Ms. Ashley Gjoka - Lead Teacher, 5-10 year old class

Ms. Ashley is originally from Texas and has lived in the Atlanta area for over 15 years. She brings her curiosity and wonder of the world, love of nature, the outdoors, the beauty and magic of childhood, joy of creating art, and storytelling to the children she cares for. Ashley was a co-op parent for multiple years with New Morning Community Preschool and Little Forest School, a co-teacher with Turning Sun, and previously homeschooled her 9-year-old and 6-year-old children.

Outside of Little Forest, Ashley is an avid cyclist who loves music, art, hiking, camping, kayaking, and exploring. She deeply enjoys spending time with her two children taking long road trips, having dance parties, making funny short films, playing board games, watercoloring, recording music, reading aloud, nature identification, bird watching, cooking, baking and snuggling their fluffy cats.

Ms. Lydia Newman - Lead Teacher, 3-5 year old class

Ms. Lydia will be the lead teacher for the 3.5-5 year old class for the 2021-22 school year. Lydia has over 20 years of early childhood teaching experience in formal and informal settings. Her early childhood career began as a nature camp leader in New York City and then later in Owings Mills, Maryland. Lydia spent 12 years teaching at the Maryland Science Center, and ultimately managing their Kids Room, an exhibit for children up to age eight. In addition, Lydia has eight years of experience as a preschool teacher. In recent years, Lydia developed a preschool after-school science program here in Atlanta.

From her 2- and 6-year-old nieces to her students, Lydia always aims to learn and grow with children as we observe, question, predict, experiment, and draw conclusions together. Lydia is passionate about getting to know each student, creating relationships with them, and using children’s individual preferences to guide them to think scientifically and to observe and question the world around them. Lydia leads a rich program which illuminates the exciting intersection between science, art, nature and the children’s unique interests.

She enjoys spending time with her nieces, traveling to natural wonders with her family, crossword puzzles, yoga, and taking long nature walks. While snow is something she misses most from up North, she loves being able to take a nice long nature walk during all seasons down here in the South. Lydia enjoys nature because like children, it is consistently changing and always beautiful.


Ms. Alexess Bess - Lead Teacher, 3-5 year old class

Ms. Alexess was born and raised in Stone Mountain, Georgia. Throughout the years, she has babysat relatives, taught children music at her church, been a camp counselor and worked at the Boys and Girls Club. In Spring of 2020, Ms. Alexess graduated from Clark Atlanta University with a B.A. in Communications.

One of Ms. Alexess' passions is music. She has written and recorded a few songs, sang in the church choir, joined a band and sang on National tv for an award show and a tv show. Because of this passion, she will also be teaching the music class here at Little Forest. Outside of Little Forest, Ms Alexess loves writing music, spending time with friends, being outside, spending time with her family and with her new puppy, Jynx.

Ms. Haley Sims - Lead Teacher, 2-3.5 year old class

Ms. Haley is the co-teacher for the 2-3 year old class for the 2022-2023 school year. She is originally from California and moved to Atlanta in early 2021. Before that she spent the last 12 years in Los Angeles managing a ceramics and art studio where she taught pottery, glazing and painting classes and hosted parties for children of all ages (and grown-ups too!) She was introduced to Little Forest School just after she moved to Atlanta, immediately fell in love with the school’s philosophy, and became a substitute teacher for the 2021-2022 school year. And now she is thrilled to be co-teaching the Stars class! When she’s not at school, Ms. Haley can usually be found hiking local trails, reading a book on her patio, or perfecting her gluten-free baked goods. She also volunteers weekly with Hands On Atlanta helping preserve the city’s beautiful parks while she continues to explore and discover her new city!

