• Faculty

    Welcome from the GTA faculty.  The Gifted and Talented Academy offers a unique holistic experience for students. Teachers not only facilitate their students academically, but also support whole-child development to shape students into responsible and compassionate citizens of tomorrow.


    Microschool Leader of GTA 

    Mrs. Femiak (femiak@phoenixunion.org)

    Image of Jessica Femiak

    Jessie Femiak has been in education since 2003, when she began her career teaching middle school science for thirteen years. She taught high school for six years and taught International Baccalaureate and dual-enrollment biology. She also has six-years experience teaching biology and human nutrition in higher-education. She holds Master degrees in educational leadership and biology. She was also the freshman house coordinator at Maryvale High School and was the Assistant Principal at Show Low High School.

    Mrs. Femiak has a passion for educating neurodivergent and twice-exceptional students and holds a full gifted endorsement. It is her intention to service the needs of gifted urban students and create an environment where gifted students can flourish.

    Counselor for GTA

    Melissa Gard

    Mrs. Gard (gard@phoenixunion.org)

    Mrs. Gard is in her 11th year as a High School Counselor. Previous to this, she was a legal analyst for a law firm that worked on Indigenous water and land rights and other tribal matters.​ She is a proud member of the Diné (Navajo) Nation and a native Arizonan and is originally from Pinetop-Lakeside, Arizona.​ She is a first generation college student and graduated from Northern Arizona University with two bachelor’s degrees - B.S. Criminal Justice and B.S. Sociology​. She also graduated from Northern Arizona University with a Master of Education Degree (M.Ed) in Counseling with an emphasis on School Counseling​. She holds certificates in Crime Scene Photography and Fingerprint Analysis​. She is a Licensed Associate Counselor with the AZ Board of Behavioral Health​ and a National Certified Counselor with the National Board of Certified Counselors​. She has been married to Dr. Michael Gard for 18 years, has 2 beautiful daughters (6 years & 12 years) and dog mom to two wild Goldendoodles.

    Mrs. Clifton

    Mrs. Clifton (clifton@phoenixunion.org)

    Mrs. Clifton is a seasoned teacher with 20 years of experience in education. She is a product of Phoenix Union High School District, having grown up first in the Maryvale neighborhood and later in downtown Phoenix. Mrs. Clifton is thrilled to be teaching at Maryvale and is excited to share her knowledge and passion for learning with her students.

    Mrs. Clifton has a diverse background in teaching, having previously taught International Baccalaureate courses in English Literature, Language & Literature, and World Religions. She has also taught self-contained special education, inclusion, and gifted students. Her teaching experience has given her a unique perspective on the different learning styles and abilities of her students.

    When she's not teaching, Mrs. Clifton enjoys pursuing her hobbies, which include textile arts, dancing, and performing at the Arizona Renaissance Festival with all the other weirdos. She is also a proud mom of two and a devoted partner to her spouse. Mrs. Clifton's family also includes the sweetest Pitbull you've ever met, Ellie Cow-Belly. Despite her many responsibilities, Mrs. Clifton loves her job and is passionate about helping her students succeed.


    Ms. Nearhoof

    Ms. Nearhoof (nearhoof@phoenixunion.org)

    Sharon Nearhoof grew up in rural Pennsylvania the daughter of a teacher and a librarian. She earned her Bachelor’s degree in geology from Allegheny College (1992), her Master of Divinity degree from Bethany Theological Seminary (1998) and completed additional graduate work in both geology and physics education. She has worked as a geologist, pastor, writer, website designer, DV/SA counselor/advocate, and teacher. In her 14 years with Phoenix Union, she has taught Earth & Space Science, Cambridge IGCSE Environmental Management, AVID Elective, and all levels of Physics.   

    Ms. Nearhoof is the mother of a gifted child and has navigated the educational system as both an educator and a parent. In her classroom, every student is welcomed, supported, challenged, and celebrated. She teaches from a trauma-sensitive perspective and especially enjoys working with twice-exceptional students, students with ADHD, and their parents.  

    Outside of school, she enjoys being with her daughter and harnessing the power of hyperfocus to explore all kinds of random and interesting topics, from cosmology to crocheting. Her pitbull-mix Jasper is the best boy in the world and he is not spoiled at all.  



     Dr. Rahman  (arahman@phoenixunion.org)

    Dr. Afroza Rahman is one of the science teachers in the Gifted and Talented Academy at Maryvale High School. She has been teaching science in the Phoenix Union High School District since 2006. She has taught a wide variety of science classes—biology, chemistry, environmental science, physical science, biotechnology, and bio-informatics to name a few. She also has taught college level classes.

    As a daughter of a chemistry professor, Dr. Rahman was always interested in science. She completed a Master degree in biochemistry from her home country, Bangladesh, and a Ph. D. in biochemistry and genetics from Iowa State University.

    Dr. Rahman is passionate about teaching and always looking for ways to help her students learn. To that end she has participated in many professional and curriculum development activities. Outside school, Dr. Rahman likes to cook for friends and families, watch TV, read books, crochet and knit, and also to travel.

    Dr. Rahmen was chosen chosen as Teacher of the Month last year. She started a new partnership with ASU Bioscience Network aligned with her Biology honors class. The intent is to encourage students in the field of Biotechnology.


    Annie Shanahan

    Ms. Shanahan  (ashanahan@phoenixunion.org)


    Mrs. Annie Shanahan was born and raised in a small town in rural Minnesota. She received her bachelor of science degree in education from Winona State University in 2001 and began teaching the Monday after her graduation ceremony. She moved to Avondale, Arizona, in 2004 to teach middle school at Desert Star Elementary in Goodyear.

    In 2005 she married a fellow Maryvale educator, Mr. Patrick Shanahan, and started a family. By 2010 she had three daughters and had completed her Master degree in education from Arizona State University. In 2017, after thirteen years teaching middle school social studies, Mrs. Shanahan joined the Gifted and Talented Academy as the social science teacher. 

    For the past three years, Mrs. Shanahan has taught honors world history, U.S. history, government, economics, and AP government and politics. In 2020, Mrs. Shanahan was awarded the prestigious James Madison Fellowship and is currently in graduate school earning her second master's degree in American history and government.

    Mrs. Shanahan was selected as one of five finalists for Arizona Educator of the Year.


     Mr. Tafolla  (tafolla@phoenixunion.org)

    Mr. Tafolla was a first generation college student. He is of Mexican American heritage. He immigrated to the U.S. in 2008 from Guanajuato, Mexico. He is the oldest of two brothers and two sisters.

    He graduated from Sacramento State as a math major and loves all math classes, teaching math, encouraging students, and learning.  His hobbies are exercising, kick boxing, video games, and math.

    He actively participates in professional growth opportunities to enhance his expertise to support students with differentiated needs.  He was awarded teacher of the month.