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Our Team


Jillayne Flanders, MEd, CAGS

Executive Director and Co-Principal Investigator of the CSLA

Jill, currently serving as CEI's Executive Director and Co-Principal Investigator of the CSLA, brings extensive experience to her role, having previously served as the Deputy Director of CEI from 2020 to 2023. With a solid career as an elementary principal and teacher, Jill's impact is notable. During her tenure as the principal of Hadley Elementary School in Hadley, MA, she oversaw significant growth, doubling enrollment from 200 to 400 students. Jill is a dedicated advocate for early childhood education and has actively contributed to policy-driven committees, including her appointment to the Advisory Committee of the MA Department of Early Education and Care as its elementary principal representative.


Sarah Sanchez, MSB

Director of Operations

Sarah Sanchez serves as the Director of Operations for the Center for Educational Improvement, joining the organization in September 2023. With a Master's of Science in Business from the University of Texas at San Antonio, Sarah is knowledgeable in financial management, marketing, and business administration. Notably, Sarah achieved her Master's degree at the age of 21, showcasing her dedication and early proficiency in the field of business.

Sarah is also a curriculum writer for the Compassionate School Leadership Academy (CSLA), a partnership between the Center for Educational Improvement and Yale University's Program for Recovery and Community Health.


Kristol Cleaton

Research Assistant

Kristol is currently finishing her master’s in Neuropsychology at the Universidad Mayor in Santiago, Chile. In hopes of bringing a voice to the constant struggles educators are presently facing, her master’s thesis, “Relationship between stress and cognitive processes in primary schoolteachers working online during the COVID-19 pandemic”, looks into the relationship between stress and cognitive functions in K-12 teacher who had to overcome the hassles of teaching remotely.


Lauren Kiesel, MA

Researcher and Consultant

Lauren is a researcher and editor passionate about building thoughtful, evidence-based solutions. She is a user experience researcher for a non-profit and has served as a consultant for CEI since 2018 on various projects and publications. She holds an MA in Cognitive Science in Education from Teachers College, Columbia University (2019) and other degrees in integrative neuroscience, evolution, and sustainable food systems.


Kahlil Kuykendall

Cultivating Happiness Coordinator

Kahlil is an adjunct professor at the George Washington University in the Milken Institute School of Public Health. She is also a Mindfulness Educator with the Montgomery County School District. Kahlil has worked in Africa, India, and Asia and has extensive experience designing program evaluations that incorporate youth voice. She has coached educators, youth workers, college volunteers, interns, and graduate students to create and implement curricula for young people.


Christine Y. Mason, PhD

CEI Founder and Senior Scholar

Chris is an educational psychologist and CEI’s Founder and initial Executive Director (2009-2023). Chris is a nationally recognized expert, consultant, moderator, and frequent speaker on student trauma, mindfulness, children’s mental health, peer supports and teen suicide prevention, listening to youth, furthering equity, and implementing mindfulness, yoga, and meditation in schools. She is also an assistant clinical professor in the department of psychiatry at Yale University’s School of Medicine for the Program for Community Health and Recovery. From 2022-2023 she served as a Co-Principal Investigator for the Compassionate School Leadership Academy. Chris has served as a researcher, professor, senior scientist in disability education, university professor, evaluator, consultant, and entrepreneur. She has also served as the Director of Research and Professional Development at the National Association of Elementary School Principals; She is an IKYTA certified yoga instructor with 21 years of experience teaching weekly yoga, meditation, and mindfulness classes, and she is also a certified radiant child yoga instructor.


Kevin Simpson, MEd


Kevin has 15 years in education with K-16 roles ranging from teacher, specialist, lead teacher, mentor, coordinator, adjunct professor, and consultant. He has taught a range of grade levels and content areas. Kevin is trained in the Common Core math and has trained teachers worldwide at American curriculum schools.


Meghan Wenzel, MS

Senior Researcher, Writer, and Editor of HeartMind eNews

Meghan is a Senior Researcher, Writer, and Editor of HeartMind eNews with the Center for Educational Improvement. With a background in developmental cognitive neuroscience and education, Meghan is very interested in early brain development and subsequent school performance and life opportunities. She is co-author of Compassionate School Practices: Fostering Children's Mental Health and Well-Being.


Maria O’Connell, PhD

SEED Grant Co-Principal Investigator and Director of Research

Maria O’Connell, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Director of Research and Evaluation at the Yale Program for Recovery and Community Health (PRCH). Dr. O’Connell has provided oversight and quality assurance for collaborative research and evaluation projects conducted at PRCH since 2002.
She is Co-Principal Investigator on the Supporting Effective Educator Development (SEED) grant from the US Department of Education focused on preparing school leaders in high-need districts to be culturally responsive and proactive in implementing trauma-conscious practices in the classroom.


