Meet the new teachers & staff for 2023-24

These new faces around the halls of West Essex are starting their first full year in the district.
Meet the new teachers & staff for 2023-24
Mariam Nassery, English
Mariam Nassery

It’s 7:42. The bell rings for the second time, and even though it’s fresh and early, kids already feel like robots on their last battery pack. But new English teacher Mariam Nassery, a leave replacement for Nicola Ruiz, sees the matter differently: Instead of having a standard classroom like most teachers, she believes the most efficient way to run a class is having a connection with each student on a deeper level. 

“There’s beauty in the fact that I can talk to you guys,” Nassery said. “You guys are listening to me and I’m interested in learning about you. We sometimes take for granted the beauty of human existence.”

Nassery knows the feeling of being drained well from previous work experiences, but she walked into West Essex’s community and found herself re-energized by the students’ smiles and her new co-workers opening arms, she said.

Her career started with a major in English and a minor in anthropology at Montclair State University. She graduated in 2021 with a love for both but struggled on which direction she wanted to go next.  Her first instinct was to become a nurse because of her nurturing nature. She wants to save lives. This, in a way, goes hand in hand with teaching; caring for and developing bonds with her students in English II CPA and Honors is a goal of hers.

“I feel I have natural leadership and ability to connect to students,” Nassery said. “I have always wanted to be that teacher who impacts their students’ lives.” 

Her spontaneous side radiates out, even when she is having even the simplest of conversations. Nassery spends her Sundays in verbal altercations over the Dallas Cowboys or a game of softball or soccer with her co-ed leagues. If she is not playing or watching sports, Nassery will be in her kitchen with flour on the tip of her nose and a rolling pin in hand. 

She said that what she loves about the subject of English is that there are so many possibilities and that there are multiple pathways to being “right” when it comes to literary interpretation―while 4+4 always equals 8, English is the opposite. She loves it when her students open their perspectives instead of having tunnel vision, and as a philosophical person, she said she hopes her students are vulnerable and don’t shy away from a discussion. She doesn’t just skim the surface of delicate topics but dives directly in. 

“Just because we don’t talk about it doesn’t mean it isn’t there,” Nassery said. 

Nassery said she believes a classroom is more than just a place for learning academic subjects; it’s a space for mutual respect and understanding, as well as growth. She hopes her students learn to empathize with the literary characters they work with, and ultimately others around them, deepening connections and learning more about themselves in the process.

“A goal of mine is to be in touch with the softer side of myself,” Nassery said. “It’s okay to be vulnerable.”

Kelly Clark, Art
Kelly Clark

Most students walk into school in the morning dreading the stressful, workpacked day ahead of them. With fast paced classes, it can become hard to catch a break. But Art teacher Kelly Clark looks to give her students a calm place to tap into their artistic side. While painting, designing and drawing comes naturally to Clark, she acknowledges it is not the easiest task for everyone, and strives to teach in a way that provides students the ability to understand the powers of art. 

“I want students to really enjoy art and be able to talk about it,” Clark said. “Be able to understand it and find that it’s a positive outlook for your emotions and what they have to say about the world.” 

After working 15 years at a beloved job in Orange, Clark said she decided a change was needed. 

“I wasn’t artistically challenged the way I wanted to be,” Mrs. Clark said. 

After coming to this realization, Clark went on to teach in Linden for a year, however did not return because of the far commute. That’s when she looked into West Essex, which she said was high up on her wish list of local schools. The move enabled her to start with a fresh, clean slate after being at many different schools. She had past work portfolios to use as a guide, but she said the opportunity to start anew is energizing. 

 “I’m wanting to establish a body of lessons that I can use to grow on, year after year,” Clark said. “Everything I’m doing is from scratch, which is fantastic.”

Clark, who teaches fashion design, studio art and digital photography, said she’s been enjoying the year so far as her students are focused, motivated and eager to learn. She is pleasantly surprised with how organized the school is and everyone’s work ethic.  Hoping to create a relaxing and fun environment for students to grow, Clark likes to give students their assignments along with some examples and then let them take it from there. 

“I don’t like to do a lot of lecturing,” Clark said. “It’s a hands-on class and a lot of these things you’re only going to learn by doing.” 

