Our Team

Natalie Kleefeld  –  Director & Head Teacher

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I began my work in the field of early childhood education in 2004. Since then, I have taught in a range of Reggio-inspired infant, toddler, preschool, and kindergarten classrooms in independent, public, cooperative, and university laboratory settings in California and Massachusetts. I earned an M.A in Child Development from Tufts University as well as a Post-Master’s Certificate in Early Childhood Research, Policy and Practice from the University of Massachusetts, Boston. My work in the field has largely focused on progressive early childhood pedagogy and the influence of the schools of Reggio Emilia in the United States. From 2012-2016, I worked as a research assistant to Lella Gandini, U.S. Liaison for the Reggio Emilia Approach. I am passionate about working toward quality early childhood education and take a special interest in documentation, inquiry-based learning, and supporting an environment that invites rich collaboration with children, families, and colleagues.

I live in Santa Cruz, California, with my husband, Kyle. I am a bookworm and enjoy photography, the visual arts, and spending time outdoors with friends and family.

Terri Smith- Assistant Director & Teacher

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I was born and raised in San Jose, and was blessed to have had a large, local, extended family. My many happy memories of being raised in California are what have given me a great appreciation for being outdoors. My grandparents were ranchers and I spent much time as a child in imaginary play, roaming freely around the ranch with siblings and cousins. My family spent most of our vacation time camping around the state, and I grew to really appreciate and enjoy our beautiful state and it’s natural resources. My young life, with freedom to play, imagine, create,  and socialize, is what led me on the journey I have followed throughout my adult life.

I started in the Early Childhood field while still in high school, and while this journey has found me on a somewhat meandering path at times, my passions for children and art have always been a part of it. As I raised my own four children, I continue with my education and slowly but surely finished my Associate Degree in Early Childhood at West Valley College. For nine years, I was a teacher and director at Bright Days Preschool in Campbell. Next I pursued my passion for teaching Art, and worked for many years at various local elementary schools, most recently spending nine years at Harker Lower School as their afterschool Art teacher. I also had the opportunity during those years to continue teaching preschool, and have spent the past year at Crescent Park Child Development Center in Palo Alto. I continued working on my education during these years, and attained my Bachelor Degree in Human Development, with and Early Childhood Specialization, from Pacific Oaks College in 2014.

When I am not here at the Willows, I am most likely to be found enjoying time with my (almost) 6 grandchildren, who range in age from 0-6 yrs. I still love camping, and being outdoors, but my favorite place is Disneyland, and I enjoy it most with my family. My favorite inside activities are any sort of art or creative project, knitting, and reading.

Xitlali Rodriguez – Teacher

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Born and raised in San Jose, California, I knew at an early age that I wanted to be an educator. At times my journey was somewhat uncertain, but every step I took led me to where I am today. I always had a passion for math. Thus, I attended The National Hispanic University (NHU) and graduated with an A.S in Math and Science. I was planning to become an accountant but, after taking a business class, I realized it was not the right fit. I graduated from Pacific Oaks College in 2015 with my B.A in Human Development with a concentration in Early Childhood. I started as a student volunteer and, in August 2015, officially joined the Willows teaching team. Currently, I’m working toward my Master’s degree in Educational Administration at Santa Clara University. My wish is always to share my calm joy and warmth with children. Creating strong relationships with children and families is what motivates me every morning. When I am not at school I enjoy being outdoors (biking, hiking, archery), making do-it-yourself projects, reading about education, acquiring new skills, and, just recently, crocheting.

Ashley Estrella- Teacher

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Born and raised in California, I have lived in the Bay Area since I was three years old. Since I was young, I have had a passion for teaching and working with young children. When I was in 5th grade, I can vividly remember setting up a classroom in my friend’s garage, inviting the neighborhood children over for “school”. Surprisingly quite a few children came and even did their homework! Going into college, I knew I wanted to study child development. I graduated from San Jose State in 2013 with a B.A. in Child and Adolescent Development. I then went on to get my Multiple Subject Teaching Credential. For the past two years I have been teaching four and five year olds. During this time, I have found a deep passion for this age group. I am a strong believer in the power of play and enjoy facilitating the exploration and discovery of new materials. The Reggio approach inspires me and I am excited to join The Willows Nursery School this year. Outside of school, I enjoy reading, baseball games, and spending time with my husband and one year old daughter.