It’s early morning, and most preschool students are still at home preparing for school. But Compton Head Start Cook Irene Montgomery is ready to roll. Her spirits are high, her feet moving quickly, and she’s getting breakfast carts stocked. The September Employee of the Month for Harris County Department of Education is always on the move, and for her, dancing through life is the only way to go.
“A few things about me. I love to cook. I love our kids, and I’m always dancing,” Montgomery laughed.
Montgomery is charged with ensuring students at the Compton preschool are fed breakfast and lunch during the school year. But her duties often extend outside the walls of the kitchen, as she serves as an inspiration to students and staff alike.
“She brings knowledge and energy to our center. A true definition of a leader, no matter her position, Ms. Irene personifies our Head Start values,” said Campus Manager Merevonna Ross. “She’s truly an inspiration to our students, and I wouldn’t be surprised if someone wanted to be a chef or own a restaurant one day because they want to cook like Ms. Irene.”
A native Houstonian, Montgomery’s love for creating meals spurred from her time spent in the kitchen with her grandmother while her mother worked as a private nurse overnight. Collard greens, yams, stew, meatloaf – all the southern specialties; Montgomery learned the recipe from Grandma Doris.
“My mom would always ask, ‘Who is the better cook? Me or grandma?’” said Montgomery. “I would say my mom every time, but we both knew I was lying! My grandma was the better cook, hands down.”
As old-school music flows throughout the kitchen, Montgomery meets every task with a smile and a two-step, laughing that her childhood joke has resurfaced as many Compton Head Start students prefer her food to their parents. Healthy meals are one of the program’s cornerstones and are provided daily at all campuses. However, Montgomery goes the extra mile to ensure each student loves what they consume, even if they are cautious about trying something new. She attributes that willingness to trust, communication, and the love she infuses into every meal.
“Sometimes these kids don’t have much at home, and they depend on me to provide a hot breakfast and lunch that they will love,” Montgomery said, getting emotional. “I taste all my food before it goes out because if I don’t eat it, I’m not serving it to them. When I return, the students say, ‘Mmmm, Ms. Irene, that was good!’ I know I did my job, and that makes me happy.”
Despite bringing nearly 40 years of culinary experience working at Harris County Juvenile Detention Center and Cypress Medical Center, she faced challenges five years ago as a new employee at HCDE, joining a division fully immersed in the digital age. Colleagues offered assistance as she learned to use technology to manage inventory, communicate with vendors, and research budget-conscious decisions.
Montgomery was a quick learner and was soon tapped as a sort of Head Chef to train other new Head Start hires, ensuring they learned how to deliver high-quality service, confidently navigate challenges with deliveries, and assume kitchen duties when short-staffed. That standard for excellence allowed her to extend her educational reach outside the kitchen and collaborate with HCDE’s nutrition service coordinators to oversee the responsibilities of all HCDE culinary staff and provide insight on annual meal planning for the division.
“I’m honored to help train other cooks, and I hope they have fun while they’re here,” Montgomery said. “I will show them how to make the recipes correctly, be creative with leftovers, and enjoy their job. I hope they will take a piece of me to their campus and spread the joy to the kids.”
In January, her industry knowledge proved beneficial to the Head Start Policy Council, a collection of formal and elected campus leaders who guide the overall direction of the division.
“She found the application online, nominated herself, and was chosen by our parents as a representative for the Compton campus,” said Ross. “It’s a huge honor because the council has a voice in nutrition services and the Head Start curriculum, policies, and procedures. It speaks volumes to how much our families value her knowledge and impact on student success.”
Montgomery’s impact on the Compton campus and HCDE’s Head Start program are undeniable proof that a position title never defines a person’s impact on a child’s life.
“I love our students with my whole heart,” Montgomery said, smiling. “If I stayed in the kitchen, never interacted with the kids, didn’t dance with them in the hallways and while I cooked, that wouldn’t be me! I’m doing what I love, surrounded by people I love, and I’m grateful.”
To learn more about HCDE’s Head Start program, visit hcde-texas.org/head-start.