For any students who become discouraged, Clark works one on one with them to help out, find out what’s wrong and keep them motivated. 

Outside of the classroom, Clark enjoys hiking and gardening as well as doing some leisure artwork for herself. Clark is a true believer in empowering students and allowing them to unleash the transformative power of art – something that she’s been rewarded with in the year so far.

“I’ve been positively reinforced that this was a good choice over and over again,” Clark said.

Samantha Rhinesmith, Guidance
Samantha Rhinesmith

Each school year, students brace themselves for the loads of stress and chaos that is to come, with the hope of forming a connection with that one teacher who has the power of making their days just a little bit better. For guidance counselor Samantha Rhinesmith, this special person happened to be her own high school counselor, who provided her with a tremendous amount of comfort and condolence in a time of great need and loss in her life. As a new addition to the West Essex guidance staff, Rhinesmith is determined to do the same for her own students and be the ray of sunshine capable of brightening up their days. 

Rhinesmith grew up in Pompton Lakes and attended Montclair State University, getting an undergrad in physiology and eventually going back to get her masters in school counseling. She knew exactly what she wanted to do at a young age when she learned what guidance counselors can do for kids after they’ve gone through tough times – specifically, her own tough times.

“My mother passed away when I was 13,” Rhinesmith said. “Understandably, I had a lot of feelings that I did not understand and know how to deal with, specifically with anxiety. Throughout my time in high school, I got close with a school counselor and she helped me be able to identify what I was feeling and explained the stages of grief. Seeing how she was able to help me, made me want to do it for others which pushed me to join this career.”

While Rhinesmith loves the counseling portion of her job, she wants to involve a bit of mental support and therapy into it. She knows the importance of checking in on students who are going through tough times, as she experienced it as well. 

“Understanding how I felt during middle/high school, I knew there was a need for support for students, especially post-COVID-19,” Rhinesmith said. “I knew since I was young that I wanted to help others in whatever career I chose, and now I am able to do it in school. I want to take what I’ve learned and help students not only with their academics, but their mental health as well.”

In her second year of school counseling, while Rhinesmith is still considered newer, she is blown away by the attitude and enthusiasm of West Essex students and staff. 

“I love West Essex,” Rhinesmith said. “I feel like everyone here is so nice. The students are so nice and they are so respectful. It’s not something you see everywhere. You guys are probably, like, one in a million.”

Rhinesmith came to West Essex to make an impact and positively affect her students, and she intends on welcoming her students with open arms and doing everything in her power to make a difference in their days. 

“Just know that, you know, I’m here for you and I’m here to support you with anything and everything,” Rhinesmith said.


Daniella Rakotci, Physical Education
Daniella Rakotci

Physical education and health teacher Daniella Rakotci is a fresher face to the West Essex staff and hand to hold for her students. Rakocti, who started in November 2022, has goals for how she wants her class to run help her understand her students on a deeper level beyond their physical performance in her class. She has a desire to build connections with her students while still setting respectful, guiding boundaries, and her open book personality suggests that she’s not afraid to get to know students well while setting guiding boundaries. 

“I kind of wear my heart on my sleeve. Everyones knows how I am feeling at all times,” Raktoci said. 

Growing up in Wayne and attending Wayne Valley High School, Rakocti learned to stay on top of her work while being a student athlete. Surely, it was a challenge, but her experiences helped her understand the importance of physical education. In high school, she played soccer and softball, and went on to play lacrosse at Kean University. Sports has always been a huge part of her and now coaches soccer, fencing and lacrosse. While a busy kid, Raktoci stayed on top of her classes in order to pursue her extracurriculars. 

“ I definitely did what I had to do to make sure I was able to be on the field,”  Rakotci said. 

Raktoci went on to study Physical Education at Kean University in Union, where she played on their girls lacrosse team. After graduating, she taught physical education at West Milford for eight years before coming to West Essex. She coached varsity soccer, fencing and lacrosse at her old school, and placed that all on hold as she welcomed her newborn baby, Kai. 

Rakotci simply describes her joy of being a mother as: “Every waking moment is with my baby.” 

As she settles into her first full year at West Essex this year, Rakotci said she’s thrilled to experience the environment of respectful students and coworkers. 

