Sara Casey Taleff   Executive Director + Founder

Sara Casey Taleff

Executive Director + Founder

Sara has been involved in education professionally for 15 years.  After receiving a Bachelor of Science in Education & Social Policy from Northwestern University, she taught Special Education grades 3-6 in New York City as a corps member for Teach for America. Sara earned a Master’s of Science in Education and went on to work for Montana’s Office of Public Instruction for 5 years.  Sara worked in special education compliance, professional development and spearheaded the beginning of the State’s School Mental Health Initiative.

For the last 7 years, Sara has lived between Helena and New York creating learning environments. She founded and directed a micro school for kids ages 2-8 in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.  Credentials aside, Sara’s passion is curating space and facilitating conversations that lead kids to make their own discoveries.


Christopher Taleff   Creative Director + Founder

Christopher Taleff

Creative Director + Founder

Christopher graduated from The Cooper Union School of Architecture in New York City. Architecture came after a degree in studio art (emphasis on photography and painting) and work as a teacher, chef, and exhibit designer for a science museum. His architecture thesis “The Walking School” focused on education through the lens of peripatetic exploration. Through the creation of wearable classrooms and mobile pieces, students can fully explore the natural and cultural landscape around them. Instead of an insular system of classroom education, the things the students carry become the space for investigation. As an architect, Chris finds building and making with kids to be the ultimate inspiration. As co-founder of Cottonwood ALC, Christopher continues to explore curiosity and learning as the catalyst for design.

Marissa Porte   Roots Facilitator

Marissa Porte

Roots Facilitator

Marissa joined Cottonwood in February of 2018 and is the lead roots facilitator.  She brings with her seven years of early childhood experience, first as an assistant facilitator in a certified Montessori program and continued on to run her own small preschool here in Helena.  She is honored to be supporting and positively impacting children and their family’s through the foundation phase that is early childhood.

Allison Burger   Roots Facilitator

Allison Burger

Roots Facilitator

"Kansas-born, Oklahoma-raised, Finland-flying and New York-driving, I'm elated for my next adventure here in Helena. I have pursued education around the world, devouring it in pages and audio clips, always with a longing for learning. I'm so excited to finally marry my passion with my purpose here at Cottonwood!"

Indigo Snarr   Roots Facilitator

Indigo Snarr

Roots Facilitator

After growing up in Helena I explored all that larger cites had to offer in work and leisure activities. While I pursued a career as a pastry chef in a variety of restaurants and bakeries in the Seattle area, I also explored my interest in yoga, nutrition, and fitness eventually receiving a 200 hour yoga teacher certification.

Through all my moves I connected with many families that I had the privilege to nanny and care for their children. These experiences sparked an interest in childhood development and especially incorporating yogic teachings into children’s growth. After moving back to Helena in 2011 and falling in love with the community here, I began developing yoga classes specifically for preschool aged children and working at Mountain Bluebird School.

I then became a mother myself and have spent the first two years of motherhood focusing on learning the delicate balance of being a mother, teacher, coffee artist, explorer, and individual. I continue to teach yoga around town and spend mornings making delicious hot beverages for the community I love.

Having a child of my own has shifted the entire way I think about children, community, and our role as adults in child development. After hearing about Cottonwood school and researching more about what an ALC is, I was so intrigued at how a child’s learning can be a collaborative effort within a community of supportive and deeply engaged adults and peers. I am thoroughly excited to have the opportunity to be a part of that community and not only offer up my experiences and knowledge for the children at Cottonwood, but also to learn and grow myself by seeing the world through the eyes of the passionate and confident students and educators that are a part of that community.

I truly believe that raising children is a collaborative experience and that by creating an environment where we all feel valued and heard we nourish the best parts of ourselves and all thrive.

