Home » About CELC » Faculty and Partnering Organizations


The Connecticut Experiential Learning Center (CELC) Middle School  was founded to make the middle school years what they must be: a time and a place where young people discover the thrill of learning, master academic subjects, make good friends, and understand themselves. CELC Middle School enables students to build confidence and competence, thrive and be joyful during these years.

Led by educators who provide young people with experiences that allow them to stretch and explore their potential, CELC was founded in Spring 2009 by Melinda Alcosser and Maria Mortali.  Throughout their years of teaching in a small middle school setting, they continue to witness just how powerful this model of school can be.

Melinda Alcosser, Co-Founder/Educator

To be a true visionary is to possess a rare quality: Melinda Alcosser has just that.  At Antioch College, Melinda designed a personalized degree program that manifested her educational vision.  Her thesis entitled “Movement, Rhythm, and Culture” was a study encompassing the fields of Ethnomusicology, Anthropology, and Cultural Dance.   After Antioch, Melinda’s teaching career began in 1987 at The Music and Art Center for the Humanities, University of Bridgeport, where she taught students who had various developmental and physical challenges. She simultaneously continued her studies as part of Yale University Teacher Preparation Program, which earned her a preK-12 Connecticut Teaching Certification.   At Southern Connecticut State University, Melinda received a Master of Science degree in Environmental Education and another preK-6 state certification in Elementary Education.  Melinda also holds a Level One Trainer Certification from The University of Rhode Island’s Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies. While there she was a student of Reverend Dr. Bernard Lafayette, Jr. in Kingian Nonviolence Conflict Reconciliation, an element of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s process of peace-driven societal change.  Prior to her co-founding Connecticut Experiential Learning Center in 2009, Melinda taught in New Haven at Betsy Ross Arts Magnet Middle School, Cooperative Arts High School, and Cold Spring School. She went on to teach middle school at Wightwood School of Branford. Melinda is a world music percussionist – she teaches drumming and other music from around the world to students of all ages.  Melinda’s childhood family travels sparked a passion that has led her to become a travel consultant, where she designs customized travel experiences for clients worldwide. She is the mother of two daughters who study, travel, and who, like their mother, pursue their own aspirations and dreams.


Maria Mortali, Co-Founder/Educator

There is no better teacher than experience, and Maria Mortali brings to the CELC table just that, experience.  Over thirty years of individual tutoring, small group facilitating, and classroom leadership at Wightwood School and Connecticut Experiential Learning Center have imbued Maria with a broad and unique set of qualifications.  Whether in Grammar, Reading, Writing, Algebra, Geometry, Spanish language instruction, U.S. History, or Physics, Maria brings a depth of understanding and an ability to impart what is hard to find in education today.   Maria began her lifelong journey in education with her studies at Purdue University, followed by an entrepreneurial lifestyle wherein she was a restaurant manager, a small business bookkeeper, a professional cook, caterer, and literary editor.  Her drive to teach and share led her to open her own daycare business, engage as a private academic tutor for students from elementary age through college, and in 2009 co-found Connecticut Experiential Learning Center.  Maria is a Branford “lifer” who co-raised two sons, both of whom have inherited her entrepreneurial spirit and who now operate their own successful businesses in the greater New Haven area.



Additional Staff

Michael Hernandez, Journalism + Cinematography Instructor 

Michael Hernandez is an award-winning media arts teacher in Los Angeles whose work focuses on digital storytelling, media literacy and social justice.  He speaks regularly at conferences in the U.S. and abroad like SXSW EDU, ISTE and CUE on topics related to tech integration, and innovative teaching and learning strategies. Michael also leads students and teachers on documentary trips to Asia and Latin America as part of an experiential learning program. Michael is an award-winning teacher, author, and consultant in Los Angeles whose work focuses on media literacy, digital storytelling, and innovation in learning. He is an Apple Distinguished Educator, Adobe Education Leader, Google for Education Certified Innovator, and PBS Digital Innovator. Twitter: @cinehead Instagram: @changing.the.narrative www.michael-hernandez.net




Billy E. Ochoa, Spanish Instructor

Spanish instructor Billy E. Ochoa teaches Spanish at CELC via Skype from Antigua, Guatemala.