“Everyone welcomed me with open arms and really helped me the first year that I was here. Nobody shut me down or wasn’t friendly,” Rakotci said. 

Her teaching style is basic yet affirmative which helps her get to the point of why gym class is so important, yet can be fun. She did not want to come in as a pushover and needed her students to understand the rules. At the same time, she loves to hear her students’ perspectives. She believes high school students’ opinions are valid enough that they can help her understand her students to a deeper level, whether in games or in general. 

“I think in high school the kids are old enough to know what they want and know why they want things,” Rakotci said. “I would like to hear their side of the story along with their wants, and then we can go from there.”  


John Allison, Class III officer
John Allison

When John Allison joined West Essex as a Class III officer, it just felt right to him. In his previous career, on an average school day Allison would be on alert while getting calls for everything from stopping speeding cars to pulling cats out of trees. This was his daily life for 28 years as a Roseland police officer. However, after his retirement from the force, Allison decided to take his love for the job and return back to his alma mater as a Class III officer at West Essex, alongside Officer Frank Romayo. 

Today, Allison’s school days consist of greeting students in the morning and still being on alert―but now, solely on keeping West Essex’s students, faculty and staff safe. Allison grew up in Roseland, where he attended West Essex High School and graduated in 1990. Allison went to Ramapo College with no intentions of becoming involved in police work, instead studying business management, but he came to realize his true calling was elsewhere.

“I realized that I always wanted to work outside and I wanted to help people, so I wanted to get a job to help make a difference,” Allison said . 

Becoming a police officer is not an easy task, and for Allison, it required months of training even before officially starting. He joined the police academy for five months, where he underwent rigorous training. He worked with a senior officer where he learned most of his skills. Allison developed a passion for the job because of his desire to help keep people safe. From minor car accidents to domestic disputes, Allison stayed on the move for nearly 30 years, and in November 2022, Allison retired as a town officer. After looking at other school security officer positions, Allison’s heart beat for West Essex. 

“I thought this would be a great job because I am already in law enforcement, so this would be a continuation of that,” said Allison

Allison’s role at school is different everyday. He said as a town officer, people call him up on a bad day, but at school, people call him up on a good day. That is what makes his job so enjoyable. But he still takes security incredibly seriously, and as America grapples with the realities of violence and problems in schools today, Allison said his goal is to make students feel safe. 

“I think West Essex is doing the right thing,” Allison said of its investment in Class III police officers. 

When Allison is not working, he enjoys going to New Jersey Devils games and concerts with his son, and can be found watching “Ozark” or out in the woods hiking. But when he is on the clock at West Essex, he values his time at West Essex and enjoys every second of the job. 

“This is the best job ever,” Allison said. “I honestly could not have asked for a better job.”


Jessica Pratt, Guidance
Jessica Pratt

Figuring out career paths can be very difficult. For some, many jobs or endless research still do not lead to that undiscovered passion of a career. Jessica Pratt, West Essex’s newest guidance counselor was lucky enough to find the job that clicked with her. Her own dream of working in the biology field changed after she fell in love with psychology during college. 

“I just fell in love with it,” Pratt said. “The connections you make with students and watching them walk off going to the school they wanted really made an impact and made me feel good about being a school guidance counselor.”

The Wayne native graduated from Wayne Valley High School and made her way to Montclair State University, where she initially majored in biology. But one psychology class was all Pratt needed for her to fall in love with the topic, starting a long journey in the clinical field. Pratt worked in St. Joseph’s Hospital in both Paterson and Wayne for 10 years, and working with school guidance counselors during her hospital years led her to the conclusion that she wanted to trade the Emergency Room for an educational setting. Her journey to become a school guidance counselor began from there, and she worked at Lakeland Regional High School before coming to West Essex.

Those sorts of changes and turns in her own career path, Pratt said, are the kinds of things she loves about her work now: constantly evolving and learning.

 “It’s never knowing, and I think that’s the greatest aspect,” Pratt said. 

Everyday for Pratt is completely different from the previous day. A student could be walking in for a normal college application or could be coming in to talk about serious issues. Pratt enjoys the spontaneity of not knowing what the person walking through the door needs. To Pratt, the students are what keep her going. The bonds she creates with them is very special to her and she would not have it any other way. She tries to help them the best she can by first seeing what they want to do and what their goals are. Pratt fills in the blanks from there in order to guide her students to success.

