This year Head Start has been celebrating 50 years of bringing life-changing, quality early childhood education services to children and their families. I’m excited to continue the celebration on Wednesday, September 30th, at a special Head Start Spirit Rally on Capitol Hill, in Washington, D.C. The rally is not only kicking off Hill Day at the 2015 Fall Leadership Institute, but also Head Start Awareness Month! Even if you’re not attending the Leadership Institute, all are welcome.
We all have Head Start stories. Taken together, they chronicle a transformation in the lives of millions and in the way we think about the future of our youngest learners. Revisiting this chronicle on the grounds of the Capitol is a great way both to remind Congress of the power of our rich history, and to begin laying the groundwork for Head Start’s next fifty years.
When Lyndon B. Johnson announced the creation of Head Start in 1965, it was launched as an eight-week summer program to prepare preschool aged children of low-income families for kindergarten in the fall.
Today, Head Start provides year-round comprehensive services in diverse communities in all 50 states. The federal program has served 32 million children since its creation in 1965 and laid the foundation for children to achieve a lifetime of success, both in the classroom and in life.
I was first introduced to Head Start as a teenager, living in Rock Island Illinois, a mid-sized town along the Mississippi River, about 100 miles west of Chicago. I was a black girl right smack in the middle of America during a tumultuous 1965. But as summer approached, all my teenage mind was worried about was spending my school-free months hanging in my room and listening to some good music.
My parents had a different plan for me.
There was a new program called Head Start being offered in the neighborhood for preschool aged children of low-income families, and by their decree, I was to become one of the program’s student volunteers. I remember feeling that Project Head Start was all about hope in the summer of ’65. We were creating a place where we could start to make things better, one child at a time. It didn’t feel like we were fighting the “war on poverty” but rather planting seeds of hope in the minds of our community’s most vulnerable children and families.
During a time of social unrest in the midst of a shifting society, seeds of hope were also planted in my own mind. I felt that I could contribute, especially as a young woman of color. Head Start was interested in making use of what I could bring to the table, not in lamenting what was missing from the table. I felt valued and respected by the program, and those children kept me busier than I could have ever imagined.
Flash forward 50 years, and today I serve as the administrator for Head Start for the City of Chicago. In partnership with the city we work to give all children the start they need. We work to ensure that some of our most vulnerable children are ready for school through efforts focused on promoting literacy and school readiness as well as providing critical health and wellness screenings. We realize that giving them a safe and nurturing environment to learn and discover while interacting with peers builds important social skills and self-confidence. Moreover, Head Start and early education programs remain a vital resource for parents in offering training, education opportunities, and parenting support so they can be full partners in their children’s education.
As I look back on the summer of ‘65, I am astounded by how far this nation has come and how much the City of Chicago and Head Start are accomplishing. This program has changed millions of lives, uniting teachers, parents, and entire communities around the shared goal of ensuring our most vulnerable children have the head start they need to succeed, in the classroom and beyond. I am optimistic about the exciting opportunities that lie ahead as we celebrate this historic national milestone. So, let us renew our shared commitment to 50 more years of opportunity, 50 more years of hope, and 50 more years of success for our nation’s children.
That’s my story. I look forward to hearing yours at the Rally in Washington, D.C!
Vanessa Rich serves as the Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Family and Support Services, where she is responsible for the oversight, policy development and implementation of the City of Chicago Head Start program. Vanessa also serves as the Chair of the National Head Start Association Board of Directors.