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Perspectives on 50 Years of Head Start

Head_Start_reader.jpgThe National Head Start Association, an advocacy group for federal early-childhood providers, is using its annual conference this week as a chance to pay tribute to the 50-year-old program

As in previous anniversary celebrations, Head Start supporters say that the program offers academic and social benefits to children that few other federal programs can match.

In 1985, 20 years after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the bill creating Head Start, many of the program's originators were still around to tell Education Week what they saw as the program's successes and challenges. 

"I felt the program could become popular as well as effective," says Sargent Shriver, the [Office of Economic Opportunity's] first director. "It had the capacity to disarm the curmudgeons of the world." It is difficult to argue that poverty results from being "slothful, lazy, drug-addicted, or incompetent," adds Mr. Shriver, "when the object of your argument is a 5-year-old child."

Robert E. Cooke, a physician who served as chairman of the original Head Start planning committee, says Head Start's political success was a natural consequence of its sound foundation.

"It makes such good sense," says Dr. Cooke, now A. Conger Goodyear Professor of Pediatrics and director of the Robert Warner Rehabilitation Center at Children's Hospital in Buffalo.

In 1995, 30 years after Head Start was enacted, the country was gearing up to launch a pilot program that would test whether Head Start could be effective for children from infancy to age 3, instead of Head Start's traditional population of 4-year-olds. That program would eventually become Early Head Start. 

Ten years later, in 2005, Head Start was roiled by allegations of financial mismanagement and program ineffectiveness, but Republicans and Democrats came together to support the program. 

Which brings us to today, and the program's half-century mark. Head Start is currently going through major changes in program monitoring, which is resulting in new providers as some older programs lose their federal funding. The program is also requiring better training of teachers, and is measuring its effectiveness using a tool that tracks teacher-child interactions. The program is also remaking itself in a marketplace where states are providing services that traditionally came from Head Start, said acting Head Start director Ann Linehan in an interview.

Head Start has proven itself to be a program with staying power, Linehan said in that 2014 interview. "I have been to probably hundreds of programs across the country, and when a Head Start program is a strong program, it really is an anchor for the community." 

Photo: Two 5-year-olds in Washington, D.C. participate in Head Start's eight-week summer program in 1965.—Sam Myers/AP-File


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