Program Director of Early Learning Programs
Metropolitan Family Services
“I would like to be better versed on ways to approach issues with lobbyists, aligning initiatives with the platforms of elected officials, and ways to partner with decision makers in order to better influence policies that inevitably impact the children and families.”
Jennifer has served in the field of early childhood education for more than 22 years. She is currently the program director of early learning programs for Metropolitan Family Services where, for more than 10 years, she has led a team of passionate early childhood educators and manages contracts for the Chicago Public Schools and the Department of Family and Support Services. Her career began as a lead teacher for a family-owned daycare center on the south side of Chicago. She also worked as an education coordinator, mentoring and coaching teachers, and later went on to become a classroom teacher for the Chicago Public Schools (CPS). Jennifer worked for CPS for more than seven years as the grade level chairperson, local school council teacher representative, CPS union delegate and was nominated as a DRIVE (Delivering Results through Innovation and Visionary Education) award recipient. She holds a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education from Chicago State University and two a master degrees in early childhood education from Governor’s State University and in educational leadership from Northeastern Illinois University. Additionally, Jennifer serves as a member of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services Daycare Licensing Council and sits at various tables throughout the community. She is a wife, mother, and grandmother, and balances it all with her love of traveling and drive to learn new things.
Vice President of Performance and Quality Improvement
“If we can provide more support for children at the micro system, that layer of the environment closest to the child, we can have a greater impact on the other outer systems.”
Sonja Anthony is the vice president of performance and quality improvement and early childhood programs at ChildServ, a nonprofit in Chicago providing services for more than 100 years. Previously held positions within her four years at ChildServ include director of quality improvement and program supervisor for community based early childhood programs. She has worked in administration for various nonprofit organizations in the early childhood division as well as for state and federal programs, including Early Head Start, Head Start, Prevention Initiative, CCAP, FCCH, Early Intervention, Home Visiting and DCFS spanning the past 19 years. During this time, she has also participated in numerous advocacy committees and research studies. Sonja obtained her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Chicago State University and her master’s degree in early childhood from Roosevelt University. She also holds the Type 04 teaching certification with a special education endorsement and has held the developmental therapist credential through the early intervention system of Illinois and has completed coursework towards the infant studies advanced certificate from Erikson Institute.
Senior Manager, Education
United Way of Metropolitan Chicago
“I hope to influence our organization’s advocacy efforts to focus more strongly and more specifically on issues of equity and access in early learning in the region.”
Missy is a passionate advocate for public education and social justice. In her current role as senior manager of education, she leads United Way of Metro Chicago’s strategy and evaluation of investments in early education and youth development. Missy earned her master’s degree in education at the University of Washington and has a background in building and connecting community systems in support of children, youth and families. Her career has focused on growing parent-teacher collaboration, strengthening school-community partnerships, increasing access to resources for immigrant families, and supporting the development of restorative justice practices. Previously, she led the development of a Community Schools initiative in Evanston and Skokie, including the implementation of an innovative parent-organizing model. She served on the inaugural planning committee for Evanston Cradle to Career—a community-wide collaboration to improve equity for all of Evanston’s youth. A native of Northern California, Missy is now a proud Chicagoan and supporter of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association. She is bilingual in English and Spanish and loves to travel the world. She and her partner Paul are parents of a beautiful toddler and she is never happier than when she’s dancing and goofing off with her family.
United Way of Kankakee & Iroquois Counties
“It is my end goal to ensure that every child enters school ready to succeed, and then expound upon that potential throughout the remainder of their educational career.”
Tiffany is deeply committed to impacting her local community and its residents. She is the executive director for United Way of Kankakee and Iroquois Counties, serving an area where she grew up her whole life. It has provided her with a profound way to connect to her roots and the place she still calls home. Tiffany serves as a Kankakee County Chamber of Commerce ambassador, as a board member of both the Kiwanis Club of Kankakee and the Kankakee River Valley Community Foundation, and as a committee member for the Volunteer Recognition luncheon. She also was a recipient of the Kankakee County’s 40 Under Forty Awards. She graduated in 2011 from Olivet Nazarene University with a degree in corporate communications and a minor in business. She lives in Bradley, Illinois with her doting husband, Joshua DeRocco, and their two dogs, Doc and Gracie.
