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Heartland Head Start faces leadership turnover and uncertainty as new school year begins

A man wearing a Heartland Head Start has his back to the camera
Heartland Head Start
Head Start had around 79 employees as of 2022, federal records show. They’ve just spent the past two weeks training and preparing for the new school year.

A Bloomington-based early childhood program for low-income families begins the new school year facing another round of leadership upheaval and under increased federal scrutiny for failing to properly supervise a 5-year-old child.

The publicly funded Heartland Head Start typically serves hundreds of children and families in McLean and Livingston counties. It’s faced numerous leadership challenges and workplace-culture complaints in recent years, including a power struggle between its two governing boards that devolved into a lawsuit.

These issues have flared again this summer, with the July 11 departure of Head Start’s executive director, Kalessa Edgerson, for reasons that have not been made public. Edgerson’s exit was “abrupt, to say the least,” said Jasmine Shegog, chair of the family-led Heartland Head Start Policy Council.

“I think the change in leadership, although it could have went a little smoother, I do think the people who were involved wanted it to be the best for the teachers and staff. That was their motivation, no matter the ins and outs of how it got done,” Shegog said.

A member of the agency’s Governance Board, Ericka Howard, is serving as interim executive director. The Governance Board itself has a new interim president. It oversees the agency’s legal and fiscal matters.

Howard told WGLT last month that Head Start was reorganizing and would have a plan in place in two weeks. She was not available for an interview about the reorganization for this story. A job posting says Heartland Head Start is looking to hire an executive director, with a salary range of $90,000 to $125,000.

“During this transition period, our top priority remains the safety, well-being, and education of the children in our care,” Heartland Head Start’s Governance Board said in a statement. “We assure you that Ericka will work closely with our dedicated staff to maintain our standards of care and enhance the learning experiences for our children.”

Integral part of the community

Nationally, Head Start began in 1965 as a tool to fight poverty. Today, the Bloomington-based Heartland Head Start is a critical part of the early childhood system in McLean County, which already has too many kids than there are spots available. It uses a combination of federal grant money and local matching funding to provide a “comprehensive child and family development program” aimed at helping kids 5 and under get ready for school. The bulk of students are Black.

“Programs such as Head Start are an integral part of the community,” said Linda Ruhe Marsh, who runs an early childhood workforce program at Illinois State University. “It is something that I think we need to pay a little more attention to. It’s an investment in our future. It sounds cliché in many ways, but if we don’t invest in children early, we’re going to see issues when children get to the public school system.”

Ruhe Marsh previously was an Early Head Start director near Chicago for 10 years.

“There are many things that are incredibly rewarding,” Ruhe Marsh said. “But also, it’s a challenging, demanding and time-consuming job.”

The Heartland Head Start location at 206 Stillwell St. in west Bloomington.
Google Maps
The Heartland Head Start location at 206 Stillwell St. in west Bloomington.

Head Start agencies are run by three entities: the managing staff, the Governance Board (legal and fiscal matters), and the Policy Council (parents’ voice in major decisions). Those three pieces need to move together with some level of compatibility, said Ruhe Marsh.

“You have to make sure you’re presenting the information (to the board and council) minus personal opinions and how you’re feeling about the situation, to make sure there’s that neutrality, so everyone gets the same amount of information, the correct information,” said Ruhe Marsh.

In addition to building good relationships with the boards, Head Start’s next director will also need to address hiring needs and employee morale. Head Start had around 79 employees as of 2022, federal records show. They’ve just spent the past two weeks training and preparing for the new school year.

“Over the years, it has been evident that there have been immense leadership issues from those in positions of power, specifically directors and governing bodies,” a former Head Start employee told WGLT. They requested anonymity to speak freely. “The lack of support, demeaning behavior, and disbelief in employees’ voices was deafening. Most of the time, the employees were able to stand on solid ground, but sometimes it felt like the foundation was constantly crumbling.”

