Stretch Educators

Michelle Lawton

Michelle Lawton founded Stretch the Imagination in 2002 with the intention of creating a program where children are free to explore and are given the time to delve deeply into their experiences. Stretch originally started as a program for art, yoga and music. Over the past 14 years, it has developed into a respected preschool program grounded in nurturing children’s development through creativity, inquiry and connecting to the natural world. Michelle is also invested in supporting professional development and encouraging the growth of educators who come to work at Stretch. She believes strongly in the importance of continuing education and recently finished studying with Dan Siegel at the Mindsight Institute in Los Angeles. She continued her own education in 2014/2015 by studying with Jon Young and the educators of the 8 Shields Institute. She is inspired by their work in mentoring, education, and the facilitation of a deep nature connection. Michelle has a passion for connecting children to the natural world and in starting the Natural Classroom in 2010 was a pioneer in bringing children out of the classroom and into nature during their weekly school days. She takes inspiration from working with nature leaders both here and abroad and presents annually at the Children Learning with Nature Conference here in the Bay Area. As a mom and educator Michelle is dedicated to honoring a child’s right to creative exploration, play, and the magic of early childhood.

Stretch is a place of magic, compassion, and growth.
The school is truly comprised of a team of educators and parents
who work in partnership to support these amazing children. I’m
so proud of what our community has built together..

— Michelle Lawton, Founder & Co-Director at Stretch the Imagination

Whitney Ellis

Whitney Ellis is originally from outside of Chicago and moved to the Bay Area just over three years ago after completing her master’s degree in child development. Prior to her move out west, Whitney worked with children in the school services department at a children’s hospital in Chicago and taught as a kindergarten teacher.  Whitney began the first two years of her Stretch career teaching and has now moved into her second year as Assistant Director. Whitney has always enjoyed collaborating with parents and educators on early childhood development and has thoroughly enjoyed the transition into administration. In 2013, Whitney was given the opportunity to spend a week visiting the schools and studying alongside other educators from around the world in Reggio Emilia, Italy. Whitney continues to take inspiration from that trip and other professional development opportunities that she has had in order to further her learning and better her practices as both a mentor and educator. Whitney is eager to look into the benefits and effects of mindfulness and how to bring it to young children and teachers this year.  In her spare time, Whitney enjoys reading, photography, hiking, traveling, trying new restaurants, and spending time with her husband and golden retriever.

Each year, we welcome students into our gates to nurture their
creativity and support their growth and learning. We are committed
to instilling a passion for lifelong learning as our children discover
the wonder and magic that our world has to offer.

— Whitney Ellis, Co-Director at Stretch the Imagination


Anna joined the Stretch team in the Fall of 2014. Upon graduating from the University of San Francisco in 2007 with a dual degree in Fine Art and Psychology, she started nannying and fell in love with the early childhood field. Anna started teaching in the Early Childhood classroom at another preschool in San Francisco in December of 2013 and has decided to continue her education by starting the Early Childhood Education Masters program at San Francisco State University in the Fall of 2014. Anna enjoys how children are natural and creative scientists allowing them to constantly learn through their experiences large and small. In her free time, Anna is an artist and loves working in a variety of mediums, primarily woodworking and photography. She especially enjoys traveling, visiting museums, and spending time outdoors to continually be inspired.


Carly grew up on the beach in the Central Coast of NSW, Australia. She has previously lived in Sydney and Singapore and has loved living in San Francisco for the past 3 years! She has 10 years experience working with preschool aged children in preschool, home and international school settings in Australia, Singapore and San Francisco. Carly has a BA of Early Childhood development (Child and Family) from the University of Western Sydney. Last year, Carly taught our TK Program and Explorers Program where she facilitated studies in Chinatown with the Explorer Children. Carly will be teaching the Laurel and Pine classes with Mallory this year. She has a passion for traveling, cooking and enjoys spending time being active outdoors.


Cordie grew up in Boulder, Colorado and now calls San Francisco her home. She has a passion for art and teaching young children and is going into her seventh year here at Stretch. Cordie has taught all ages in the school, often starting with children when they are 2 years old and continuing on with them until the graduate on to Kindergarten. She is taking on a new role at Stretch for the 2014/2015 school year. Cordie will be our resident Atelierista.  This is an exciting new position in our school and Cordie will collaborate with all teachers to bring art into their project work in intentional ways. When not working at Stretch Cordie loves spending time working on her own art practice and enjoying the outdoors with her dog Elway and her fiancé Jack.

It is my mission as an educator to help students meet their
fullest potential by providing a safe environment that
supports risk-taking, invites a sharing of ideas, and
creates a passion for lifelong learning.

— Pine & Laurel Teacher at Stretch the Imagination


Cristina will be teaching the Magnolia, Willow, and Bay children this year. Cristina started with us last year supporting different classrooms on Wednesdays and then ran lunch and story time for the Explorers and Extended day children. Cristina has a wonderful energy about her that the children very quickly gravitate to. Cristina recently finished her degree at San Francisco State in the early childhood education program. Cristina is well versed in the language of constructivist and progressive education. In her spare time, Cristina loves gardening in her back yard, traveling, hiking, camping, and being in nature.


Mallory recently finished her master’s degree in early childhood general and special education from Bank Street College of Education in New York. After living in New York for the past five years she decided to move out west for a new adventure. She was quoted by saying, “I believe that each child is a unique individual who needs a secure, caring, and stimulating atmosphere in which to grow and mature socially, emotionally, intellectually, and physically. It is my mission as an educator to help students meet their fullest potential in these areas by providing a safe environment that supports risk-taking, invites a sharing of ideas, and creates a passion for lifelong learning.”