Child Development Center Site Director
Gads Hill Center
“I want to be a productive leader with the goal of influencing policy leaders to support early childhood programs.”
Rosalinda continues her family’s legacy in education through her work as site manager at Gads Hill Center. She is originally from Puebla, Mexico and has several family members who are teachers and principals in her hometown. Her work with children in early childhood education keeps her inspired and she believes that every child can reach their full potential. She has more than 10 years of experience in the field and has served as a Head Start classroom teacher, Head Start home visitor and education supervisor. Rosalinda holds a bachelor’s degree in arts and sciences from Northeastern University and a master’s degree in teaching early childhood education from National Louis-University. She also obtained the Illinois Director Credential and completed a Lead, Learn and Excel leadership cohort at the Ounce of Prevention Fund.
DuPage Federation on Human Services Reform
“ I want to be a stronger leader that uses data-based decision-making to shape and influence policy.”
FaKelia serves in a capacity that helps build and shape birth to five early childhood community systems and policy. She is program director of DuPage Early Childhood Collaboration at DuPage Federation on Human Services Reform and has 14 years of experience. Three frameworks guide her work: family support principles, diversity-Informed infant mental health tenets and trauma-informed practice. She began as a Head Start classroom teacher to trainer and went on to administration and program management. She has supported the families of young children in both Latino and African-American communities in Chicago, including Garfield Park, Austin, Aurora and Evanston. In 2009, she developed and incorporated Project Single Moms and Empowered Single Parents. She holds a bachelor’s degree in business management and a master’s degree in public policy from National-Louis University. She plans to pursue the infant mental health certificate at Erikson Institute.
Director of Programs
One Hope United
“I would like to influence issues around child care subsidy and school readiness, and the understanding of childhood trauma and how it affects children’s behavior in early childhood programs.”
As an early childhood professional, Carisa is committed to making sure that children receive a high quality education that will result in a great start for their future. She is director of programs at One Hope United where she oversees three early childhood programs, each with a capacity of at least 200 children. She is motivated and energized by developing early childhood professionals and teaches early childhood classes as an adjunct faculty member at Prairie State College. In her 23 years of experience working with children and families, she has served in various capacities including vice president of early childhood, director, family support supervisor and teacher. She holds a bachelor’s degree in child and family services from Southern Illinois at University at Carbondale and a master’s degree in education from Erikson Institute/Loyola University.
Education Program Officer
Robert R. McCormick Foundation
“I’m eager to gain the knowledge, skills, tools, and networks required to make policy systems work on behalf of the most vulnerable children.”
Safiyah brings a decade of early childhood experience, working in a variety of roles across the education sector. From museum education, to pre-kindergarten through grade 3 school-based education, to higher education teacher and leader prep, she is dedicated to advancing positive outcomes for children birth through early elementary. Currently, she is the education program officer at the Robert R. McCormick Foundation. She was the director of training at National Louis University’s McCormick Center for Early Childhood Leadership and managed a portfolio of leadership academies for early childhood leaders. In her role, she developed partnerships to expand capacity of the early childhood workforce. Prior to that, Safiyah was the director of learning programs at Shedd Aquarium where she led the development and implementation of an early science learning program. Her experience leading and managing a wide range of organizational growth initiatives, nonprofit board activities, and pro bono consulting projects is rooted in her passion for learning organizations. Safiyah obtained an MBA (marketing) from Florida A&M University and M.Ed. (both early childhood administration and educational psychology) from National Louis University. She is currently pursuing a doctorate in educational psychology.
