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Meet Our Leadership Team


Debra A. Johnson, M.Ed

Principal/Executive Director

From an early age, Debra was drawn to teaching children with special needs. She has dedicated her entire career to helping children with learning and behavioral differences in a variety of settings, ranging from preschool through high school to mental health centers and outpatient treatment programs. As a leader, she has directed early intervention programs, charter schools and nonprofit educational centers. She is a cofounder of Connections Education Center, which she infuses with her love of the children and their families.

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Jason Portman

Director of Operations/CFO

Jason is a long-time advocate of people with special needs. He grew up watching his mother teach children with profound learning differences and has always been drawn to helping people who see the world differently. After earning a degree in business administration and marketing from Nova Southeastern University, Jason began his professional career by promoting productivity through technology alongside strong relationship building. He worked at the Florida Marlins Baseball Club and the Florida Panthers Hockey Club before finding his passion to work with children with autism. Jason wears many hats at Connections from business operations, technology services, fundraising and daily operations. But he’s most passionate about working with families to make their children’s lives better.


Pam Ludwick

Director of High School & Vocational Center

One of our founding team members, Pam leads our high school and vocational center, focusing on curriculum, staff development and parental communication. 


Melissa Carman

Director of Education, Connections Education Center

 Melissa -- also one of our founding staff members -- leads curriculum, staff development, classroom management strategies, goal setting and parental communications for our charter school for students in Pre-K through 8th grade. Melissa earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh, majoring in interdisciplinary studies with a focus in child development, psychology and education. Early in her career, she taught a typical Pre-K class where she met a preschooler who was on the autism spectrum but had not yet been diagnosed. She discovered a passion for teaching children with autism and shifted her work in that direction. Melissa has deep experience in starting and running autism programs and finds great joy in seeing students make progress.


Katie Wentley

Health & Wellness Director

Katie leads our Health, Wellness & Aquatics Program and has played a key role in developing our drowning prevention program for students with autism. She began teaching swim lessons for people with special needs while in college pursuing a prelaw degree and discovered a love for working with this population. She changed her major to family and children sciences and has been helping children with learning differences ever since. Katie loves watching students' confidence grow as they learn how to make safe, healthy choices and gain more self-sufficiency.

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