Although Channell B. Wilkins may be walking into the lion’s den as the new leader of the federal Head Start preschool program, he seems cool as a cucumber.
Mr. Wilkins, the executive director of the New Jersey Community Action Association, will start April 17 as an associate commissioner in the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families and as the chief of the ACF’s Head Start Bureau. He was appointed by Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael O. Leavitt.
He said in an interview that he was looking forward to learning about the bureau and providing “fresh eyes and enthusiasm.”
The job proved to be a contentious one for his predecessor, Windy Hill, who left the Health and Human Services Department last June after coming under attack by the very vocal National Head Start Association. The Alexandria, Va.-based advocacy group represents Head Start parents and teachers.
The $6.8 billion Head Start program helps prepare poor children for kindergarten.
Ms. Hill was often critical of local Head Start programs across the country; the NHSA returned the fire by lobbing political grenades in her direction. The group accused her of inappropriate conduct in her previous job as the director of a local Head Start program in Texas, saying she had improperly accepted bonus money while there and later used her federal position to try to quell an investigation into her leadership of the Texas program. Ms. Hill denied the charges. An HHS inspector general’s report on the matter has not been made public.
Mr. Wilkins said he wasn’t familiar with the relationship between Ms. Hill and the NHSA. He said he sees his role, at least initially, as that of listener and observer. He hopes to act as a “management troubleshooter,” a role he has played in past positions with a variety of New Jersey human-services organizations.
But Sarah Greene, the president of the NHSA, said she already has concerns about Mr. Wilkins, who has never administered a local Head Start program.
“That does bring about concern, not just from me, but from the entire Head Start community,” Ms. Greene said. “To have someone in that capacity provide guidance, you can’t help but wonder what is the thinking here.”
The new appointee declined to comment.
Welcome to Washington, Mr. Wilkins.
A version of this article appeared in the April 05, 2006 edition of Education Week