Vice President of Education and Program Operations
“I want the ability to advocate on a national level for children and families, and I hope that my new found skills and knowledge will help me further the mission and goals of the agency for which I work.”
Andrew oversees operations, curriculum and staff training for Chicago Commons’ early education and adult education/family engagement programs. His past roles include serving as the director of education at the Ounce of Prevention Fund for the Educare Learning Network, and serving as a successful elementary school principal for more than 17 years. Andrew has been a vanguard in behavioral and academic reform, leading sustained implementation of systemic change that includes: an increased focus on student/teacher interactions in early childhood, the integration of a Spanish immersion program, the shift in the special education service delivery model to one of inclusion, and the implementation of Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS) and Response to Intervention (RTI). As a nationally recognized presenter and consultant, he has spoken around the country on the use of data for continuous quality improvement. He has a master’s degree in educational administration and supervision and a bachelor’s degree in elementary education both from the University of Illinois, and is a past recipient of Kohl International Teaching Award.
Early Head Start Program Director
The Salvation Army
“My goal is to ensure I have all the tools and knowledge to lead the community.”
Cindy is currently the early head start program director for The Salvation Army Child Care Programs. Her commitment to serving children and families is clearly reflected in her 10 years in the early childhood field. She has worked as a behavioral play therapist, supporting families through family engagement; and in communities through Chicago Public Schools Child Parent Centers. She holds a master’s degree in child development and specialization in infancy from Erikson Institute and a bachelor’s degree in education from California Polytechnic University of Pomona.
Carolyn Newberry Schwartz
Collaboration for Early Childhood
“Participation in the fellowship program will enable me to create models for local policies that build on state efforts to support high quality early learning programs.”
Carolyn is passionate about building connections between families, schools and social service organizations in order to develop strong communities where children thrive. Her long history of developing educational programs in communities includes serving on the Oak Park Elementary Schools, District 97, Board of Education for eight years where she helped launch Oak Park’s Collaboration for Early Childhood. She currently serves as the Collaboration’s first executive director and is working to significantly increase operating revenue. Her aim is to secure an innovative, intergovernmental partnership between three Oak Park jurisdictions that would establish an integrated system of high quality early childhood programs and services for the area. Carolyn balances her work with her love for the outdoors as well as cooking and entertaining family and friends. She lives in Oak Park with her husband David and has three adult children: Will who is working on his masters in elementary special education with a bilingual endorsement at University of Illinois at Chicago; Nat who is a scribe at a medical clinic in Oak Park; and Sylvie who attends college in Montreal.
Director of Early Childhood and Youth Development
“I believe that focusing on closing the education gap by preparing all children regardless of socio economic backgrounds provides them a head start and evens out the playing field.”
Having more than two decades working for Christopher House, Karen has a proven track record of high-expectations, high standards, data driven outcomes and the ability to develop and inspire leaders—earning her Employee of the Year in 2013. She currently oversees the early childhood education, after-school and youth leadership programs at Christopher House. Previously she served as site director for its Uptown location and oversaw the NAEYC accreditation and the QRS: 4-Star Award from the State of Illinois, making it the second childcare facility in the city of Chicago, and one of seven in the entire state of Illinois, to earn four stars. Karen is on the Truman College advisory board where she also serves as adjunct faculty in the early childhood education department. She holds a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education and two master’s degrees one in human performance improvement training and development and the other in early childhood administration. Her certifications include: Illinois Director Credential Level 3, Gateways; Infant Toddler Credential Level 5, Gateways; Christopher House Emerging Leaders Cohort, 2013; and Certified CLASS observer, Teachstone.
Felicia Starks Turner
Senior Director of Administrative Services
Oak Park Elementary School District 97
“I would now like to learn how to do more for our families and community and maximize the impact of our early childhood programs.”