Amy Shike   Branches Facilitator

Amy Shike

Branches Facilitator

Amy grew up in Rockton, Illinois among strip malls and corn fields. Since then, she has called the streets of Chicago, the woods of Northern Minnesota, and the desert of Southern California home as well. Amy has a deep passion for using the outdoors as a vehicle for self-discovery and growth, witnessing these learnings take place time and time again while working in the field of expeditionary learning. Amy has an educational background in psychology, and has worked with children and young adults of all ages in backcountry, mental health, and conventional school settings. Amy moved to Helena in the fall of 2018 and enjoys climbing, paddling, and backpacking in the summer time, and in the winter, dives into her creative hobbies such as ceramic and fiber arts, cooking, and of course, beer.

Ilgaz Ulusoy Casey   Branches Facilitator, Artist in Residence

Ilgaz Ulusoy Casey

Branches Facilitator, Artist in Residence

Ilgaz has been working as a theatre performer and a writer since 2006. After getting her bachelor degree from Istanbul Technical University, Department of Metallurgy and Materials Engineering she decided to pursue a career in theater. After getting her master degree in Cultural Studies with a thesis entitled Seyyar Sahne: Exploring Craftsmanship in Acting, she she decided to be a full time theatre creator and educator.

Volunteering at Cottonwood ALC, Brooklyn for a month in 2015 made Ilgaz realize how the concept of 'self-directed education' corresponds to her personal approach in theater training. She has been utterly happy to be a part of Cottonwood ALC community which allows her to share multiple area of her interests in an open supportive environment. In addition to her work at Cottonwood, Ilgaz has has been involved in various international interdisciplinary performance projects in Europe and is currently engaged in a movement program based in Salt Lake City, Utah and New York.

Derek joined Cottonwood in the fall of 2018 to provide part time offerings, and immediately fell in love with the atmosphere and philosophy of agile learning.   Helena born and raised, he graduated from UM Missoula with degrees in History and Rhetoric. When not spending time with family he coaches speech and debate at Capital, with nine seasons under his belt at three different high schools.  Though employed over the last decade in education, Derek constantly strives to refocus his experiences into writing: mostly novels and murder mystery “dinner” experiences to date. Since becoming a facilitator, Derek has increased and plans on continuing to increase History, Writing, and Critical Thinking opportunities for the students at Cottonwood.  

Kevin Casey   Artist in Residence, Maker of Magic

Kevin Casey

Artist in Residence, Maker of Magic

Kevin has a BA in Theatre and English Studies from Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand. He attended the three year physical theater training at HELIKOS Scuola Internazionale di Creazione Teatrale in Florence, Italy, where he graduated in May, 2014. He has performed at Playwrights Horizons in New York City and in Seattle at the NW New Works Festival. Kevin has led physical theatre, mask making and mask play workshops internationally for storytellers, actors and children alike.

Iva Haas   Artist in Residence

Iva Haas

Artist in Residence

Iva Haas is a sculptural ceramic artist born in 1993 and raised in Belgrade Serbia. She graduated from School for Design Belgrade in 2012, majoring in graphic design. Afterward, she attended Faculty of Applied Arts Belgrade before transferring to Maine College of Art in Portland Maine, graduating in 2016 and focusing in ceramics. Iva got her MFA in 2018 from the Rhode Island School of Design. In 2016 she was a summer artist and resident at the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts. The summer of the same year she was an artist and resident at the Studio 740, run and owned by Beth Cavener and Alessandro Gallo. In 2018 she was a part of the National Student Juried Exhibition at NCECA and received a Graduate Award for Excellence. Currently, she is a long-term artist and resident at the Archie Bray Foundation for Ceramic Arts.

Concrete war monuments, decaying military hospitals, tall yellow grass, all coalesce as a combined caricature that acquires a new peculiar personality. Iva looks at her past, her peoples’ past and try to create an object that memorializes what is still in decay.

Her work explores the interactions of everyday experiences into sculptural representations of pleasure and absurdity, an insight into what she loves and repels in other people. In her sculptures, Iva incorporates clay and other materials such as wood, metal, and fabric. Daily interactions resonate with her creativity where nothing and no one goes unnoticed.