Preschool Staff

Kaitlin Erpestad

Preschool Director/Lead Teacher

I grew up exploring the parks, lake shore, and green spaces of Duluth and learning to ski on the ski trails of Hartley Park. I earned a BA in Social Studies Education and a MN teaching license for K-6 elementary and 5-8 social studies from St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN. After college I lived in the country of Finland for three years where I taught preschool for 3-7 year old Finnish and international children and explored the Finnish woods with my husband, Matti. I returned to MN and completed a naturalist training program at Wolf Ridge ELC and earned a Master’s Degree in Environmental Education from UMD. I love to be active outside in all seasons, to cook and bake, to watch and read Nordic crime series, and to eat chocolate! And, I love to be outside in Hartley Park with our preschoolers exploring, playing, and learning.

Maria Hopkins

Lead Preschool Teacher

All my life I have enjoyed being outdoors and exploring the surrounding environment, which is why I chose to study biology as an undergraduate in Minnesota. After college, I began to pursue outdoor education, which sparked my interest and passion for teaching children and engaging them with nature. In December 2011, I earned my M.Ed. and K-6 teaching license, with a focus in environmental education, from Antioch University New England.  After receiving my degree, I worked as an Education Coordinator for a Nature Explore Classroom in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. After living in New England for several years, I began to really miss the Midwest, so my husband and I decided to move to Duluth! I have loved being here and working as a teacher at Hartley Nature Preschool. When I’m not taking children out into the woods of Hartley, I enjoy hiking, camping, cooking, and eating ice cream!

Dani French

Lead Preschool Teacher

As a native to Duluth, I spent my childhood enjoying the lake at my cabin and exploring the woods surrounding my house.  I have always felt a sense of peace when surrounded by nature and I love to share that with my family now.  My husband and our 2 daughters love to hike the many trails in town and enjoy being outside whenever we can. I have always loved working with young children and found my calling when I decided to study at WITC in their early childhood program. I am one who believes you should never stop learning and pursued a bachelor’s degree in Child Development from Concordia University a few years after graduating from WITC.  I also completed a second Bachelor’s program in Unified Early Childhood Studies from UMD.  Between schools I have taught in various settings around the area and worked with students from 6 weeks to 6 years. In my off time I like to read, take pictures and go geocaching with my family.

Caitlin Neff

Lead Preschool Teacher

I have always loved exploring the natural world and learning as much as I can about it! It wasn’t until I attended the University of Minnesota Duluth that I realized how much I enjoy teaching about our natural world and introducing children to its many wonders, which is why I obtained a degree in Outdoor Education. Before joining the Hartley Preschool family, I worked at Wolf Ridge ELC, Deep Portage Learning Center, and Aspen Center for Environmental Studies. Currently, I am working towards my K-6 Teaching License and Masters of Education at the College of St. Scholastica. When I am not at Hartley or studying you can find me exploring the woods with my husband and our dogs, mountain biking, cross country skiing, and creating things in the kitchen.

Jen Buseman

Long term Substitute Teacher

I grew up in Southwestern Minnesota enjoying spending as much time as possible in the water and canoeing on the Minnesota River. Moving to Duluth allowed me to explore and learn about the natural world and led me to pursue a career in teaching. I earned a degree in Outdoor Education from UMD and recently became licensed in Elementary Education. I am excited and honored to be a part of the Hartley Preschool team! This is going to be a fantastic year!

Sara Johnson

Long term Substitute Teacher

As a native of North Carolina, I have spent most of my life exploring the mountains of southern Appalachia – hiking and biking through forests, climbing craggy old mountains, and trekking along riverbeds.  I graduated from the University of North Carolina with a degree in Anthropology and Archaeology and promptly set off to adventure in other corners of this wonderful country.  After working for a couple of years in New England building trails and teaching environmental education in elementary schools, my husband and moved to Duluth in 2015. I began a year-long education internship at Hartley Nature Center that fall and have been fortunate to stick around as a substitute teacher since! In my spare time, I enjoy knitting, making pottery, gardening, eating pizza, and exploring Superior’s shores with my husband and pup!

Alyssa Nelson

Assistant Preschool Teacher

As a child I discovered a love for water and all things wild exploring in Southern Minnesota creek beds, wandering local woods, and camping with my family.  I earned a BA in Sociology and played Division II volleyball for University of Minnesota Duluth.  In 2014 I earned my masters in Experiential Education with an emphasis in Sports Psychology from Minnesota State University Mankato.  During my time in Mankato I discovered my passion for teaching in the outdoors as a river guide.  After three years in Mankato, I moved to St. Paul to work as an outdoor educator for Wilderness Inquiry where I taught multi cultural urban audiences about the natural and historical resources of Minnesota.  I rekindled my love for the Duluth area working as a dog handler  and as a sea kayak guide.  I love hiking and fishing in all seasons, reading, baking and cooking, listening to NPR, and gardening.

Becca Bell

Assistant Preschool Teacher

After growing up, attending college, and working in Minnesota, this state is truly my home. From my hometown of Willmar, I grew up loving all activities on and in the water – sailing, swimming, waterskiing, canoeing – and still consider these are still some of my favorite things to do outside! I attended St. Olaf College where I earned a biology degree and discovered an excitement for working in our natural world. Since college, I’ve worked with the outdoors in a variety of settings: a nature center near my hometown, Wolf Ridge ELC, & Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota. I also went back to school for my Master’s in Environmental Education at UMD. Each experience has honed my appreciation and respect for both nature and our youngest learners, leading me very clearly to nature preschools. I am thrilled to be joining the team at Hartley Nature Preschool and can’t wait to get to know the students and their families! When not at Hartley, I’ll be enjoying a good cup of coffee, hiking with my new pup, or spending time with family and friends.

Emma Richtman

Assistant Preschool Teacher

As a native of Minnesota, I spent much of my life enjoying and exploring ‘The Land of 10,000 Lakes’. I have a degree in Fisheries and Wildlife Management from the U of MN, Twin Cities. While earning my degree I realized my passion fell more towards outdoor education rather than conservation, and so began my career as an environmental educator. I have taught at Wolf Ridge ELC, The Raptor Center and as a Naturalist for St. Croix Montessori. Currently, I am working toward my Graduate Teaching License and Masters of Education at the College of St. Scholastica. When I am not teaching or doing homework, my husband and I are busily working on renovating our home. I also love bird watching, agate picking, hiking, cycling, climbing, camping, hangin’ with my chickens,and jamin’ on my ukulele. I could not be happier here and I look forward to creating many great memories with your children!

Julie Bates

Assistant Preschool Teacher

My husband and I have lived in Duluth for almost 25 years. I was a stay-at-home mom, and we raised a son and a daughter in our home adjacent to Hartley Park. I was born and raised in Minneapolis and attended the U of MN where I obtained a degree in recreation and environmental education. I have worked as a naturalist at various places including resorts on the Gunflint Trail, Hennepin County Parks, and the Tennessee Valley Authority. I currently work at the J. Skylark toy store and have been a substitute preschool teacher at Hartley for the past two years. I love camping, canoeing, crafts, bicycling, Legos, and spending time at our tiny cabin in the woods.