Felicia wholeheartedly believes classrooms should be safe havens where children can make mistakes and be given the opportunity to learn and grow from them. For her, establishing a growth mindset—developing your abilities through dedication and hard work—is key to the success of our schools and the families we serve. She is currently the senior director of administrative services for the Oak Park Elementary School District in Suburban Cook County. In this role, she leads the PreSchool for All program for the district and works with the Early Childhood Collaboration. She has served in the district since 1995 as an assistant principal, principal, and several key positions as a district administrator. Felicia began her teaching career in Peoria Public Schools District 150 as a fifth grade teacher at Trewyn Middle School and then as the lead teacher and Even Start site supervisor at Washington Irving Elementary School. She was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois and received bother her bachelor and master degrees from Bradley University and her Ed.D. at Nova Southeastern University. She is also a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.
Educare West DuPage
“I hope to use the knowledge gained to strongly advocate for quality dual language programs in the state and also to close the salary gap that exists for early childhood professionals.”
Marcela has nearly 18 years of experience in working with financially disadvantaged and racially and ethnically diverse families. She works as a school director for Educare West DuPage in West Chicago, which is a dual language early childhood school that braids federal, state and private dollars to offer quality education to prevent the achievement gap. Before Educare, she had worked with the Office of Head Start’s Training and Technical Assistance Center for the State of Illinois, supporting Head Start and Early Head Start programs. She holds a master’s degree in early childhood education with early childhood licensure and bilingual education. Marcela is the mother of three active little girls and is currently pursuing her infant specialist certificate at Erikson Institute.
Senior Associate of Education Programs
Latino Policy Forum
“I hope to develop the confidence and skills to effectively navigate and work within the policy system in congruence with communities and schools, so that policies that affect families will be representative of the families’ and schools’ needs.”
At Latino Policy Forum, Natalie works to enhance the capacity of community-based organizations and school districts by helping them implement and sustain ongoing immigrant parent engagement through the Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors program. Under her purview, the programming has expanded outside of Chicago to include Aurora, Berwyn, Cicero, Joliet, Rockford, and West Chicago. She provides master training, technical assistance, and evaluation tools to more than 100 organizations and 20 schools who implement the program—reaching more than 2,000 families in Illinois. The metro Chicago model also connects Abriendo Puertas parents with opportunities to talk with legislators to promote access and increased funding for quality early childhood education programs. In addition, Natalie works to engage parents as critical stakeholders to inform state education plans under the Every Student Succeeds Act. She also supports organizational working groups to provide specific recommendations to early childhood education and parent engagement opportunities. She earned her master’s degree in social work from the Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from DePaul University.
Former Executive Director
Better Boys Foundation Family Services
“Through this fellowship, I want to understand more about what programs and policies would be most beneficial to children and families, both at the neighborhood level and within the context of a larger population.”
Bessie Alcantara has nearly 10 years of experience serving economically disadvantaged families in racially and ethnically diverse communities in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs. Throughout her career, she has been instrumental in designing and evaluating evidenced-based program models, many of which have been taken to scale both locally and nationally. She has spearheaded evaluation efforts that have led to various designations and awards, and she has remained ahead of the trends to diversify funding streams, build internal development capacity, and build financially sustainable programs. Her expertise includes research, program design, evaluation, professional development, data collection and analysis, and staff leadership development. She has a master’s degree in social work from Loyola University Chicago.
Blaine Elementary School
Chicago Public Schools
“I would like to develop policy that results in integrated services for youth and families — including health and nutrition, early childhood educational programming, and parent education. These services are crucial for families and children from birth through the early primary years, particularly in underserved communities.”
Angela Brito’s extensive experience in early childhood education spans three states and 15 years. Working in five different schools in Madison, Brooklyn, and Chicago exposed her to a variety of families and other educators, as well as the perspectives they brought to her classrooms. As a result, she developed a deep appreciation for the issues impacting early childhood education. She has worked as a classroom teacher, reading specialist, and school administrator, and co-interim principal at Blaine Elementary School, one of the Chicago Public Schools. In her previous role, she managed teacher development and led supports for academic interventions. She holds a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from the University of Wisconsin, a master’s degree in reading education from Concordia University, and an education specialist degree in administration and supervision from National-Louis University. In 2012, she achieved National Board Certification as a middle childhood generalist.
