Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children
Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children

Head Start turns 50 this year. It’s time to celebrate, reflect on the past, and invest in an even stronger future.

“In May of 1965, the first Head Start summer programs began,” Ann Linehan, the former acting director of the federal Office of Head Start, wrote in January. “These programs provided the most vulnerable preschool children and their families with comprehensive services to meet their emotional, social, health, nutritional, and mental health needs.”

Now Head Start has a new director, Blanca Estela Enriquez, who writes in a blog post, “Head Start was built by visionaries who sought to open avenues of opportunity for families most in need. We must continue with this endeavor and hold ourselves to the highest of standards so that those we serve become successful.”

Blanca Estela Enriquez. Photo source: Office of Head Start
Blanca Estela Enriquez. Photo source: Office of Head Start

Enriquez’s goal is to “position Head Start as a valuable, highly respected, and accepted program for young children where grantees are high-performing organizations, where every child receives a comprehensive high-quality preschool education, and where their families increase their quality of life.”

Enriquez has been “an administrator and supervisor of Head Start programs since 1987,” according to the federal Head Start website, and she has been “active in early childhood education for more than 40 years.” She has a master’s of education degree from the University of Texas at El Paso and a doctorate of philosophy in education administration from New Mexico State University. 

Head Start’s History 

Head Start began in 1965 as an eight-week summer program that was part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society effort.

“Head Start was designed to help break the cycle of poverty, providing preschool children of low-income families with a comprehensive program to meet their emotional, social, health, nutritional and psychological needs,” a Head Start website explains.

At a Rose Garden ceremony on May 18, 1965, Johnson said, “Today we are able to announce that we will have open, and we believe operating this summer, coast-to-coast, some 2,000 child development centers serving as many as possibly a half million children.

“This means that nearly half the preschool children of poverty will get a head start on their future. These children will receive preschool training to prepare them for regular school in September. They will get medical and dental attention that they badly need, and parents will receive counseling on improving the home environment.

“This is a most remarkable accomplishment and it has been done in a very short time. It would not be possible except for the willing and the enthusiastic cooperation of Americans throughout the country.”

Since then, Head Start graduates have grown up to do great things. Among them is Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell.

“In my rural home town of Hinton, it was one of the only early educational opportunities around. With an excellent teacher, Mrs. Rita Pack, I learned to love learning, and that love has stayed with me my whole life,” Burwell explains.

She adds: “That’s a foundation that all children can have.

“Today, more than 16 million children in the United States live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level. And that includes a disproportionate amount of children of color: nearly 40 percent of black children and 35 percent of Hispanic children.

“In light of these facts, and on this historic anniversary, now is the time to rededicate ourselves to the cause of a head start for those children who need it most.”

Head Start Celebrations and Activities

The 50th Anniversary National Head Start Conference was held three weeks ago. Photos are posted on Facebook. And video of the keynote speaker, Cornell Brooks, president of the NAACP — and a Head Start graduate — is posted here.

The Massachusetts Head Start Association will celebrate the 50th anniversary at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, May 19th, 2015, at the State House. Details will be posted on the association’s Facebook page.

Head Start graduates also have the year-round opportunity to share their stories at the website “Our Head Start,” sponsored by the First Five Years Fund.

So join in and celebrate Head Start. As Burwell says, “Head Start and Early Head Start are crucial to fighting poverty and building up our next generation. They were founded on the principles that education is the door to opportunity; that poverty doesn’t have to be a family legacy; and that everyone, no matter their background, deserves a shot at a productive life. That is the core of the American Dream.”