'Education is where it all comes together': Owen learning ropes as Head Start director

2014-04-04T00:30:00Z 2014-04-04T07:56:04Z 'Education is where it all comes together': Owen learning ropes as Head Start directorBy ZACH BENOIT zbenoit@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Less than four days into her new role as executive director of the Billings Head Start program, Jennifer Owen's first day on the job — Monday — already seems like a distant memory.

"It seems like it was a month ago," she said Thursday. "There's so much going on and so much to learn. There's a lot of enthusiasm that I feel from staff and parents. It's a lot of energy and excitement around here."

Last week, Head Start announced Owen — a Billings-born-and-raised energy attorney with experience in political and nonprofit jobs — would take over for outgoing director Kathy Kelker, who will retire this spring after heading up the organization for six years.

Head Start is a federally and locally funded nonprofit that provides early childhood education to about 360 preschool-aged children from low-income families at five sites across Billings, Joliet, Laurel, Lockwood and Red Lodge.

For the next month or so Owen will learn the intricacies of the job from Kelker, who plans to stay on until early May to ease the transition.

"It was really important to me that the stability remains in place because at Head Start, there are always surprises," Kelker said.

Even though there is a transitional period, Owen won't get much time to lean back and just take everything in. She's got to deal with staffing issues, working with the kids and parents, addressing the board of directors and dealing with Head Start's $3 million annual budget.

On Thursday morning, she was preparing for her first meeting with Head Start supervisors for a lengthy strategic planning meeting later in the day.

"We're already talking about how we finish the school year," Owen said. "There's a lot of different things going on. I don't have much time to learn to crawl before I start to walk and run."

Owen said that she brings a wide range of experiences that she hopes to apply to the job.

In addition to working as an attorney, she began her career at a Washington, D.C.-based education nonprofit, served as an adviser for Sen. Conrad Burns, worked at the Department of Energy and in the U.S. Senate, served as editor of the Billings Gazette Communications' Montana Energy Review, helped open a clinic in Nicaragua for impoverished women and children and served on the board of directors of a nonprofit supporting youth with cancer.

Most recently, she served as chairwoman of the Yellowstone County Republican Party, a position from which she stepped down last month to take the Head Start job.

"A job like this requires a lot of different skills, and I've been fortunate have a lot of experience to develop a lot of different skills," Owen said. "I feel very fortunate to have almost 13 years training for this job."

Both Kelker and Owen said that one of the most pressing matters facing Head Start is a growing need for its services, which lines up with Billings' projected growth in the coming years as an energy hub.

While it already serves 360 children, Head Start has a waiting list of 100 children, and they both see the need for its early education services growing.

Kelker said that a recent survey of city residents identified child care as one of the biggest issues in Billings.

"The quality of education and comprehensive services we provide set a benchmark," she said. "There needs to be a lot of room for support for children."

One way Owen plans to address that waiting list and the growing need for such services is through aggressive fundraising. Much of Head Start's current $3-million annual budget — about 80 percent, currently — comes from a federal grant program, leaving about $760,000 for local fundraising.

She said she wants to actively and aggressively pursue local fundraising and challenged the community pitch in.

"That federal amount of money isn't likely to change soon, but our demands here will," she said. "I want to challenge Billings and the surrounding areas to be a part of what we do here. I want to ask everybody in this community to make an investment in these kids."

Kelker said Owen's varied skills are one of the things that made her stand out for the position, but are also something she'll need to keep sharp.

More importantly, Kelker said in passing along a bit of advice to Owen, it's about truly caring about the job and applying that to all of those tasks.

"You have to believe in the mission," she said. "You have to believe that early childhood is the highest priority. You can get through the ups and downs if you do believe in what you're doing and seeing the kids succeed."

As the mother of a young child, Owen said she's passionate about early childhood education and believes that it can have a serious impact on communities around the country, something she wants to apply to the job on a daily basis.

"The challenges we face here in Billings, and nationally, can be solved with high-quality education," she said. "Education is where it all comes together."

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