Tiffany R. Carter
Children’s Home and Aid Mitzi Freidheim Englewood Child and Family Center
“My mission has always been to improve early education and the quality of life for children and families.”
Tiffany R. Carter has always had a special love for children that has led her to work in educational settings since 1997. Throughout her career, she has used her leadership skills to help children and families reach their fullest potential. While attending graduate school, she ran the day-to-day operations of Tabernacle Child Development Center in her native Detroit. She moved to Chicago in 2003, with the goal of working in urban neighborhoods to improve early education and the quality of life for children and families. She served as director of an inclusive child care center with Jewish Children’s Bureau and program director at Olive-Harvey Child Development Center. She is currently the site manager for Children’s Home and Aid in Chicago’s West Englewood neighborhood. She holds a bachelor’s degree in child development and hospice education from Madonna University in Livonia, Michigan, and a master’s degree in educational administration with a focus in leadership and curriculum development from Marygrove College in Detroit.
Talina Carter Bowie
Early Childhood Director of Programs and Operations
Chicago Youth Centers
“Throughout my career in early childhood education, I’ve always sought to build a strong community of parents, teachers, and children.”
Over the course of two decades in early childhood education, Talina Carter Bowie has worked as a teacher, director, and coordinator — always following her belief that education should be inclusive of all children and maintain a philosophy of intentional teaching practices. In her role as early childhood director of programs and operations for Chicago Youth Centers, she works to ensure that the organization’s early childhood programs provide high quality experiences in communities across Chicago. As a leader, she is deeply committed to serving those who in turn serve families and children, while maintaining program compliance and standards in this important work. She has a master’s degree in social work and a bachelor’s degree in sociology, both from Chicago State University.
Director of Early Learning and Health
Logan Square Neighborhood Association
“As a community organizer working at the grassroots level, I bring a non-traditional perspective to the early childhood education field. I also bring nine years of experience working to address childhood obesity.”
Lucy Gomez’s work impacts the lives of her own neighbors. As director of early learning and health for the Logan Square Neighborhood Association in Chicago, she serves the families and children of the community where she lives. In her role, she works closely with local stakeholders and peer educators to develop a framework for how a community can work together to help children and their families be better prepared for kindergarten. For nine years prior, she was dedicated to child obesity prevention work. She served as project director of the Chicago “Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities” Partnership, which aimed to improve access to and increase healthy food options in parks, and managed a five-year partnership, Active Living by Design, focused on improving the built environment in Logan Square to support walking and bicycling. She also is a founding member of Northwestern University’s Alliance for Research in Chicagoland Communities, a steering committee promoting Community-based Participatory Research, and serves as commissioner on the Illinois Latino Family Commission. She holds a bachelor’s degree in urban planning from the University of Illinois-Chicago.
Former Director of Early Childhood Education
Teach for America-Chicago
“Change doesn’t happen overnight, and the best decisions are made when stakeholders with diverse perspectives collaborate.”
The daughter of a lifelong educator and recipient of early intervention services herself for a visual impairment, Kate Haffner found her calling in early childhood education. She began her teaching career at the community-based organization Casa Central and, while working there, she earned her master’s degree in early childhood education from Dominican University. She is was most recently in the position of director of early childhood education development at Teach For America-Chicago, where she coached early childhood teachers and designed professional development trainings.
Program Manager for Policy and Customer Service
Illinois Department of Human Services
Office of Early Childhood, Bureau of Child Care and Development
“I’m always looking for opportunities to collaborate across a broad range of systems and sectors to support quality early care and education and to promote children’s mental health and social emotional development.”
