Erikson Institute’s Barbara Bowman Leadership Fellows Program brings together experienced early childhood leaders to leverage their field expertise to develop policy recommendations designed to ensure Illinois’ publicly funded programs and resources are equitable, accessible, and of high quality for young children and their families.
Julissa Cruz is the senior director of community-based advocacy at the Carole Robertson Center for Learning, one of Chicago’s largest non-profit providers of early childhood education and youth development programming. In her role, she works to lend and uplift the lived experiences of the center’s family, staff, and community members in conversations around systems building and transformation.
Prior to joining the Carole Robertson Center, she spent over a decade within Chicago Public Schools, where she worked closely with district’s stakeholders on family engagement and governance. Cruz is also board member of the North River Commission, a community-based organization in Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood, and the Pediatric and Adolescent Transformative Health Care (PATH), a new initiative connecting children and families to behavioral and developmental health services. She is committed to ensuring every child and family in Chicago has access to the resources, supports, and opportunities that will enable them to thrive.
Cruz holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois, and a master’s degree from Loyola University Chicago. A proud Chicago native, she enjoys exploring the city and finding new treasures within Chicago’s many communities. In her free time, she enjoys planning her next vacation and spending time with her husband and two rambunctious young children.
Cassandra Davis is an experienced educator who has dedicated more than 20 years to serving students and their families, as well as supporting teachers and school leaders in Chicago. Throughout her career, she has held various roles, including teacher, coach, school-level administrator, network-level data strategist, and instructional support leader.
Currently, Davis holds the position of district manager in the Department of Student Assessment & MTSS (Multi-Tiered System of Supports) at Chicago Public Schools. In this role, she is responsible for overseeing and managing the student screening/benchmark assessments processes to support student’s academic needs. Her work contributes to ensuring all students in the City of Chicago have access to the highest quality education possible.
Her passion for education and commitment to equity and excellence in the educational experience has driven her throughout her career. She strives to create a supportive and inclusive learning environment for all students, working with teachers, and school leaders to improve educational outcomes.
Shannon Ellison joined the Collaboration for Early Childhood in January 2014 as the developmental screening coordinator. She currently serves as the director of programs and contracts for the Collaboration. She brings more than 27 years of experience working with children and families in various capacities. She has held positions in child care, Head Start and Early Head Start classrooms, as a program family service worker, preschool site director, infant-toddler specialist (working with unhoused children and families) and developmental therapist for both the Illinois and Indiana early intervention systems—including serving as a parent advisor for families with children who are deaf or hard-of-hearing.
All of Ellison’s work speaks to her passion for serving families, particularly those with the lived experience of being under-resourced and marginalized. It brings her joy to connect them to resources to meet the needs of their littlest members to develop into their full selves. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in human development and family studies from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Master of Education degree in early childhood leadership and advocacy from National-Louis University.
Associate Director of Operations
Illinois Department of Human Services- Division of Early Childhood
Felicia S. Gray was born and raised in the Austin community on Chicago’s Westside. She received her Bachelor of Social Work from Grambling State University in Louisiana and her Master of Social Work from the Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is a leader, serving individuals and families for more than 29 years in social services. She has nurtured strong working relationships and partnerships to align program initiatives with missions, visions, and values. She has dedicated her career to improving systems to make the greatest impact for communities across the state. Gray has successfully engaged families, led collaborative teams, programs, and projects effectively, efficiently and with excellence, focusing goals to increase capacity, equitable access, and quality services to support residents.
She is the associate director of operations for the Illinois Department of Human Services’ Division of Early Childhood. This position gives her the opportunity to work with families, community providers, external and internal government stakeholders to create authentic and inclusive engagement opportunities. Gray’s work is navigated by the Division’s goal of equipping pregnant persons, young children, and families with the supports they need to achieve their full potential by providing equitable access to quality early childhood services across the state.
She is married to her husband William and has two adult sons. She is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., and currently serves as the president of her chapter. She is a board member at the Firehouse Community Arts Center in Chicago’s Lawndale Community and serves her community and profession through several other organizations.
Rosario Hernandez is a senior education policy analyst at the Latino Policy Forum who advocates for early childhood education (ECE) policy that promotes equitable services for Latino and English Learner families. She works to create a greater understanding of cultural and linguistic strengths and draws upon community assets to improve ECE programs and systems.