“Meeting a bunch of students and getting to really know them from freshman year to senior year,” Pratt said, “being able to help them with the whole process, and watching them grow is my favorite part of the job.”

Dr. Elizabeth McQuaid, Director of Special Services
Elizabeth McQuaid

Since the start of spring 2023, West Essex has warmly welcomed Dr. Elizabeth McQuaid to the school. She is excited to be a part of the school community here at the high school and begin her first full year in the role of director of special services. 

As director, Dr. McQuaid is tasked with everything from a student’s IEP to any special education services. Not only that, but she is also tasked with overseeing all HIB coordination within both the middle and high school. When dealing with HIB cases, she is always ready to hear everybody’s side of the story, and rids herself of bias to come up with a reasonable conclusion. Regardless of task, Dr. McQuaid said, she feels good knowing that the district has her back. 

“The difference between West Essex and other school districts … is a real sense of community and everyone working together for a common goal,” Dr. McQuaid said. 

Growing up, Dr. McQuaid said she knew that she wanted to help others and be a leader.  Throughout her high school days, she took every opportunity she had to work with others, especially with her passion for teaching kids. She started working in occupational therapy, a service provided for students with disabilities or neurodiverse students that require therapy to access their general education. She had always been focused academically in school but also found value in leadership opportunities. In high school she held student-centered and leadership roles like student council president, Interact Club Advisor and peer mediator.

Dr. McQuaid said a goal of hers is to tell the welcoming West Essex community all of the things the district is doing for the neurodiverse community. She wants to put herself out there for people to recognize the important work.

“If I had the opportunity to say to students a message, it would be to embrace differences and include students as often as you can,” she said. “Accept neurodiversity, and be kind.”

Dr. McQuiad aims to create a positive and safe environment in her office, always greeting students with a smile and ready to help them feel better, no matter what they are dealing with. 

Gary Peluso, Industrial Arts
Gary Peluso

Have you ever been in the luxury lofts in the Prudential Center or sat on a bench in beautiful Hudson Yards? Some of the amazing crafts and woodworking there have been built by the newest woodshop teacher Gary Peluso. Peluso, a dad to twins and the husband to a vice principal, has done a lot of crafty, hardworking jobs like being a carpenter and a contractor in his building days. Pelusso looks to bring all of his insight in Industrial Arts to his new students in his first year at West Essex.

Peluso, who has been interested in Industrial Arts since a young age, attended the University of Hartford and earned a degree in architectural engineering technology. Before coming to West Essex, he was a project engineer for an interior woodworking company for 11 years. Peluso has always had a true passion in woodworking especially when it comes to constructing new things and getting his hands dirty.

“I’ve always liked woodworking,” Peluso said. “I have an education in it and a background in it. And I just enjoy working with my hands and building stuff.”

Becoming a teacher was a no doubt decision for Peluso. He has a natural ability to teach and educate kids. He has always liked being a coach and teaching younger kids especially with recently becoming a father. Peluso is eager to share all his insight about Industrial Arts and hopes his teaching ability can influence students into possibly getting more involved in something they are passionate about.

“I guess teaching was kind of a way of giving back to the woodworking industry and kind of share my passion with others,” Peluso said.

Another reason Peluso decided to come to West Essex was to show students the various possibilities there are from taking the course. Whether it’s taking a break from all the difficult work students have to do throughout the day, or possibly getting a profession in the industrial arts field, he realizes the importance of having this class as part of the curriculum.

“I think it’s very important for one, it could be just a nice break from sitting around all day to be a little creative and work with your hands and stand up and get out of your desk,” Peluso said. “I think that it’s a nice break throughout the day. But there’s also hundreds of very good professions in industrial arts that are kind of in desperate need right now.”

Peluso is excited to build connections with all of his students throughout this school year outside of his class. He hopes to learn more about their individual passions and hobbies. Peluso has been grateful for how supportive and comforting everybody has been towards him in his first couple weeks here at West Essex. When asked about what he wants his students to accomplish this year, he simply responded, “To build beautiful things that they’re proud of.”

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