Throughout her career, Roselyn Harris has served in both policy and direct service roles, and regardless of her position, she always works for the benefit of children and families. In her current role with the state of Illinois, she defines Child Care Assistance Program policies and exercises critical oversight of program communication and resource management. She has served as part of the core team for the Work Support Strategies Project, a national- and state-level initiative focused on streamlining and aligning social services to increase families’ access to the full range of benefits as they move along the path to self-sufficiency. In addition, she has more than 15 years of clinical experience working in the field of mental health providing direct counseling and early intervention consultant services. She is a licensed professional counselor in Illinois, and she holds bachelor’s degree in psychology from Northwestern University and a master’s degree in clinical psychology from Roosevelt University.
Senior Director of Academic Programs and External Affairs
Big Shoulders Fund
“As an advocate for quality education opportunities for all students, I want to deepen my understanding of the public and private resources available that can help improve access and equity.”
Working with the Big Shoulders Fund, Rebecca Lindsay-Ryan uses her education background and nonprofit management experience to help improve communities and prepare students for lifelong success. For nine years, she has overseen significant growth of the fund’s academic programs in order to increase access to high-quality, developmentally appropriate education. Her work impacts thousands of Chicago children enrolled in the fund’s preschool and kindergarten programs, many of whom come from low-income backgrounds. Previously, she was an educator at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School and Francis W. Parker School. She has bachelor’s degrees in history and secondary education and a master’s degree in nonprofit management from DePaul University.
Juanita A. Rodriguez
Instructional Manager, Office of Language and Cultural Education
Chicago Public Schools
“My strong belief in additive bilingual programs stems both from my work experience and my upbringing as an English language learner.”
Juanita A. Rodriguez has a long history with the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), beginning with her own education. Growing up in the predominantly Mexican-American community of Pilsen, she was enrolled in a bilingual program in her neighborhood school. As an adult, she began her career as a bilingual educator for CPS in 1995, and has served the district as an expert on bilingual special education in various administrative positions. Currently, she is an instructional manager in the Office of Language and Cultural Education at CPS, collaborating with staff to develop guides and rubrics that articulate clear criteria for high-quality language education programs for English learners and using criteria to support implementation of consistent practice across the district. She supports the development and implementation of appropriate instructional programs and approaches for English learners that adhere to federal, state, and local policy and education initiatives.
Director, Referrals and Outreach
Illinois Action for Children
“To effectively implement change, we must partner with families and allow them to have a voice and advocate for themselves.”
Marquinta Thomas is passionate about educating parents of young children on the importance of positive early learning experiences. For nearly a decade, her work has focused on ensuring that families are connected with resources to help them overcome challenges associated with poverty, specifically barriers to accessing quality education and community resources. She has worked in various positions in Chicago that focused on family and community engagement, parent leadership, family advocacy, infant and toddler education, and family literacy. In her previous role with Illinois Action for Children, she managed teams that provide referrals to quality early learning programming and consumer education for families. She also has worked to influence and implement changes that ensure adequate resources are available and that barriers that prevent families from accessing them are eliminated. She holds a master’s degree in early childhood education and a bachelor’s degree in psychology/child and family studies, both from Roosevelt University.
Director, Child Care Assistance Program
Illinois Action for Children
“I’ve worked in almost every facet of Illinois’ Child Care Assistance Programs for 15 years, and I want to continue my growth in the early childhood field, particularly in regard to policy and advocacy.”
Chris Tokarski is interested in using policy to remove barriers that prevent eligible families from easily accessing child care assistance and other public benefits. Formerly, as director of policy and practice management in the Family Resources Department of Illinois Action for Children, he managed the organization’s work of administering the state of Illinois’ Child Care Assistance Program in Cook County. In March 2016, the program helped 34,000 families in Cook County pay for child care. In his 15 years with the organization, he has held many roles, from front-line work with families to quality assurance. His wife, Kelly, is a school librarian for pre-kindergarten through second grade, and he has two children. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English with a minor in business communication from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.