Additionally, she works to equip parents and caregivers with tools to support their children’s early development and boost their school readiness through various workshops. She also contributes to the coordination and implementation of other education advocacy and policy efforts at the Forum, including the shortage of bilingual and Latino educators. Hernandez received her Master of Social Work degree with a focus on interpersonal practice and mental health from the University of Michigan.
Emily Kelin is the early childhood project manager at Chicago Public Schools (CPS). In this role, she manages the Universal Pre-K (UPK) initiative, working to expand free, full-day preschool access for all four-year-olds in Chicago. She also leads the District’s Pre-K recruitment and enrollment work and partners with CPS and City leadership, other government agencies, community organizations, and vendors to support preschool enrollment at nearly 400 CPS schools and 200 additional community-based sites.
Kelin began her career as a second-grade teacher in CPS and taught first grade for five years in the McKinley Park neighborhood. She is a former Chicago Mayor’s Office Fellow. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Spanish with a minor in public health from Washington University in St. Louis, a master’s degree in education from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and a master’s degree in public policy from the University of Chicago.
Maggie Koller (she/her) is the communications manager for Birth to Five Illinois, the State’s equity-driven regional community system designed to amplify family, provider, and community voices in the state policy-making process. Ensuring these voices are heard gives local and state leaders a more accurate understanding of the unique early childhood education and care gaps and needs in each region of the State. In her role, she is responsible for upholding the organizational values of racial equity, family voice, and collective impact across statewide and region-specific communications, as well as leading the implementation of the statewide communications strategy, including content creation, email marketing, website design and development, social media marketing, press/public relations, and internal systems building.
Prior, Koller served as the director of communication & dissemination for the Illinois Governor’s Office of Early Childhood Development (GOECD), spearheading the Office’s communications and public dissemination for the Preschool Development Grant Birth through Five (PDG B-5), as well as managing logistics for three statewide groups: the Illinois Early Learning Council (ELC), ELC Executive Committee, and Early Childhood Inter-Agency Team (IAT). She received her Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology and theater arts/dance from Beloit College and holds a Master of Science in child development with a specialization in children’s law and policy from Erikson Institute. Prior to transitioning into the field of early childhood, Koller worked in creative, strategic, and management capacities for a Chicago-based advertising agency and choregraphed, performed, and toured with several Chicago-based modern dance companies. She was recognized by Art Intercepts as one of, “5 Chicago Dancers to Observe in 2015.” Koller grew up in Oak Park and currently resides in Berwyn, Illinois.
Rayshonda McElroy is the director of education and child development services, at Brightpoint. She has been in the field of early childhood education for over two decades and has a strong belief that all children, regardless of their socioeconomic status, deserve a quality education. Her goal is to make impact and close the academic achievement gap in under-resourced communities. She also advocates for early childhood to be seen as a profession and collaborates to increase salaries for teachers.
Currently, McElroy oversees early childhood centers in Chicago, Palatine, Schaumburg and Carpentersville. Her primary role is to ensure that all sites are in compliance, as well as implement quality comprehensive services for children and families. She is also hyper-focused on professional development for teachers. She realizes that embedded professional development, such as reflective learning communities, creates a safe space for teachers and increase child outcomes.
McElroy grew up in Chicago and understands the importance of receiving a quality education. She received a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education, with a concentration in special education and a master’s degree in educational administration. Her education and experiences allow her to create systems and implement innovative change.
Dara Munson has built a career focused on the needs of women and children. Today, she serves Chicagoland as the first African American president and CEO of Family Focus, delivering early childhood education and development, youth development and family support services to 20,000 families and their children. Formerly CEO of Chicago Child Care Society since 2016, Munson is a native of Detroit and past president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metro Detroit, past chief operating officer of Girl Scouts of Southeastern Michigan, and past senior director of United Way of Southeastern Michigan. Her early career and education were in the criminal and juvenile justice fields.
