Our Staff

rising leaders academy

Dr. Suha A. Jaber, Founder/Principal

Dr. Suha Jaber founded Rising Leaders Academy in 2012 and serves as the principal. She comes from the state of New Jersey where she was a full time university instructor. She is ranked among the top 25 professors in the country out of one million according to a popular rating website by students. Business Insider named her as one of the best 25 professors in America. In addition, Princeton Review named her as one of the best 300 professors in the country. She received an Excellence in Teaching Award and was recognized for her accomplishments as a Course/Curriculum Coordinator.


Dr. Jaber holds two Bachelor’s Degrees in Mathematics Education and Computer Science, a Master’s Degree in Applied Mathematics, and a Doctoral Degree in Educational Leadership with specialty in Curriculum and Instruction (Summa Cum Laude). She also completed Beacon courses in Gifted, Exceptional Students Education (ESE), and English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL).  She is a certified Heroic Imagination Project workshop trainer and is certified in High Performance Collaboration: Leadership and Teamwork through Northwest University.


Dr. Jaber brings pioneering ideas to the school and provides an education model based on sound research and proven success. She hopes to create a public charter school accessible to all children that will offer an exceptional learning environment and innovative educational solution for all the children of Bay County.


Mynde Kelly, Administrative Assistant
Ms. Kelly assists the Principal, teachers, parents, and students with all school operational tasks. She has over 16 years of experience working in a professional office atmosphere and ensure all school operations are functioning with excellence. Ms. Kelly holds two (2) Associates Degrees in General Business and Business Administration and is currently working on her Bachelors Degree. Ms. Kelly has many talents and it shows in what she does for Rising Leaders Academy. She was awarded as Support Employee of the Year and recognized at the Bay District Schools Support Employee ceremony.
Kristy Orellana, Office Manager

Ms. Orellana manages the office and assists parents and staff with office tasks. Kristy has a Bachelor’s degree in both Finance and Business Administration from Towson University in Baltimore Maryland. She has over 17 years working as a financial manager and corporate accountant and most recently as a financial analyst for the federal government. Kristy and her husband also own and operate a swimming pool repair and maintenance company which they began in 2005 when they relocated here from the Maryland/DC area.
Kristy is also a dedicated mom of two to Isabella and Gabriel which is by far the most fulfilling job of all.


Mr. Gary Scott, Business Manager

Mr. Gary Scott is RLA’s Business Manager. He is the President of School Financial Services, Inc. and Chief Financial Officer for Charter School Development Systems. Mr. Scott graduated from the University of West Florida with a B.A. degree in Accounting (Magna Cum Laude). He earned his M.B.A. and has taught accounting courses at the college level. Mr. Gary has over 25 years of experience in accounting, including more than 10 years of governmental accounting, finance, and governmental auditing including several audits of Florida school district internal accounts.





Deborah Skaggs


This will be Mrs. Deborah Skaggs’s 6th year teaching kindergarten at Rising Leaders Academy, where she is considered a highly effective educator. She takes her students on exciting learning expeditions, in which they apply their learning to real life and complete real-world projects. Her students have written books about their expeditions, which are found online and in the school. Mrs. Skaggs earned her Bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education from Illinois State University and graduated in the top 10% of her class. As a part of her student teaching she had the opportunity to study and teach in Eastbourne, England, UK. She holds Florida certificates in Elementary Education, Mathematics, and Social Sciences. Mrs. Skaggs educational philosophy is that through education each student will receive the vital skills and tools that are necessary to build a life that is successful!


Kristen Woodruff

Mrs. Kristen Woodruff has a Bachelors in Elementary Education with endorsements in ESOL and Reading. This will be her 3rd year teaching Kindergarten. She has experience in project-based learning and feels students learn proficiently when working hands-on with the Florida Standards. She is proficient in making goals for all skill levels. She has gone to many trainings, such as meeting students’ needs, differentiating instruction, classroom management, and many others vital to the classroom. Mrs. Woodruff also has experience with teaching English to students who live in China through telecommunication. She loves teaching and her goal is to make learning fun and help students grow!


