee member for the California Environmental Literacy Initiative, and committee member for the California State Superintendent of Public Instruction’s “Jobs of Tomorrow” workgroup.

Prior to this, Jill was a middle school science teacher and is the 2014-2015 California Finalist for the Presidential Award for Mathematics and Science Teaching. She has been an adjunct professor for the Science Education Department at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB). Her background also includes elementary science and informal education.

Jill is the 2019-2021 Past President of the California Science Teachers Association (CSTA). This followed six years of service as President, President-Elect, and Middle School Director. As part of her tenure with CSTA, she worked with teams to create social media networks to connect educators, expand relationships with neighboring states, created the California Science Education Climate Summit (including the production of designed-for-NGSS learning sequences for grades K-12), and produced the briefing paper, Equitable Access to Science Education in California. She served on the leadership team that developed the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) Systems Implementation Plan for the State of California, was a contributing author and public reviewer of the California Science Framework, an Instructional Materials Reviewer for the State of California, and is a lead developer and presenter for the CANGSS Rollouts including CA NGSS TIME (Toolkit for Instructional Materials Evaluation). She is a presenter at state and national conferences.

Jill has a BS in Marine Biology and an MS in Science Education from CSULB.

Susan Gomez-Zwiep

Susan Gomez-Zwiep serves as an Associate Professor of Science Education at California State University, Long Beach. She is also a Regional Director for the K-12 Alliance in the Southern California area.

Gomez-Zwiep consistently works toward establishing equitable access for all students to rigorous, inquiry-based science instruction and supporting teachers in their journey to become advocates for students, science education, and their own professional development. She has developed professional development programs for both K-12 teachers and university faculty around teaching and assessment. Gomez-Zwiep is currently working on two CA MSP funded projects that focus on integrated Project Based Learning instruction and NGSS implementation.

She has authored several articles for journals such as Science and Children, Science Scope, the International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education and the Journal of Science Teacher Education. In addition, Gomez-Zwiep has contributed to book chapters such as Integrating Inquiry into the Science Classroom: Challenges and Possibilities; Professional Learning Communities for Science Teaching: Lessons From Research and Practice; and College Teachers Guide to Assessment.

Gomez-Zwiep taught middle school science for 12 years in Bell Gardens, CA, for the Montebello Unified School District. Her 2013 sabbatical leave focused on teaching 3rd and 5th grade science in Escondido Union School district. Her 5th grade classroom was used as a classroom example for the California Department of Education's CCSS: Literacy in Science online professional development module.

She received a BA in biology from the University of California, Berkeley, an MA in education from Whittier College, and a PhD in science education from the University of Southern California.

Phil Lafontaine

Phil Lafontaine

Phil Lafontaine has once again rejoined the K-12 Alliance as a Regional Director, providing professional learning in northern California as well as statewide.

Lafontaine recently retired after 40 years of public and state service. His professional career in education includes science instruction at both the middle grades and high school levels. After leaving the classroom, he joined K-12 Alliance as a Regional Director serving the greater Sacramento Area. He eventually moved into state service, becoming the Director of Professional Learning and Curriculum Support for the California Department of Education. Additionally, Phil served as the representative for California’s State Superintendent of Public Education in the development of the national Next Generation Science Standards and brought the NGSS to the California State Board of Education for adoption. After retiring, he rejoined the K-12 Alliance as a Regional Director in Northern California.

Lafontaine’s expertise in designing and implementing professional learning experiences is based upon the notion that all students can learn and his extensive classroom practice as well as educational theory. Phil continues to support teachers in their efforts to enhance and improve their instructional practices though his work in the K-12 Alliance. Currently, he is working with the Aspire Charter Public Schools and the Oakland Unified School District and as part of the CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative. This initiative is working to examine and implementation of the shifts required to effectively instruction of NGSS.

Phil also is a frequent presenter at symposiums and state and national conferences including the California Science Teachers Association annual conference on Science Education. He continues to provide professional learning symposiums in several California Schools Districts and presents at the California State NGSS Roll Out Symposia.

Phil holds a BA from the California State University at Chico, a lifetime teaching certificate in both Earth Science and Music, and a Master of Arts in Education Degree in Educational Leadership from California State University at Sacramento.

Jody Sherriff

Jody Sherriff, K-12 Alliance Regional Director at WestEd, provides professional development services for districts and schools in central and northern California.