Margaret Bass

Communications Assistant

Margaret is graduating Hunter College as a Yalow Scholar with a Bachelor's in Clinical Psychology and Sociology. With a passion for Mental Health advocacy and clinical application, she is obtaining a Master of Arts in Mental Health Counseling in the Fall of 2022. She hopes to assist in the mental health clinical and research field.


Dwanda Glenn-Woodward

Director of Operations

Dwanda Glenn-Woodward works with organizations to facilitate strategic growth and transformation.
She consults with nonprofits, as well as federal and local governments. She has partnered with advocacy groups, industry leaders, and legislative staff on a number of key issues including health care, education, small businesses, and job training. She worked on Capitol Hill for a U.S. Senator and served in senior management for the National Medical Association, Black Women’s Health Imperative, and YWCA USA.


Erin Joyce

Site Coordinator, Research Assistant

Erin Joyce is a teacher, Site Coordinator, and a Research Assistant with CEI. She holds a Master of Science degree in Neuroscience and Education from Teachers College, Columbia University. Erin has a passion for bridging the gap between neuroscience and educational practice, informing pedagogy with the latest research.


Suzan Mullane, MSEd

Research Associate

Suzan (Sue) is an expert in early childhood trauma, STEM, the brain and project-based learning, gifted education, autism spectrum disorder, and special education. University of Alaska in Anchorage, and has experience as a School Counselor for the Anchorage School District.


Hannah Puttre

Cultural Assessment Research Manager

Hannah is currently working towards her PhD in Applied Human Development at Boston University. Hannah has a strong background in early learning and education research settings and her current PhD work focuses on supporting early learning and bridging achievement gaps for all learners.

Hannah Puttre manages the research aspects of S-CCATE as part of the Compassionate School Leadership Academy.


Martha Staeheli, PhD

Faculty and Director of the School Mental Health Initiative for the New England

Martha Staeheli, Ph.D., is a faculty member at the Program for Recovery and Community Health in the Yale School of Medicine Department of Psychiatry and the Director of the School Initiative for the New England Mental Health Technology Transfer Center. Trained as a secondary English teacher, and with a PhD in Public Health. Her research interests are focused on recovery within substance use and mental health disorders, issues of health disparity and equity, and the health and wellness of under-resourced community, clinical and educational environments.


Renee Owen, EdD

Associate Deputy Director, Western Region

Renee is a scholar-practitioner in the fields of adult education and educational leadership. Dr. Owen was a school leader for over 20 years. She founded Paradox Valley Charter School in Colorado as a place-based/project-based school, which was celebrated for closing the achievement gap for low-income rural students. As Head of School at Rainbow Community School in Asheville, NC, Renee was honored as an Ashoka Change Leader for her work in making holistic education more accessible.


Nicole Benquechea, MA

Social Media Specialist

Nicole R. Benquechea graduated from California State University, Los Angeles (Cal State LA) in May 2020 with a Master of Arts degree in Psychology. She has a passion for speaking and taking positive action on youth. Currently, she is an intern for the Center for Educational Improvement.


Orinthia Harris, PhD


Orinthia is a dynamic educator with over 10 years of experience both inside and outside the classroom. She has a passion for making learning engaging, and has presented on how to effectively motivate and engage all students, nationally and internationally.


Chandni Lai

Research Assistant

Chandni is a first year graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in the Cognitive Psychology Program. Her current research focus is in mind-wandering and attention control in academic settings. She is also a yoga teacher who is passionate in introducing the healing practice of yoga to children. She aims to inspire others with life changing practices through evidence-based research.


Laura O'Connell

CSLA Site Coordinator

Laura O'Connell is a career educator with a Master's in Education. She has worked as a general education teacher in both elementary and secondary education, and is currently an education consultant. Laura specializes in self-determination skills, and is a strong advocate for positive school climates and whole child education.


Michele Rivers Murphy, EdD

Associate Director, Heart Centered Learning

Michele is a seasoned consultant, presenter, and educational leader. A change agent for over two decades, she has helped transform some of the highest-needs neighborhoods and districts by improving student engagement, school culture, and academic success.


Apoorva Vallampati

Research Assistant

Apoorva is the S-CCATE Manager for the Compassionate School Leadership Academy, a collaboration of CEI and the Yale Program for Recovery and Community Health, funded by the U.S. Department of Education. Apoorva earned her bachelor's degree in Behavioral Neuroscience from The Ohio State University, successfully defending her research thesis in cognitive psychology and language in 2020. This fall, she will join the Cognitive Science PhD program at Tufts University, where she will specialize in cognitive neuroscience under the advisement of Dr. Gina Kuperberg.

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