First Grade:

Jessica Theus


Miss Jessica Theus worked in Bay District Schools for six years as a sub, paraprofessional, and instructor. This will be her second year at Rising Leaders Academy. She brings a wealth of knowledge and ideas to the classroom. She holds certifications in Elementary Education K-6 and Social Studies 6-12. She also has training in Great Leaps and the Leader in Me program. She believes that every child can be a leader. She also believes that when a child takes ownership of their own education, the student will always achieve success. She looks forward to being part of the RLA family, and sharing in the success of your child.


Kaothar El-Far

Ms. Kaothar El-Far recently relocated back to Panama City from Arlington, Virginia. She served as a network administrator in the Air Force from 2001-2007, and was stationed on Tyndall Air Force Base during that time. While stationed at Tyndall, she received the John Levitow Award for outstanding leadership during Airman Leadership School. Ms. El-Far has also served in South Dakota, Germany, and Iraq. She has worked in Bay District Schools for the past three years as a paraprofessional and a teacher. She holds certifications in Early Childhood Education (age 3 – 3rd grade), Elementary Education (K – 6), and Exceptional Student Education (ESE). Ms. El-Far is very excited to be at Rising Leaders Academy, where she can facilitate students’ natural strengths and help them to become exceptional leaders.


Second Grade:

Sarah Workman


This will be Ms. Sarah Workman’s 6th year teaching 2nd grade at Rising Leaders Academy, where she is considered a highly effective educator. She holds a Master’s degree in Elementary Education from the University of Florida. She is a certified teacher who has taught in private, public, and charter schools for 13 years. She has a strong drive to provide all students with an excellent education. For Ms. Workman, teaching is not a career but a passion. Her teaching career is geared toward the empowerment of elementary school children. She has a strong commitment to educate young minds and help them blossom into well-rounded, responsible, and successful individuals. Throughout the course of her career, Ms. Workman has the wonderful opportunity to teach diverse groups of students, including those with learning disabilities, those who perform at grade level, and those who are gifted and talented. She is also certified to teach English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) and completed a Beacon course in teaching Exceptional Students Education (ESE). As a result, she is proficient in designing creative and simulating lesson plans which accommodate multiple intelligences, bring a hands-on approach to learning, and keep students interested and focused. Her greatest strengths are inspiring and motivating students. She actively engages their eager minds by incorporating a variety of manipulatives, enjoyable activities, and cooperative learning projects.


Third Grade:

Amy Fullington


This will be Mrs. Amy Fullington’s 5th year teaching 3rd grade at Rising Leaders Academy, where she is considered a highly effective educator. Mrs. Fullington has a Florida Teaching Certification (Grades K – 6) and Missouri Teaching Certification (Birth – 3rd Grades, Grades 1 – 6). She has been working in the education field for seven years, both as an instructor and a school program director. She has experience as both a teacher and a leader in the education field. She shares our school’s mission of academic excellence in a nurturing environment. Mrs. Amy Fullington has experience with project-based learning and is looking forward to using her experience and knowledge to take our students on learning expeditions they will remember for life. She is a lifelong learner who is also completing her Master’s Degree in Elementary Education.


Fourth Grade

Amanda Spillane


Mrs. Amanda Spillane has a Bachelors in Elementary Education and Florida certificates in teaching grades K-6 and Exceptional Students Education (ESE). She has 15+ years of teaching experience in Texas and Florida that allowed her to work with culturally diverse populations. She has high expectations for her students and loves to apply real world applications whatever she can. She was the multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS) leader for her grade group at a Bay District School. She was able to take the things she learned in her leadership meetings and teach her fellow teachers. She is very excited to be at Rising Leaders Academy, where she can take her students on learning expeditions, in which the students will apply the learning to real world.


Fifth Grade

Derrick Kirby


Mr. Derrick “Buzz” Kirby has a Masters degree in Education; with a Specialty in K-12 Studies. He holds Florida teaching certifications in Elementary Education K-6, and Exceptional Student Education (ESE) K-12. He has completed his English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) Endorsement, and the Exceptional Student Education (ESE) course with Beacon Educator. Mr. Kirby has worked with Bay District Schools for 6 years. It will be his second year at Rising Leaders Academy. His class quote is “We are what we repeatedly do, excellence is not an act but a habit” -Aristotle. Mr. Kirby believes students learn in different ways and we, as educators, need to meet the student at his, or her, academic level. Mr. Kirby is looking forward to a fun filled year; focusing on how he can help his students make real-world connections to information learned in the classroom, and how it can have an impact in their world.