Sherriff has designed and implemented multiple local grants in mathematics and science, including several California Math and Science Partnerships (CAMSP) and a California Postsecondary Education Commission (CPEC) grant. She also directed professional development programs for the University of California Office of the President. Current statewide efforts include technical support to Cal Water for the development of educational activities. Sherriff is an endorsed professional development provider for the Engineering is Elementary (EiE) curriculum that was developed by the Museum of Science in Boston and is the contact person for EiE PD in California.

She has served on state committees, including the 1999 Science Framework committee, and has conducted many professional development programs training teachers on the Next Generation Science Standards, including use of common core ELA standards in the science classroom, and engineering and science practices. Sherriff is a presenter at local, state, and national conferences including the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) and Learning Forward. Her classroom teaching experience spans over 15 years in all grades K-8.

She received a BS in language arts and a minor in mathematics from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and an MA in education and administration from the University of La Verne.

Rita Starnes

Rita Starnes is the first WestEd K-12 Alliance Regional Director to gain the status of Regional Director Emeritus. She has been with the K-12 Alliance since its inception in 1987.

Even though retired after working for 23 years as a Regional Director, Starnes continues to serve central California schools to improve science and math education. She is a facilitator and designer of K-12 Alliance programs who always keeps in mind the needs of the participants.

Currently she facilitates activities for the CAMSP Kings Canyon Demonstration Center as an endorsed provider of Engineering is Elementary professional development for educators.

Starnes has worked on the following professional development programs for schools in central California: California Math and Science Partnership (CAMSP) science grants in Tulare and Kings Canyon; the Literacy in Science Academy (LISA) sponsored by the Walter S. Foundation; Leadership Training for Migrant Education teacher leaders connecting science and literacy; and Equity and Science Education (ESE).

Before joining the K-12 Alliance, Starnes taught science and mathematics in grades 7-12 in southern and central California for 23 years. She was a semi-finalist in the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science Teaching.

She received a BA in geography with minors in mathematics and chemistry from California State University, Los Angeles, and an MA in science education from California State University, Fullerton.

Jo Topps

Jo Topps is a WestEd K-12 Alliance Regional Director serving the greater Los Angeles area. Her work is focused on how all of us, from the teacher to the state department of education, can help teachers reflect on their practice and its impact on student learning.

In her position, Topps directs the development, coordination, and implementation of professional development programs in STEM fields, kindergarten through postsecondary, on a regional, statewide, and national basis. Topps has served as professional development and technical assistance provider for the California adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), the ABC STEM Initiative, the Engineering is Elementary (EiE) program, Math Pathways and Pitfalls, Improving Teacher Quality/California Postsecondary Education Commission (ITQ/CPEC) and as a design team member for the following: the Carnegie Foundation American Museum of Natural History NGSS tools project, FOSS Leadership Academy, the National Science Foundation State Systemic Initiative (SSI), the Center for Assessment and Evaluation of Student Learning (CAESL), and the St. Louis Math Science Partnership (MSP). She is a frequent presenter at Learning Forward, NSTA, NSELA, and CSTA.

Topps helped develop California's science reform effort as a writer of the California Science Content Standards (2000). She coauthored Assessment-Centered Teaching: A Reflective Practice, The Science Assessment Facilitator Guide and The Guide to Selecting and Purchasing Instructional Materials and contributed to CSTA's Making Connections. As a lecturer and instructor, at California State University, Long Beach, Topps is a thesis committee member and supervisor of secondary student teachers.

Her publications include Assessment-Centered Teaching: A Reflective Practice; a chapter in Professional Learning Communities for Science Teaching: Lessons for Research and Practice; and an article in Principal Leadership. Topps received a BS in social science from the University of California, Irvine, an MS in education from California State University, Fullerton, and is a Doctoral Candidate in educational leadership at the University of La Verne.

Susheela Valdez

Susheela Valdez serves as a Regional Director with K-12 Alliance. She formerly served as Aspire Public Schools’ Project Director for the CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative grant through K-12 Alliance from July 2014-June 2019 in which she successfully built a well-recognized science program for 34 schools across California. As part of the K-12 Alliance team, Susheela delivers professional development around the implementation of the NGSS within science classrooms. Her continued work in NGSS she helps build the capacity of the classroom teachers in this transition to NGSS across grades K-12 in California.

A native of California, Susheela earned a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Biochemistry with a minor in Physics. She began her undergraduate journey at the University of California Santa Barbara and then transferred over to the University of the Pacific where she completed a Master’s of Education in Curriculum and Instruction with a focus on Science and a second Master’s of Science Degree in Forensic Science. Over the years she has also obtained her Master’s of Science degrees in Chemistry and Biology. Susheela currently lives in Stockton, California with her husband, Fernando Valdez and their five children.