Minot Headstart gets new leader

New Minot Headstart director Karen Knowles caught the teaching bug back in the 1990s and it hasn’t left her.

“I’ve taught in the inner city and in very rural areas,” said Knowles, who went back to college as an “older than average” student in the 1990s. She began her Head Start career as a preschool special aide and has taught in various locations, including Alaska, Ohio and Arizona, as well as in Minot.

Knowles, who took over from longtime Headstart director Cheryl Ekblad after Ekblad’s retirement this summer, was not a stranger to the Minot area either. She was a Headstart teacher for seven years for the past two years in the preschool classroom in Minot and, for the five years before that, in the Headstart program in Stanley.

Stanley’s Headstart program closed due to lack of space in the school and because fewer children were eligible for services due to the higher income made by oil workers in the area.

Knowles drove back and forth between Stanley and Minot for five years and said she still misses the Stanley community and the kids she taught there. In one of her classes in Stanley, the boys heavily outnumbered the girls, which Knowles, the mother and grandmother of little boys, enjoyed a lot.

“I’m good with boys,” said Knowles, who said the little boys in her class seemed more physically active and enjoyed doing gross motor skills activities. She found the little girls in her class a bit quieter.

While she was at Stanley, Knowles enjoyed being able to do many early literacy activities with her students. The program had Early Reading First grants at the time. Though the funding for the program went away, the Head Start program still uses many of the concepts in helping to get children ready for reading, said Knowles.

Knowles also lived in the area back in the 1990s when her husband was stationed at Minot Air Force Base. After he was transferred, she ended up teaching in schools in places like Anchorage, Alaska, Toledo, Ohio, and Phoenix, Ariz. They were interested in returning to Minot and did so when her husband got a civilian position at Minot Air Force Base.

She said she has also enjoyed the wonderful staff at the Minot Head Start. Her only worry about taking the position as Head Start director was that her relationships with the other teachers might change, said Knowles, but that has not happened. Ekblad has also continued to be a resource, as have other Head Start directors in the state, who will help her in writing next year’s funding grant.

The major challenge facing Knowles and the Head Start program this year is federal sequestration. Like other federal agencies, the Head Start program took a financial hit with budget cuts. Minot’s Head Start program lost an entire classroom, including three staff positions and slots for 14 children. Other staff members have had their hours cut. The Head Start program also lost funding for its mental health consultant, although they have received some services on a volunteer basis.

There is a long waiting list for Early Head Start, though Knowles said fewer children are eligible than in years past. Fewer families meet federal income guidelines because of the ongoing oil boom. The government uses the same income guidelines nationwide and doesn’t take into account the higher cost of living in the region, said Knowles. Ten percent of children attending Head Start also must have a disability, said Knowles.

Knowles said the Head Start program is bracing for the potential of another round of cuts next year.

Knowles said cutting funding from early childhood education is counterproductive. Children who have attended Head Start do better in school and do better as adults, said Knowles. Head Start also offers services to the child’s parents.

“It’s not just kids,” said Knowles. “We serve the whole family.”

(Prairie Profile is a weekly feature profiling interesting people in our region. We welcome suggestions from our readers. Call Regional Editor Eloise Ogden at 857-1944 or Managing Editor Kent Olson at 857-1939. Either can be reached at 1-800-735-3229. You also can send e-mail suggestions to