Ms. Jacqueline Dougherty - Lead Teacher, 2-3.5 year old class- 

Ms Jacqui has 10 years of experience in early childhood education and has worked with youth programs doing bicycle repair, community gardening, adult/peer education and museum education. She is passionate about honoring children's play, curiosity, and deepening our connections with plants and creatures. Drawing from her love of art and art history (B.A. FSU), she brings natural materials and aesthetic joy to the children daily in the form of invitations and open ended exploration. She enjoys experimenting with children to creatively utilize the resources in our surroundings in surprising and inspiring ways. She holds certifications in Early Childhood Care & Education Basics (TCC),  urban gardening, cycling instruction, and ASL I & II. She is beginning a Masters in Teaching, Art Education at GSU this fall.  As an adventurer and life long learner she enjoys hiking, biking, playing banjo and bass guitar, planting seeds, taking pictures, and making shadow puppet shows with friends. She lives in East Atlanta with her sweet partner and their dog Tinka.

Ms. Melissa Wood - Director 

Ms. Melissa is originally from Michigan and moved to Atlanta in 2007.  In 2012 she decided to go back to school for a career change and obtained a Masters in Early Childhood degree from Walden University.  She has experience working with children from 1 year to Kindergarten in private and charter school settings in Atlanta. She also enjoys volunteering with different organizations that support children in need such as Wellroot, Paint Love, Urban Perform, and Hands On Atlanta.  While teaching, she loves to incorporate open-ended materials for sensory exploration and hands-on experiences. In addition, utilizing nature to support learning different concepts and student understanding is a passion of hers. For 3 years she served as the Education Director for the non-profit Scraplanta. During this time she taught groups of children the importance of creative reuse and how kids can have a part in helping to protect the environment.  Outside of school, you can find Ms. Melissa exploring with her 7-year-old daughter, her husband, and dog Porter.  They enjoy hiking, camping, traveling, gardening, reading, and anything outside.

Ms. Deb Long - Founder, Director, 3 Day Lead Teacher for 5-10 Year Old Class

Deborah (Deb) Long founded Little Forest Preschool in fall of 2017. Its doors officially opened in Fall 2018.

"For over 20 years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with children in various settings. The most meaningful, powerful and life changing experiences I have had with children occured when working in nature. After graduating from the University of Florida in 1999, where I majored in sociology and minored in education and women’s studies, I worked as a counselor and teacher at Eckerd Youth Alternatives in Inverness, Florida. This outdoor residential therapy program provided girls (10-17 years old) who were struggling with behavior challenges opportunities for growth and recovery while living completely immersed in nature. We built the structures we slept in by chopping down trees, sinking poles and securing tarps for roofs, which was our only barrier from the elements. We went on extended backpacking and river/canoe trips, and truly experienced outdoor survival. I saw the lives of girls transform through the process as they were loved, cared for and supported in this environment.

After leaving Eckerd in 2005, I ventured to Atlanta and accepted an opportunity to teach kindergarten using Outward Bound’s Expeditionary Learning model at Amana Academy. After teaching there for 2 years I went back to school at Georgia State University to obtain my Masters in Social Work.

After my daughter, Emerson, was born in 2009, and then my son, Elias, was born in 2010, I co-founded New Morning Community Preschool. I co-owned, co-directed, and taught at this cooperative preschool, that all of my children attended with me, until 2017, when we learned that our rental space was under contract to be sold to a developer. In the wake of deciding to close the school, I held great consideration for my youngest daughter Estelle who was born in 2013. With one more year left before she would enter Kindergarten, I decided to open Little Forest Preschool, which allows me to combine nature immersion with education, exposing our youngest learners to the beauty of being outdoors.

Throughout my career I’ve had the opportunity to witness firsthand the amazing positive impact being outside has on mental, physical and emotional wellness. These opportunities have also fostered in me a deeper love and appreciation of the natural world and belief that it is the very best setting to nurture a love of learning."

Read an interview with Deb on Canvas Rebel from 2022: Canvas Rebel: Meet Deb Long

Read a profile on Deb in Voyage ATL magazine from 2018: Meet Deborah (Deb) Long of Little Forest Preschool in North Druid Hills Historic District