At 50, Head Start Holds Lessons from the Past and Keys to the Future of Early Learning

Head Start turns 50 this week, a milestone that reminds us that in many ways the War-on-Poverty program pioneered the path that led to today’s push for a broad and high-quality early education system.

Over the last half-century Head Start showed us how to build an effective preschool, from the importance of parental engagement and family support services that extend far beyond the classroom to established curricula and well-trained teachers. We also learned about the importance of innovation and evolution. While Head Start is now sometimes and incorrectly seen as the old guard, its history is defined by new ideas and approaches. (Check out Head Start’s Timeline — 1965 to 2015 — for a good view of how it has grown.)

In Washington state, Head Start has been particularly innovative since starting its first classroom the same year President Lyndon Johnson launched the program in 1965. That year King County received a $79,109 Head Start grant to enroll 465 students in a summer program in Seattle, Highline, Shoreline, Kent, and Auburn.

Later it became a model for the state’s now-30-year-old preschool program, the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP). Today, Head Start serves more than 15,000 students throughout the state.

“The state has embraced Head Start and the model. The state systems work well with Head Start. They are sort of honoring the model that we have,” said Joel Ryan, executive director of the Washington State Association of Head Start & ECEAP.

Now, Ryan said, “they are doing a good job of shifting (focus to) ELL (English Language Learners) and dual-language learners.”

While early learning programs and systems can operate in silos, too often separated from each other, in Washington Head Start leaders have collaborated.

“We are all striving to do the work in a collaborative, seamless way that reaches more families,” said Mary Ellen Lykins, director of the Skagit/Islands Head Start. “What we are trying to do is get more high-quality early learning experiences to children and families, whether it is through ECEAP, whether it’s through child care, whether it’s through Head Start.”

The last 50 years of Head Start also laid a foundation of research that shows high-quality preschool pays off in such ways as lower remedial and special education costs and higher high school graduation rates. One study in Montgomery County, Md., found that once Head Start graduates were in kindergarten they spent, on average, less than half the time in special education each week than did their peers, according to the state Head Start association.

At 50, Head Start is far from finished growing. It is a central player in the debate and work to build modern and effective preschools and child care around the nation. In the future, expect to see Head Start classrooms offering longer days, including more all-day options and expansion of Early Head Start, which serves babies, toddlers and pregnant women, the state association’s Ryan said.

Happy Birthday Head Start, the best may be yet to come.