Munson recently served as Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Eastern Michigan University Foundation Board (her alma mater) where she was the first African American woman to hold that role. She also serves Chicagoland in several leadership positions including chair of Chicago Alliance for Collaborative Effort (CACE) and as a board member of the International Women’s Forum-Chicago Chapter. Additionally, she is a board member of Illinois Partners for Human Services. She is a member of the Economic Club of Chicago, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., Chi Omega Omega Chapter and Windy City (IL) Chapter of the Links, Incorporated. She is a past member of the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership Youth Committee, and the Southside Giving Circle for the Chicago Foundation for Women.
She is a graduate of Cass Technical High School in Detroit. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in criminal justice from Eastern Michigan University, a Master of Science degree in public administration from Central Michigan University and a strategic perspectives in non-profit management certificate from Harvard Business School.
Lynn Reuter is an early learning administrator with School District U-46. Her role is focused on both teaching and administration in early childhood since beginning her career at the school district in 1998. In the last nine years, her leadership has been focused on supporting the work of the district’s home visiting program, and preschool access for families aging out of the Early Intervention program and students identified through Child Find as needing enriching early learning experiences.
During her tenure with the school district, she is proud to have led the Parents as Teachers Home Visiting team and received the prestigious recognition of being a Blue Ribbon Affiliate with Parents as Teachers National. Reuter’s passion in this work has been partnering with families furthest from opportunity to assist them in providing enriching, safe, consistent, and engaging opportunities to support their littlest learners while creating authentic, relational experiences around education that are positive.
She is proud to be an alum of School District U-46 and still resides in the diverse community that she serves. As a Stage 4 ovarian cancer thriver, she relishes making memories with her wife and four children during her free time.
Krystal Ross has seven years of program director experience and 14 years of experience in the field of early childhood education. Over her tenure, she has served in federally funded programs such as Early Intervention, Head Start, and Early Head Start. She currently serves as the chief program officer for Gads Hill Center in Chicago and manages Head Start, Home Visiting, Preschool for All, Prevention Initiative, and Partnership Child Care Center, Mental Health Programming Healthy Minds Healthy Schools (CPS Schools) for Youth Services, and Community Initiatives)— programs that span over nine schools and 697 children.
Ross is passionate about creating a more equitable space for Black and Brown families, especially those living within Chicago’s south and southwest sides. She is deeply dedicated to coaching and empowering early childhood educators and has spoken at several nationally recognized conferences to share her passion including the National Head Start Conference, Illinois Head Start Conference, InterAct, Teachstone Early Learning Conference, McCormick Early Learning Conference. Due to her various speaking engagements, she has been afforded the ability to consult at agencies across the Midwest like LEARN Chicago and the YWCA St. Louis.
She holds a Bachelor of Arts in early childhood ed. She is a member of the Chicago Early Learning Collaborative, Illinois POC Migration Policy Institute Committee (which promotes the integration of dual language learning in the classroom), Chicago Benchmarking Collaborative, Brighton Park Neighborhood Network, BRIDGES Community Planning Team, and North Lawndale Early Learning Collaborative.
Erick Saldivar has worked for Illinois Action for Children for nine years and currently manages the organization’s support services for the state-funded Child Care Assistance Program. Saldivar holds a Bachelor of Arts in history and was born and raised in Chicago.
Deputy of Research & Child Well-being
Illinois Department of Children and Family Services
Dr. Verletta A. Saxon is the deputy of research and child well-being at the Illinois Department of Children and Families (DCFS) and a licensed clinical practicing counselor (LCPC) who is passionate about children and families. She believes anyone can transform their life and heal from their past/present life events, traumas and stressors and her bold mission is to support lifelong learning and assist others as they gain purpose, power in their individual lives.
Manager, The Chicago Early Learning Workforce Scholarship
City Colleges of Chicago
Guadalupe Valdivia is a Chicago native and is committed to ensuring that anyone in the early childhood education (ECE) field receives quality and equitable higher education and supported as they enter the workforce to deliver quality comprehensive services to the city’s youngest children and families.
Valdivia is manager of the Chicago Early Learning Workforce Scholarship where she and her team collaborate with a diverse group of partners, city colleges, universities, stakeholders to build intentional pathways for the broad spectrum of ECE careers for Chicagoans currently taking courses or those already in the workforce who want to pursue credentials, degree, endorsements, or licensure. She also teaches ECE courses at City Colleges of Chicago-Truman College.
