Our teaching community is very stable with a low turnover rate. Our staff includes credentialed special education teachers, instructional aides, licensed clinical social workers, and a speech therapist. Credentials vary from Learning Handicapped Specialist, Clear Level-II Education Specialist, and Preliminary Level-I Education Specialist. Staff members share the teaching philosophy that all children and troubled teens, regardless of their mental illness and learning disability, can learn in the appropriate setting. Our teachers are continually finding new ways to adapt the special education curriculum to relate to a student’s background, interests, and needs.
Alicia Jennings, M.A.
Director of Education
In her position as director of education at the Hillsides Education Center, Alicia Jennings is responsible for the organization and operation of the school. She plans, directs, and coordinates all activities and creates and maintains an educational program responsive to the needs of individual students. Alicia is a professional educational advocate and administrator with a 10-year history working with youth who are at-risk, have an emotional disability, or have been in foster care. She has served as the education director in nonpublic schools for the last five years, and previously worked as an academic counselor and lead teacher.
Throughout her career, she has successfully led nonpublic schools through California Department of Education state review and WASC accreditation with a six-year approval. She has also partnered with multiple charter schools and community programs to provide outstanding educational opportunities for youth in foster care and students with an emotional disability, among other career highlights. Alicia received a bachelor of arts in English and communications from Brigham Young University in Laie, Hawaii and a masters of counseling psychology at National University in Los Angeles.
Alicia is dedicated to thoughtful and dynamic educational reform and was attracted to Hillsides because of its cutting-edge work in therapeutic education. “I believe that foster youth and children with emotional challenges have the right to a calm, compassionate, and accepting learning environment that values their voice and encourages them to become leaders in the community,” she said.
One of her immediate goals is to create a project-based learning environment for the students where children take part in hands-on and cross-curriculum projects. “I want to take learning out of the textbook and into the real world,” she said. “Experiential projects develop critical thinking and executive functioning, which is what our student population is here to develop.”
Another goal is to expand the school’s STEM and STEAM curriculum. Alicia’s long-term vision is to create an innovation lab with 3D printers, a robotics program, and computer animation.
She’ll also rely on the ever-growing field of neuroscience as her guide to address the needs of the students. “I look at education not through a behavior-modification lens, but a neuroscience lens,” she said. “We now know that through kindness, compassion, and a strategic approach to brain development in young people, you can actually rewire a child’s brain to recover from trauma.”
Puja Chhabra, LCSW, RYT-200
Puja Chhabra is the clinical director of Hillsides Education Center. In this position, she oversees the implementation of clinical services provided to students and families of the school and contracts services with various school districts She also develops interventions to help students and families achieve both emotional and academic success, and provides clinical supervision and training for staff.
Puja began her career at Hillsides 12 years ago as a residential clinical social worker at Canyon Cottage. Since then, she has held positions as a school-based clinical supervisor, a clinical supervisor for the Full Service Partnership program at Hillsides Family Resource Center in Echo Park, and most recently, a clinical supervisor with Hillsides Education Support Services. Previously she worked as a psychiatric social worker at Steinway Child & Family Services, Inc. in Long Island City, New York.
Besides her duties at Hillsides, Puja provides individual, group and couples’ therapy at the Rowan Center for Behavioral Medicine in Burbank, specializing in cognitive behavioral therapy, psychodynamic and mindfulness approaches. She is also the owner of Puja Therapy and Yoga, offering yoga and therapy as a way for clients to cope with depression, anxiety and trauma. Puja received a Bachelor of Arts in psychology and political studies from Pitzer College in Claremont and a master’s degree in social work from New York University. She became a licensed clinical social worker in 2007 and a registered yoga teacher in 2014, specializing in trauma informed practices both in yoga and therapy.
Jimmy Fernandez, J.D.
Jimmy started out as a classroom assistant and then returned to school to receive an education specialist credential. He has taught fifth through 10th grade at HEC, and worked as a lead teacher, running his own program that focused on individualized instruction to a small group of students. Jimmy holds a law degree and worked in the legal field for many years before making a career change to education.
Robyn Wehrly, M.A.
Robyn has taught special education for 14 years, 12 of them at Hillsides Education Center. In addition to her role as a teacher, she is the guidance counselor at the school. She creates the master schedule for all the high school students, maintains transcripts, and completes credit and graduation checks for each high school student. Robyn received a bachelor's degree in English and psychology from the University of Michigan and a master’s degree in special education from George Washington University.
Other support staff includes:
- Credentialed teachers
- Physical education teacher
- Music teacher
- Teaching assistants
- Behavioral specialist team
- Social workers
- Speech and language therapist
- Office manager/billing manager