Head Start director

Head Start director Jennifer Owen talks about a program that increased students.

The executive director of Billings' largest public child care provider will step down in January. 

Jennifer Owen, who has led Yellowstone County's Head Start program since 2014, oversaw the program's expansion of overall seats and its re-branding to Explorers Academy. 

The organization will conduct a national search for a new leader, according to a press release from Explorers Academy Head Start. 

“Working with Jennifer has been inspiring,” said Jennifer Stark, chairwoman of the group's board of directors, in a press release. “Her dedication to children and families has pushed the program to become a leader in the early childhood community."

Under Owen's watch, Head Start purchased the former Holy Rosary Church and converted it into a child care facility in addition to its North Park site in Billings and joined the state-funded STARS program.

The group also closed classrooms in Red Lodge and Joliet as it consolidated services in Yellowstone County, citing higher need in the Billings area. 

It also incorporated changes sweeping through Head Start programs across the nation, like moving to full-day classrooms instead of half-days. 

The re-branding as Explorers Academy was an important move to reflect the program's offerings like tuition slots, parenting training and wrap-around care to help children cope with traumatic experiences. 

"We didn't really have a brand in the community. We meant different things to different people," Owen said Wednesday. "We're not just an entity that administers a federal grant."

She also cited the addition of tuition-paying slots as an important revenue source for the organization beyond federal funding, and as a way to add socioeconomic diversity to classrooms — a strategy backed up by research as a way to improve achievement for students from all economic backgrounds. The pilot program is in its second year. 

"I think it's still not well-known," Owen said. 

She also reflected on the Red Lodge and Joliet closures. 

"It was very easy to make (the decision) on the aggregate," she said, citing demand near Billings. "It was very hard to make it on an individual level. ... Those individual impacts are very painful."

Explorers Academy named Traci Wimmer interim executive director. Wimmer has served as the Head Start Director, a position below executive director, since 2017. She previously worked for Head Start in California. 

Owen said that she hopes to use her law degree at her next job, but shift away from administrative work.  

"I want to do direct advocacy for women and children," she said. 

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.