Mary was born and raised in Costa Mesa, California and has lived in San Francisco for five years now. She received her Child Development Degree at San Francisco State University with a concentration in young children and families. During her last year at State, Mary went abroad and took pedagogy courses in Sweden. Mary is going into her fourth year of teaching at Stretch and has been pursuing art classes on the side as she has shown a strong passion and dedication toward weaving in graphical representation and various forms of art into her classes. In her spare time, Mary loves to travel, take yoga classes, and run at Panhandle Park. She enjoys a day at the park with a picnic basket and friends!

Through my education at the University of Oklahoma,
I studied many constructivist and progressive teaching
approaches, including the Reggio Emilia approach, all of
which have shaped my teaching philosophy.

— Magnolia & Willow Teacher at Stretch the Imagination

Melissa A.

Melissa grew up in the East Bay and has loved living in San Francisco for the last seven years. She has over 12 years of experience working with children of various ages in schools, camps, and home settings and is going into her third year of teaching here with us at Stretch. She graduated with a BA in Child and Adolescent Development from San Francisco State University with Magna Cum Laude honors. This summer, Melissa participated in a teacher training that focused on connecting young children to nature through gardening. She is excited to bring back this new knowledge to our programs here at Stretch. Melissa loves the outdoors, reading, painting, and eating good food with her husband Jon.

Melissa O.

Melissa is from San Francisco and spent her high school years in Mill Valley. She has her B.A. in Young Child Development from San Francisco State University. Her interest in children has been a part of her life since adolescence, when she started providing in home care. Aside from Melissa’s experience as a nanny, she has also taught English in Spain, Art and Photography at McKinley Elementary’s After School Enrichment Program in San Francisco, volunteered at Presidio Early Education School in the inclusion program and taught at Cow Hollow School. She has a passion for cooking, traveling, seeing live music, and social justice. She lives with her husband in San Francisco and spends a lot of time with her mom, brother and sister-in-law hiking and cooking in Marin. She is also enrolled in the Early Special Childhood Education Graduate Program at San Francisco State University.


Natalie has been working with young children for now over a decade in various camp, school, and home settings. With a Bachelor’s in Education and Sociology from The Colorado College, Natalie subsequently pursued her Early Childhood Credentials through Ashworth College. Natalie believes that all children are unique and capable and continues to challenge their intellectual, creative, and imaginative boundaries each day. When she is not on the floor with the kids, she is riding her bike through the streets of San Francisco, seeking out new food destinations, and laughing with friends and family.

Through my experiences, I have come to see the classroom
as a place not only for children to take ownership of their
learning but as a place to foster a desire to be lifelong
learners and active community members.

— Maple Teacher at Stretch the Imagination


Jennifer received her Bachelor of Science in Early Childhood Education from the University of Oklahoma and taught preschool and first grade in Oklahoma prior to moving to San Francisco. Jennifer is quoted by saying, “Through my education at the University of Oklahoma, I studied many constructivist and progressive teaching approaches, including the Reggio Emilia approach, all of which have shaped my personal teaching philosophy. I have had the opportunity to implement these approaches in my past experiences and have found hands-on, child-centered learning activities to be essential to a child’s development.”


Jerika is originally from the Bay Area and is currently living in Pacifica. She graduated from San Francisco State University with a child and adolescent development degree and finished her master’s degree in May of 2014 in early childhood development. She has worked with children for over seven years and will be going into her third school year here at Stretch as a teacher. Jerika has captured many amazing photos of our students throughout her years at Stretch and we so value this as a part of our documentation. In her spare time, Jerika loves photography and enjoys visiting all the great neighborhoods around the city.


Lindy will be teaching the Willow and Magnolia classes this year at Stretch. Lindy has a degree and experience teaching in elementary education, but in recent years decided she wanted to work with children at the preschool level. She is currently enrolled in courses to further her learning in the preschool field. Lindy started familiarizing herself with Stretch in the spring as she joined us both in the classroom and in the Natural Classroom to get acclimated to the program. She has come on board with us this summer and we are lucky to have such a kind, nurturing, and intentional teacher working with our students. Lindy has a natural presence and a calming nature with children of this age and we are eager to start the school year with her teaching the Willows and Magnolias.

The Natural Classroom inspires so much growth, creativity,
risk taking, problem solving and deep social connection.
The benefits are powerful. We believe strongly at Stretch that it
is every child’s right to connect with the natural world.

— Michelle Lawton, Founder at Stretch the Imagination


Sarah is a native to the bay area and grew up in Santa Cruz California. She is an integral part of the support team here at Stretch the Imagination. This is her second year working at Stretch as she joins our Juniper teachers each Tuesday and Thursday morning. When not playing here at Stretch Sarah enjoys her mindful practice of meditation. She also loves to cook, eat good food, and can often be found creating art or visiting the work of other artists.


Tracy joins us after teaching in the Oakland Public Schools this past year as a first grade teacher. She earned her Early Childhood Masters as well as multiple subject teaching Credential from Mills College in Oakland in July of 2013 and is looking forward to getting back into the preschool setting. During her time spent getting her Master’s Degree, Tracy taught at the Mills Children’s Preschool and worked primarily with children ages 3 ½ to 5 years of age in a Reggio-inspired classroom. Tracy was quoted by saying, “through these experiences I have come to see the classroom as a place not only for children to take ownership of their learning but as a place to foster confidence, a desire to be lifelong learners and active community members.”

— Parent