The Origin Story of Head Start
Making a National Bipartisan Commitment to the American Dream
Head Start was designed to disrupt the cycle of poverty that is transferred from one generation to the next across the nation and to promote social justice in those areas where educational opportunity was denied on the basis of race.
Head Start was inspired during John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign by the sight of children lingering listlessly in front of cabins in the woods of West Virginia, and was brought into existence by Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1965. The program was officially launched in the summer of 1965 as the bipartisan national commitment to give every child, regardless of the zip code into which they were born, an opportunity to achieve the American Dream.
In its earliest days, Head Start was not just an early childhood innovation, it was an invention, and a radical one at that. Much more than just childcare or even preschool, Head Start was a dramatic intervention that was designed intentionally by a cross-disciplinary team of scientists and experts to end poverty by sparking curiosity and a lifelong love of learning among the country’s most vulnerable children and their families. In some parts of the country, such as the deep South, Head Start was a critical part of the struggle for civil rights and social justice.
The founding team of experts reasoned that a child who is physically or mentally unwell would not be able to learn, and the health component became an important part of the Head Start model. They postulated, correctly again, that a child who was hungry would not have the bandwidth to be curious about the interesting classroom activities, so nutrition became another integral element of the Head Start model. Most importantly, they all recognized that the family must be involved in the child’s education every day. Furthermore, the family must be engaged in all educational decisions regarding the child and the program, and supported in raising children in the context of their community and their culture, or even the best classroom offerings would not bring positive, long term results.
Inspiring the Early Childhood Education Field
Head Start’s innovation extended beyond the centers’ doors. Head Start sought to spur more learning in children’s homes by funding a new TV phenomenon called Sesame Street. Furthermore, to make sure children that children were vaccinated and healthy, community health centers were started the following year. In addition, to help new parents learn effective child-rearing skills, Head Start implemented home visits as a core part of the whole-family approach.
In the years since, Head Start’s innovation has continued as research into early childhood education and best practices have provided new insights. When developments in neuroscience concluded that learning started at birth, Early Head Start was launched as a hot innovation to expand Head Start’s reach to infants, toddlers, and pregnant women.
Just as Head Start’s standards, first developed in the 1970’s, spurred states to develop licensing standards for nursery schools and child care, the awareness of early brain development raised by the enactment and funding of Early Head Start, caused nationwide interest and attention to the development of babies and toddlers, even resulting in a White House conference on the subject.
Throughout Head Start’s 53-year history, Head Start has innovated not just for the sake of innovation but to ensure that its critical goals are met. Head Start’s constant innovation is driven by the need to disrupt poverty through more effective whole-child, whole-family interventions. Yet, as in the case of Sesame Street, the licensing standards, and new understandings of the importance of earliest experiences, the benefit of those innovations affects many more young children and their families, not just those living in poverty.
Moving into the 21st Century
Beginning in the early 2000s, generations of Head Start alums began to fill the ranks of educators, professionals, philanthropists, and others, as living proof of Head Start’s enduring success. And research showing Head Start’s effectiveness in improving high school and college graduation rates as well as lifetime earnings, raised the idea among policy circles of addressing school success by starting earlier. At the same time, federal and state policy makers took note that universal pre-k is a key to later school success and “school-readiness” became an essential focus area. And although even today there is disagreement as to what school readiness is, how best to measure it or even how to help children to achieve readiness (with the exception of reading to them), Head Start’s success has had profound influence on the shape of education for the coming generations.
Head Start continues to evolve. On the one hand, this evolution is organic, as the risks of poverty it is attempting to address continue to change. On the other hand, Head Start has begun to support the leaders and experts of today’s drivers of change through the HeadStarter Network: an initiative powered by the National Head Start Association that connects innovative early learning practitioners with technology and business leaders to jointly explore the future of early childhood care and education.