Middle School Language Arts and Social Studies:

Julia Arafa


Mrs. Julia Arafa has been teaching in Bay District Schools for the past 15 years, with the past 5 years at Rising Leaders Academy. She holds four teaching certifications in: K-6, 6-12 English, 6-12 Social Studies, and Gifted education. Mrs. Arafa was awarded “Teacher of the Year” in 2013-2014. She believes in life-long learning, evidenced in over 2000 hours of additional courses through Beacon to work on ESOL, Reading, and Gifted endorsements. She has also attended many workshops and in-services such as ESOL, Reading, Fred Jones, CRISS, Sopris-West conference at Bay Point, National Issues Forums, PAEC summer training in High-School History, ASPIRE training, and have incorporated ideas from these conferences and workshops into her lessons. She sets an example of enthusiasm for open-ended projects to challenge students at all levels and learning styles. She believes that incorporating parallels between current world events, field trips and classroom lessons provides more meaningful learning experiences. She enjoys teaching in a respectful, positive environment.


Middle School Math:

Roland Hankins

Mr. Hankins is a certified teacher who has taught every grade level and over 13 years of teaching experience in Bay County. Most of his experience has been in middle school science and mathematics in Bay District Schools. He is certified in Middle School Mathematics Education, as well as K-6. He also completed training in STEM at Gulf Coast College, which include programming and robotics. In addition, Mr. Hankins completed a Beacon course in teaching Exceptional Students Education (ESE). This will be Mr. Hankins’s 5th year at Rising Leaders Academy, where he gained experience in Expeditionary Learning and looks forward to taking our students on exciting learning journeys. He plans to apply his knowledge and experience with STEM to provide our students with the 21st century skills they need to excel in the future.


Middle School Science:

Stephen Theberge


Stephen Theberge is a scientist with over 20 years of experience in marine and fisheries education, program development and community outreach in the Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic and Pacific regions. He has excellent teaching skills as a naturalist, interpreter, and educator for grades K though graduate school, and general public. He has expertise in integrating science, research and resource management issues into biology, seafood and fisheries education programs. Mr. Theberge co-authored “Along Fairhaven Shores,” a three volume curriculum guide that focused on marine biology and commercial fisheries and the “Rookery Bay Marine Science and Lab Manual”. He is nationally recognized expert on decreasing release mortality in fish suffering from pressure damage (Barotrauma). Mr. Theberge will take our 6th and 7th graders on a yearlong expedition to study marine biology and look for ways to help our environment.


Physical Education Teacher:

Nancy Tilley

Mrs. Tilley recently relocated to Panama City from Louisiana where she was a PE teacher and director for over 10 years. She is a certified PE teacher with a Bachelors in Physical Education from Louisiana. She has experience in the development and administration of physical education curriculum and was responsible for providing a positive learning experience in PE by supervising and educating the students in a supportive culture to help them develop fitness, skill, and attitude. We welcome Mrs. Nancy Tilley to RLA.


Arabic Teachers:

Fatma Elemam

Mrs. Elemam has a Bachelor of Education in Arabic Language and Masters of Education from Bloomsburg University. She has 20 years of experience in teaching Arabic. She taught all levels from kindergarten to university level, where she taught at Bloomsburg University. She has been teaching at Rising Leaders Academy for 3 years.

Dina Swidan

Mrs. Dina Swidan holds a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Cairo, Egypt. She is working on earning her teaching certificate through EPI program at Gulf Coast State College. She has been a teacher for the past 5 years at Panama City Advanced School and taught Arabic as a second language for the past 9 years. Mrs.Swidan loves seeing her students enjoy learning. She loves teaching Arabic and enjoys seeing her students learn something new everyday while they grow. Her daily goal is for each student to learn one new Arabic word everyday!


Spanish Teacher:

Patricia Perkins

Mrs. Perkins holds a Bachelor’s degree from Buenos Aires, Argentina. She started her career in education twelve years ago. After two years as a para-professional for Bay District Schools, she began working as a Spanish teacher. She has taken several courses on education and is in the process of obtaining her Professional Education Certification. Her background as an architect has made it easy for her to incorporate the arts into her lessons. She was awarded an Excellence in Teaching Award at her previous school, Panama City Renaissance School. This will be Mrs. Perkins’s 6th year at Rising Leaders Academy.