He works as cultural manager, poet, defender of human rights and nature. He acts as youth representative from Guatemala in various international events that take place in countries including Argentina, Uruguay, Colombia, United States, Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium, Slovenia, and Austria, amongst others. 

Billy is active as teacher of Arts, Human Rights, Historical Memory, Community Communication, Youth Organization, Political Incidence and Living Cultures in communities around Guatemala and Central America. He facilitates and participates in spaces for dialogue between civil society and the government to carry out public policies for children and youth. Billy also serves as translator and interpreter in Spanish-English languages. 



Ken Rowe, Woodworking Instructor

Crafter Ken Rowe was born and raised in Maine and still has the accent to prove it!  Ken currently lives in Connecticut, where he has been for the past forty+ years. By profession he was a manufacturing engineer since college, working mostly in the aerospace industry with a short tenure in the semiconductor field.

Ken has worked with wood as a hobby for over fifty years.  For ten of those years he did whole house restorations. Around 1992 he converted to making household objects from domestic and exotic woods. He has made shop furniture, house furniture, display tables, cabinets, tool chests, scroll saw puzzles, and elegant wood boxes from a combination of domestic and exotic woods, and turned bowls and vases.

In the beginning, most of the projects were for the household or were made as gifts for family and friends.  He now also sells work at craft shows and on his website (www.KensWoodGifts.com). He has been getting a good response.


Lucy Meigs, Wildlife Biology + Environmental Education Instructor

Lucy Meigs is director & founder of Everyone Outside, a small nonprofit that prioritizes connecting people with nature.
An enthusiastic outdoor educator, Lucy has a Ph.D. in geology and has enjoyed formally and informally learning about local flora and fauna as long as she can remember.

Everyone Outside provides opportunities for people of all ages to spend time outside, learning about and appreciating their natural environment. The goal is to help people connect with the natural world on a level that promotes healthy living and environmental stewardship, based on the belief that a positive connection with nature is valuable not only for personal mental and physical health, but also critical for preservation of open spaces in local neighborhoods and beyond.


Nicki LaPorte, Drama Instructor 

Nicki LaPorte is an experienced teaching artist in central Connecticut. She graduated from Central Connecticut State University in 2010 with a BA in U.S. History and BFA in Educational Theater. In April 2019 she took on the role of Artistic Director at No Boundaries Youth Theater in New Britain. She has been with Oddfellows Playhouse since 2018, where she has taught, directed, and designed and built costumes.

In the past Nicki has taught theater programs for East Hartford Public Schools, Hartford Performs, Charter Oak Cultural Center, Performing Arts Programs, and the Gateway Project in Massachusetts. During the summers of 2016, 2017 and 2018 Nicki traveled to The Freedom Theater in the West Bank of Palestine to work with children living in the Jenin refugee camp. Nicki recently joined the Day of Tears Touring Company and can be seen at the Mark Twain House as a Living History Tour Guide (Katy Leary). She has been a company member with Elmwood Productions as a puppeteer since early 2016. Also a comic con regular and avid costumer, she has joined the world of 18th-century reenacting and historical costume construction.


Daniela Balzano, Art Instructor 

Daniela Balzano resides in Guilford, CT with her two children, Luna and Solomon. She has worked as an art educator, artist, and muralist for the past twenty years. From kindergarten through eighth-grade to private and extracurricular teaching, her means of educating is known to be out of the box and thought provoking. Daniela’s personal artwork and portfolio can be viewed at www.danielabalzano.com.






Celia Lewis, Ornithology + Environmental Education Instructor

Celia Lewis has extensive experience in environmental education and conservation.

She loves the great outdoors and sharing outdoor experiences with people of all ages. Professionally, she has conducted biological inventories for the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and for the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and served as Assistant Head of Public Education at Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History

She has a particular interest in the intersections between environment, energy use, and human health and is co-founder of Thimble Creek Research, which specializes in environmental health research. Celia received her MS from Bank Street College of Education and her PhD in Environmental Studies from Antioch University.