One of Edgerson’s predecessors resigned in March 2021 as part of a resolution to that lawsuit filed by the Governance Board against its Policy Council. The two boards butted heads over the director’s evaluation the year before. Several employees had sued the director, alleging they were mistreated.

Even in the best circumstances, recruiting and retaining workers for early childhood jobs is tough, given the field’s low pay.

“It’s been an issue we’ve talked about, but it’s reached new levels over the last couple of years,” said Tommy Sheridan, deputy director of the National Head Start Association. “With the way the world is shifting to being more comfortable with remote work, that’s something a lot of folks want. And there are some industries where that’s just not possible.”

Jasmine Shegog said one of the reasons she joined the Policy Council a few years ago was because she had concerns with Head Start’s previous management team. She praised Edgerson for making several positive changes, including in her own son’s classroom environment, and suggested that her push for change may have led to clashes or disagreements with other staff.

“I do see the changes in the teachers already (since Edgerson’s exit). You have to give it more time,” Shegog said. “I’m very hopeful, that’s what I can say. Because it seems like the current interim (director) is very dedicated to getting the teachers what they need. And maybe that was an area that was lacking or maybe that was an area that needed to be handled differently.”

Federal review finds supervision problem

One of the most urgent tasks is to address a June 2023 review from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families. Heartland Head Start was formally written up and given 30 days to correct a deficiency, stemming from a 5-year-old who was left unsupervised for 15 minutes during a visit to a museum, records show.

Howard did not respond to a question about how the matter was being addressed. A copy of the review was sent July 28 to Jodi Martin, who was identified as an “authorizing official / board chairperson” from the Governance Board. Martin told WGLT she’s no longer on the board.

Five other recent members also told WGLT they were no longer on the Governance Board. One told WGLT she “would not like to be contacted concerning HHS.”

In a statement Wednesday, ISU music professor Ama Oforiwaa Aduonum told WGLT she has stepped into the role as interim president of the Governance Board. (After this story was published, Aduonum told WGLT there were three other Governance Board members: Aaron Galloway, Beth MacDonald and Robyn Seglem.) The Governance Board’s webpage was a broken link, although it was restored after this story was published.

“When you have times of turnover at the leadership level of a program, it’s really incumbent on the (Governance) Board and the Policy Council and also on community partners to be able to step up to really support that transition, as you identify and move onto a new leader,” Sheridan said. “That’s when we really do need community partners to come together and recognize this is not about a single agency. This is about the children and families in the community.”

What happens to the grant

Heartland Head Start’s $4 million budget is funded almost entirely by a federal grant, awarded every five years. The current grant ends in June 2025.

Every five years, Head Start programs go through the federal Designation Renewal System – ostensibly a quality-control process. Programs are judged on seven criteria, and if they fail to meet even one of them it automatically triggers an open competition for the next round of grant money. One of those criteria is having two or more deficiencies; Heartland Head Start has at least one already – the incident with the 5-year-old.

If Heartland Head Start meets the conditions required to compete, it’s likely that they would not receive written notice from the federal Office of Head Start in 2024.

It’s a question those inside Head Start have pondered. During the legal fight between the two boards, the Governance Board was accused by the Policy Council of placing “our agency and grant in jeopardy” in 2019, during a period of “so much uneasiness and stress,” WGLT previously reported.

“That is one of the things that really sets us apart from a lot of other early childhood programs, is that we all have to meet those standards. And those standards are rigorous and difficult to meet,” said Sheridan.

If an open grant competition is triggered, another nonprofit, agency or even school system could try and compete for the grant. There are viable candidates in the community, said Carol Weisheit, regional council manager for Birth to Five Illinois for the four-county Region 17 that includes Bloomington-Normal.

“With the early childhood education and care landscape here in McLean County, I’m sure there would be a viable agency to lead it,” Weisheit said. “And the bottom line, we want what’s best for children and families in all the communities throughout Region 17. I think that could happen – for an agency to pick it up.”

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
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