We are parents on a journey to find a better way to educate our 5-year-old daughter, Madeleine.
We both had joyful early educational experiences, Nicole at an alternative elementary school in Ohio and David at a Montessori school in the Washington, DC, area. As young children, we loved learning and we loved the schools we attended, where our curiosity was celebrated as the key to learning.
Later, we both moved to traditional public schools. While we each have memories of a special teacher who inspired us, on the whole, standards and tests replaced curiosity and joy. School wasn’t fun anymore. We both “excelled” by conventional measures, earning admissions to good colleges and graduate schools. But something fundamental seemed to be missing.
After our daughter was born, we started to explore educational options for her. We realized that the world she would face would be vastly different—perhaps unimaginably so—from the world we encountered in our childhood. She would need to know how to learn, respond, innovate, and create in her own way rather than become skilled at taking tests and following instructions like we had. She would need curiosity and joy to fuel her educational journey—not just as a young learner, but throughout her childhood, college years, and beyond. The more we investigated, the more we came to see that traditional schools were not up to the task.
Then we discovered Acton Academy, a rethinking of school. Acton asks the fundamental question that was missing in our own educational experiences. What is education really for? Acton believes that education is not just about college, getting a job, or even starting a career. It’s about discovering a calling. It’s about answering the most fundamental questions: “Who am I? Where am I going? How do my passions and talents connect with the world around me? How can I serve a great need and even change the world?” Acton challenges students to become the agents and primary drivers of their learning, the entrepreneurs of their own education and life calling. That’s why we decided to join the hundreds of entrepreneurs around the world who are working to open an Acton Academy in their own community.
If, like us, you believe that traditional schools aren’t working and you want something deeper and more meaningful for your children’s education, then we invite you to explore Acton Academy of Washington, DC. Sign up for a personal tour and learn how you can become a founding family.
We hope you enjoy the journey!
David & Nicole
David Kirby, Cofounder & Guide
David is an entrepreneur, executive, and guide who has never stopped learning in his varied career. He credits his passion for math and drive to learn to an early experience with Montessori. David cofounded the annual Acton Children's Business Fair of Washington, DC to showcase the power of entrepreneurship for children ages 6 to 14. He cofounded Acton Academy of Washington, DC because he believes that school should be a place where children develop an entrepreneurial mindset and discover a calling. David completed Acton guide training under Acton cofounder Jeff Sandefer in Austin, Texas. He has organized Acton Summer Seminars on the Socratic method and Montessori principles. An advocate for lifelong fitness, David is also a CrossFit Level 1 Trainer and CrossFit Kids Certified Instructor. He has degrees from Bates College and Harvard University, and he spent a wonderful year studying abroad at Oxford University.
Nicole Spencer, Cofounder
Nicole’s passion for education comes from attending an alternative elementary school as a child. That experience nurtured in her a lifelong love of learning, something she believes comes naturally to children and that schools should encourage and protect. Nicole cofounded the annual Acton Children's Business Fair of Washington, DC, and every year she is awed by the creativity, passion, and joy the children bring to their entrepreneurial creations. Nicole has been a Montessori primary assistant guide, and has also worked in tech startups, marketing, public policy, and international development. She received her AMI Montessori primary and elementary assistant certificates from the Washington Montessori Institute at Loyola University, and she has degrees from Georgetown University and the University of Chicago.
Abigail Dayton, Guide
Abigail attended an alternative school as a child, an experience that shaped her character and the way she approaches the world, full of curiosity and empathy. At Acton, she is delighted to again be part of a community that values student-centered growth, this time as a guide. Abigail has taught in elementary and preschool classrooms, tutored 5-11-year-olds in reading, and run a mentorship program for elementary children. She has done Acton guide and Montessori training and has a BA in psychology and education studies from Hamilton College. In her spare time, Abigail loves camping in New York’s Adirondack Park, traveling, and running trivia nights.
Caitlin Guardiani, Lead Montessori Guide
Caitlin is a passionate Montessorian who loves watching young children discover their potential. Caitlin began her Montessori journey as an assistant guide at Odyssey Montessori in Fredericksburg, Virginia. After falling in love with the Montessori method, she completed her Montessori training at Age of Montessori and then served as lead primary teacher at Broad Branch Children’s House in Washington, DC for three years. She is delighted to continue her journey as a Montessori guide at Acton Academy. Caitlin enjoys cooking and baking, writing, hiking with her dog, and attending live theater events.
Elissa Hagans, Guide, Development & Special Events Manager
The daughter of an elementary teacher, Elissa spent her high school years volunteering in a third grade classroom. Elissa rediscovered her passion for children at Acton and, having completed Acton guide training, is excited to be a guide to both the Acton elementary and Montessori learners. Elissa began her career managing events for a Washington think tank. She volunteered at the Acton Children’s Business Fair of Washington, DC and was blown away by what children are capable of. Elissa also manages the Acton Children’s Business Fair of Washington, DC, Acton Summer Seminar, and other special events. Elissa grew up in Argentina and Bolivia and studied classics, history, and archaeology at Davidson College. In her spare time she volunteers with the Junior League of Washington, raising money for children’s literacy programs in the DC area.
