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, 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 own 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 two 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. Cassidy Steiner - Lead Teacher, 3-5 year old class, Lead afternoon teacher Forest Friends class
Ms. Cassidy is a Florida native. She grew up in Orlando and attended Flagler College in Saint Augustine. As a recent graduate, cassidy will bring a light-hearted and fun-loving energy into the classroom. She believes in a hands-on approach and is not afraid to get dirty! She has been working in childcare for over 6 years, ranging from preschool teacher to summer camp counselor. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Coastal Environmental Sciences/Biology and is passionate about sharing this knowledge with those around her. Miss Cassidy is new to Atlanta but excited to start this fresh chapter! She looks forward to visiting local museums, parks, and shops. In her downtime Cassidy enjoys pottery, reading and live music.
Ms. Haley Sims - Lead Teacher, 2-3.5 year old class
Ms. Haley 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. 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. Anne Sullivan - Lead Teacher, 2-3 year old class
Miss Anne moved to Atlanta in 2006 from Illinois where she grew up in the Chicago suburbs and attended college at SIUC as a fine arts major. She spent several years as a professional nanny for two local families and loved watching them grow from infancy to grade school and beyond. She and her husband Jason have two boys, Cole and Finn, born in 2015 and 2018. Anne grew up tent camping with her big, blended family and loves the outdoors including hiking, swimming, and camping. She enjoys reading, cooking, Pilates, taking care of her many houseplants, spectating at her kids’ soccer games, visiting family and spending time with neighbors. She is so excited to be a part of Little Forest School.
Ms. Audrey Leal - Lead Teacher, 5-10 year old class
Ms. Audrey will work on literacy and language skills with the Forest Friends group during the 2023-2024 school year. She is originally from Dallas, Texas, and holds a B.A. in English from Rice University. She spent 5 years as a public middle school language arts teacher in the Dallas area. During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Ms. Audrey's family relocated to Oklahoma City, and she worked as an online English teacher for students of all ages in China and Turkey. She is passionate about helping students to find their voice and express themselves with confidence. She is brand new to Atlanta and is delighted to trade the sunny plains of Oklahoma for the lush green forests of Georgia. Outside of school, Ms. Audrey is an enthusiastic fruit and veggie gardener who believes that harvesting and enjoying your own homegrown food is one of life's purest joys. She also loves to travel, watch British television, and explore local parks with her husband, energetic toddler, and two rescue pups.
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. Rachel Meggs - Music Teacher and Assistant Teacher
Originally from Upstate NY, Rachel Meggs has called Atlanta home for almost 13 years. She has a B.S. Ed in Spanish Education from Western Carolina University and a M.A. in Theatre Education from Emerson College. After teaching in high schools and middle schools for 7 years, Rachel became a domestic engineer aka a stay at home parent. She has two beautiful children, Oliver and Hazel. Rachel found her love of outdoor education when she started attending Free Forest School events in and around the Atlanta area. She saw how much her children loved exploring the woods and how much more at peace they seemed. During Covid, Rachel taught Oliver and some neighborhood kids for their Pre K year, outside, in what they called House Diamond Truck School. It was a fun experiment and she wanted to try her hand at Little Forest School! She has been a floating substitute teacher and in the coming 2023-24 school year, will be teaching music! She is so happy to be a part of this sweet community. When she isn't teaching, Rachel loves to bake, practice piano, learn guitar and German, exercise, hike, and read.
Ms. Mel Westbrook - Assistant Teacher
Ms. Mel is an artist, writer, and career educator with experience working with students from preschool up through college. With four young sons of her own, she has recently been focusing on younger students after a decade+ of teaching middle and high school literature, drama, and journalism. Ms. Mel brings her love of creativity, art, and storytelling into the class, helping students to develop their imaginations and observation skills. Her playfulness and enthusiasm are among her greatest strengths as an educator, and she believes firmly in the power of story and role-playing in helping children develop empathy and social-emotional skills.
Ms. Deb Long - Founder, Director, Teacher
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