When Amanda Quesenberry said, “You can take the girl out of Head Start, but you can’t take Head Start out of the girl,” she was referring to her career path starting from the moment she received her bachelor’s degree in education until she took her current job at Illinois State 2½ years ago. And even during her time at the University, she has remained an active, passionate proponent of Head Start with all of her pre-service teachers.
Quesenberry, an assistant professor in Curriculum and Instruction, said prior to her baccalaureate graduation she had never heard of Head Start, the federal program dedicated exclusively to meeting the needs of low-income children and their families that serves nearly one million children, has over 200,000 staff members and is housed in approximately 1,600 programs in the U.S. However, from the time she took her first job with Head Start as an administrative assistant, later working as a teacher and home visitor, it was apparent that the Head Start mission was everything Quesenberry believed about the education of young children – a holistic and comprehensive approach along with family involvement.
Living in a rural Illinois town in a low-income family helped Quesenberry put in perspective the role that Head Start plays in breaking the cycle of poverty by advancing the educational abilities of children to meet those of their peers as they start in kindergarten. “I’ve lived that life,” she said. “I know that a program like Head Start would have benefited me and my family.”
Since its inception in 1965, Head Start has helped nearly 25 million pre-school aged children through their comprehensive education, health, nutrition and parent involvement services, making it the most successful, longest-running, national school readiness program in the U.S.
While Quesenberry is much too young to have been in at the beginnings of Head Start, she has worked for and with Head Start programs since 1998. While working for a local Head Start program in Indiana, she went from being an administrative assistant, to the classroom, to administrative roles, including coordinating an Early Head Start program and working as the program’s disabilities coordinator. As the disabilities coordinator, she worked with Head Start families to learn about their children and their needs and then conducted training with Head Start teachers to help them feel more comfortable including children with special needs in their classrooms.
After several Head Start management jobs, Quesenberry started working at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) as part of a the Region V Quality Improvement Center for Disabilities (QIC-D), a training and technical assistance grant, which worked with Head Start programs. That job entailed working with all Illinois Head Start programs outside of Chicago, making sure the programs had what they needed to support children with special needs and their families. Quesenberry said that 10 percent of the enrollment in a Head Start program must be reserved for children with special needs.
Quesenberry’s next Head Start affiliation was working at UIUC through the grant, The Center on Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL). “This great training center, with amazing researchers and staff who had extensive experience in the field, was dropped right into my lap,” she said. “They needed educators to pilot their materials, and I had access to the Head Start educators.”
Just as the QIC-D grant was completed, Quesenberry finished her master’s degree and decided to pursue her doctorate at UIUC. But once again, Quesenberry was back in the Head Start fold as she did her dissertation research with six programs in Illinois and also continued working with CSEFEL to provide training and support to Head Start and child care programs across the country, tailoring educational materials for local programs, such as a series for the American Indian/Alaskan Native Head Start Training and Technical Assistance providers, and others for groups in the Bay and Los Angeles areas of California as well as border and rural communities.
“I was able to blend my dissertation research with Head Start populations as they opened the (informational) doors to me,” Quesenberry said. “I looked at six Illinois Head Start programs in depth, examining classroom content as well as their behavior policies and procedures.” Quesenberry received two years of funding from the federal Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation to do her dissertation research with Head Start populations.
After finishing her Ph.D., Quesenberry pursued a fellowship, working for the Office of Head Start in Washington, D.C. for one year. In this role, she worked at the federal level in the area of early childhood outcomes and assessment, which she said is still a hot topic that is continuously debated. This work helped prepare her to come to Illinois State and teach early childhood assessment to pre-service teachers.
“When my supervisor at the Office of Head Start asked me to take on assessment and child outcomes, I begged her to let me do something else because it was such a hot topic, but she won,” Qusenberry said. “Over time it developed into a passion, but not for assessment as it is usually viewed. I teach future teachers to think about assessment as something they constantly are doing, a way of reflecting on their own practices. Some pre-service teachers are tempted to think that after teaching a lesson, ‘that is it, I’m done.’ What I try to instill in them is that you never stop teaching a particular lesson. After you are done you have to think to yourself, ‘who got it, who didn’t, and if they didn’t, why they didn’t and what can be done differently next time.’ Assessment is not always about pencil/paper tests, rather, it is a way of teaching by being a good observer and listener.”
Besides teaching assessment, Quesenberry also teaches issues and practices in early childhood education. “It’s a fun class in which we get to examine issues like family involvement, technology, support of children with special needs and federal programs such as Head Start. We talk about public education and federal programs and how they differ in their educational approach. I try my best to get practicum students interested in meaningful experiences with diverse programs such as Head Start.”
Quesenberry said that she could talk for hours about the Head Start program. “I still get a little teary-eyed thinking about all my years in Head Start,” she said, noting again that the woman and educator she has become have been rooted in her Head Start experiences.