Konjit Hailu, Montessori Guide
Konjit is an AMS trained Montessori primary guide who worked most recently at The Montessori House Day School. She was born in Ethiopia and has lived and traveled in many parts of the world. Before becoming a Montessori guide, she earned an MA in international education from The George Washington University and worked to improve education in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, and Macedonia. Konjit is fluent in French and Amharic and has used her language skills to help recent immigrants to the United States. A mother of three, Konjit believes in creating an environment where children can engage in discovery, build their independence, and become the best version of themselves.
Andrew Shniderman, Coach
Coach Andrew Shniderman leads Acton Academy CrossFit. Health and fitness have always been front and center for Andrew, who uses different training styles to keep workouts fun and effective and help others improve their lives, both mind and body. Andrew, who has a background in child development, created Balance Gym’s Youth Programs and founded Big Andy Training. Andrew believes that sports teach important values, including teamwork, determination, and hard work. Andrew is a CrossFit Level 1 and Level 2 Trainer and a CrossFit Kids Certified Instructor.
Caitlin Spencer Blau, Lead Montessori Guide & Director of Montessori Education
Caitlin Spencer is a second generation Montessorian who is passionate about applying Maria Montessori’s ideas in the 21st century. Previously, she was the head primary teacher (ages 3 to 6) at New York City’s Metropolitan Montessori School, the school she attended as a child. She also served for four years as a lead primary teacher at Aidan Montessori in Washington, DC. She holds a masters degree in early childhood education from Loyola University in Maryland, and she completed her AMI primary Montessori training at Montessori Institute Northwest in Portland, Oregon. Caitlin has traveled extensively in Europe, North Africa, and Southeast Asia and enjoys experiencing different cultures, learning how to cook new cuisines, and taking photographs.
Sara Valcourt, Yoga & Mindfulness Guide
Sara, of Little Moon Yoga, is a yoga & mindfulness guide at Acton. She has been a preschool teacher and has taught English as a second language to adults and children of all ages in the United States, Chile, and Korea. Sara brings a playful spin to yoga and encourages children to explore their awareness of their bodily movements as well as their internal landscapes.
Rachel Davison Humphries, Advisor and Guide
Rachel is a passionate Montessori educator, an experienced Acton guide, and a lifelong learner. She has a profound respect for children and delights in their innate curiosity about ideas. Rachel was part of the founding of Acton Academy in Austin, TX. Most recently, Rachel served as the lead middle school guide for Acton Academy Guatemala. Previously, she was the lead math and science teacher at Oak Farm Montessori School in Indiana and an adolescent instructor at Austin Montessori School. She is a certified AMI adolescent Montessori teacher and she has a degree from St. John’s College.
Jesse McCarthy, Advisor
Jesse McCarthy, author of the upcoming book Montessori Education, is an expert in Montessori and child development. He received his B.A. in psychology from UCLA and his AMI Montessori teacher's diploma for 2.5- to 6-year-olds from The Montessori Institute of San Diego. Jesse has worked with thousands of children, teachers, and parents through the years as an elementary and junior-high school teacher, as a head of school overseeing programs for infants to 8th graders, and as an executive and lead educator for LePort Montessori, the nation’s largest network of Montessori schools.
Jeff Sandefer, Advisor
Jeff is an entrepreneur and a Socratic teacher. As an entrepreneur, he began by starting his first company at age 16 and most recently sold Sandefer Capital, an energy investment firm with several billion dollars in assets.
As a teacher, he cofounded the Acton School of Business, a school dedicated to America’s next generation of principled entrepreneurs and famous for its 100-hour work weeks. The Princeton Review has consistently ranked Acton’s teachers, students, and program among the best in the country. While at the University of Texas, Jeff’s students voted him the school’s Most Outstanding Teacher five times, and he was named by Businessweek as one of the top entrepreneurship professors in America. He also cofounded Acton Academy (Austin), where he is a middle school lead guide.
Jeff has been a longtime board member of National Review, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, The Philanthropy Roundtable, and the Harvard Business School and is one of the youngest members ever elected to the Texas Business Hall of Fame.
Laura Sandefer, Advisor
Laura is cofounder and head of school of Acton Academy (Austin). Raised by a science teacher and minister, Laura lived on both coasts and in between as a child and then landed at Vanderbilt University for her undergraduate studies in the College of Arts and Science.
After working in London and New York City in the aviation insurance business, Laura yearned to follow her heart into the world of teaching. She went back to Vanderbilt's renowned Peabody College and received her Master of Education. This led her to work in arts education at the Oklahoma Arts Institute. Laura later married Jeff Sandefer and has two sons and a stepdaughter. It is the inspiration of these children that led Laura and Jeff to cofound Acton Academy.
Her greatest hero is her beloved late mother, who was a master teacher as none other. Her wisest mentor is her father, who sent her off to college with two words of advice: "Be curious."