In 2008, she started her work at Metropolitan Family Services working with children ages birth to five as a family service worker. She provided holistic services and quickly moved to the director role, where she was able to achieve National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) accreditation for the center. She later moved to Chicago Public Schools under the Office of Early Childhood in Network 7, engaging principals, teachers, and families in the Pilsen/Little Village neighborhoods with quality tools, training, and best practices for early childhood.
Valdivia has a Bachelor of Science in child development and a master’s degree in applied and family studies from Northern Illinois University (NIU) in Dekalb, Ill. While there, she mentored over 100 interns at the university’s Lab School, training them for the ECE workforce while also teaching ECE courses. Her biggest achievement is being a proud mother of two teenagers and a loving wife to her supportive husband of 18 years.
A seasoned community and family advocate with nearly 20 years of nonprofit experience, Ricardo Villalobos has a strong foundation in community building, policy and advocacy work, and organizational strategic development. He is a lifelong Chicagoan and has intimate knowledge of the surrounding community’s core needs and the barriers that often challenge community goals. He firmly believes that his lived experience as a second-generation Mexican American is invaluable to his work, guiding his perspective, fueling his passion, and, most importantly, keeping him grounded within the communities he serves.
Before joining Christopher House, Villalobos worked at BUILD Inc. as the director of community engagement and strategic partnerships. He managed all of BUILD’s community and stakeholder partnerships while helping lead the way for restorative, trauma-informed practices in communities experiencing high levels of gun violence. Through the years, he helped develop and provide community support such as high-quality early childhood education resources, financial support services, immigration, and trauma-informed resources to families across Illinois.
He currently sits on the Chicago Public Media’s Sounding Board and is the founding member of Segundas Productions, a community collaborative focused on highlighting diverse artists and musicians across Chicago.
LeTosha White emerged onto the Illinois Early Childhood Education scene as an unrecognized leader with a business background as a childcare center owner, franchise operator, national trainer/speaker, and coach. Just a few years later, with a unique leadership lens, niche skill sets, and an infectious passion for inspiring and facilitating organizational change processes leveraged her a seat at one of the most influential tables of Chicago Early Learning.
She’s a second-generation college graduate and third-generation entrepreneur whose leadership values are centered in honoring her ancestor’s journey from sharecroppers in Como, Mississippi to multigenerational business owners. Organically, her leadership path eventually led to service in the community which faced systemic marginalization. Currently as the vice president of Black Child Development Institute Chicago Metro, she is committed to supporting and developing programs designed with the needs of Black children, their parents, and villages in mind. She’s known to unequivocally announce: “If it’s not fun and meaningful, I’m not doing it.” Equitable policy, practices, and resources for all children is the foundation of her work. Her charismatic and skilled approach to collaboration with aligned partners makes getting there both practical and enjoyable.
Michelle Wood is currently the bureau chief of Quality Initiatives in the Division of Early Childhood at the Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS). She began her tenure at IDHS in January and her bureau oversees Migrant and Seasonal Head Start, Program Improvement and Quality and Site Administered Child Care Contracts. Many of the Smart Start Illinois Projects, such as Smart Start Transition Grants, Smart Start Quality Supports Program, the Apprenticeship Pilot, etc., live in her bureau.
Prior to joining IDHS, Wood was a principal consultant in the early childhood department at the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) for seven years. Her work at ISBE included continuous quality improvement, overseeing state-funded Preschool/Prevention Initiative programs and Head Start collaboration. Her prior experience includes 13 years in a Head Start program and four years as a Preschool for All/Early Childhood Special Education teacher. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in early childhood and elementary education from Greenville University and a Master of Arts degree in education from Ashford University. She is currently working towards her Ph.D. in early childhood leadership and advocacy from Walden University. She is a National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) member and the current president of the Metro East Chapter of Illinois AEYC. She is the board secretary for the Illinois Head Start Association board of directors in the friend’s component and the Region V Head Start board representative.
On a personal note, Wood lives in Carlyle, Ill. where she and her late husband raised their two children. Her daughter Ashton (24) is a Navy IT analyst and is stationed in Oxnard, CA. Her son Mayson (19) is music education and composition major at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and will be a junior in the fall of 2023.