Natasha Warner, Yoga + Meditation Instructor

Natasha Warner, M. Ed is a self-care advocate, educator, and healer.  She studied at Jacksonville University in Florida where she received her Undergraduate Degree in Exercise Science and Masters Degree in Educational Leadership. While that is where her formal education ended, Natasha firmly believes that education extends well beyond the walls of the classroom. The practice of yoga and meditations allows for and supports the evolution of the self, through the self, to the self. It is through the physical asana (postures), pranayama (breath work), and mindfulness that change can be cultivated – physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and even culturally.

As a student, Natasha experiences the healing power of the practice. Through yoga she is able to peel back the layers of herself with care, love, kindness.  As a teacher, Natasha acts as a guide – her intent is simply to create space for students to get to know themselves with a level of curiosity, kindness, and compassion. As a human, she is passionate about helping others become more awakened to themselves and is thankful for the opportunity to call that work!

Jennifer Lee, Art Instructor

As a recently retired art teacher from Cooperative Art and Humanities (Co-Op) High School in New Haven, Jennifer Lee welcomes the opportunity to teach the CELC students. Ms. Lee started her own education with a B.A. in studio art from Allegheny College in Pennsylvania and a M.A. in studio art from New York University, with a concentration in painting and printmaking. Over the years, enrichment studies have included work at New Hampshire Institute of Art, Kansas City Art Institute, and Savannah College of Art and Design. Ms. Lee was the recipient of an English-Speaking Union scholarship to Oxford. She received a Maine College of Art fellowship, a TICA (Teacher Institute of Contemporary Art) scholarship at the Art Institute of Chicago and a SURDNA fellowship to study portraiture in London and mixed-media at Art New England.  Ms. Lee created a unit on portraiture for the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute. She initiated Co-Op high school’s chapter of the National Art Honor Society and added a Fashion and Wearable Art elective to the Visual Arts program of studies at the high school. Her articles have appeared in School Arts magazine; she has exhibited on both coasts and was College Board certified to teach the three portfolios for Advanced Placement Studio Art. 


Alexa Fiszer, Outdoor Education Instructor

Alexa Fiszer continues her work as an Environmental Educator at Common Ground High School in many different community and children’s programs. She loves bringing exposure and appreciation to all that Common Ground has to offer!

Alexa has a lot of experience with students! She has been Program Director for a tutoring and mentoring group for middle school students through University of Connecticut Community Outreach. During her summers, she has worked at Kieve-Wavus Camps in Jefferson, Maine, planning and leading two-week outdoor wilderness trips for ages 8-13. Ever since, she has been hiking, camping, kayaking, canoeing, skiing, biking, crafting, woodworking, and learning whatever new skills she can!



Gail Bennett, Mindfulness Instructor

Gail Bennett taught at the university level for ten years and then moved into the business world. While working in the business world, she taught and coached volleyball to a variety of age groups. After discovering meditation eight years ago, she wondered why she hadn’t been exposed to these tools as a young person.

Out of this inquiry, Gail developed a desire to share this experience with young people. Her search for an age-appropriate curriculum brought her to teach the .b [dot- be] course. She has a desire to reach young people without the means to afford this type of experience.

Gail lives and volunteers in Connecticut.


Partnering Organizations

CELC partners with many organizations and individuals, such as professional artists and environmental educators, who bring a wide array of expertise to students on a regular basis.  These connections are an integral part of CELC’s educational experience.


“Life at CELC is unlike any other school. There is a place for any personality or learner. Through our everyday experiences we build relationships, and we become like a family. We go out into the world together. We work together and grow together. It is the best feeling to feel like you always have a place. You can just be you and find your place at CELC. It doesn’t matter what we are doing — hard and dedicated math, out in the woods, or walking the streets in Washington, D.C. – we always have a place to learn and have fun.”

Hannah, 8th-grade student at CELC