As Head Start turns 50 this month, a graduate says it changed his life

May 26, 2015

By Bruce E. L. M. Strothers
May 26, 2015
Originally published in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Fifty years ago this month, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced a new federal program called Head Start.

Here is part of Johnson’s statement:

“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.

I believe this response reflects a realistic and a wholesome awakening in America. It shows that we are recognizing that poverty perpetuates itself.

Five- and six-year-old children are inheritors of poverty’s curse and not its creators. Unless we act these children will pass it on to the next generation, like a family birthmark.

In a guest column today, attorney Bruce E. L. M. Strothers recalls the role of Head Start in his own life.

By Bruce E.L.M Strothers

Head Start children surround President Johnson at his desk in the Oval Office. (Head Start)

Head Start children surround President Johnson at his desk in the Oval Office. (Head Start)

Fifty years ago this month, President Lyndon B. Johnson stood in the White House Rose Garden to announce the creation of Head Start, an innovative, community-driven early learning program that would provide comprehensive early childhood services to at-risk children and their families.

The fact is, I wouldn’t be where I am today without the life changing support Head Start provided my family.

In my earliest years of life, times were tough. My parents were just teenagers when I was born, and my mother raised my older sister, younger brother and me on her own. With three young children, my mother could not afford pre-school, and she struggled to balance single-parenthood and a steady job as a hospice care provider. So when she heard about a local Head Start program on the radio, she immediately enrolled me.

I am 44 now, but I still remember sitting cross legged in a semi-circle reading, counting, singing and playing memory games. Head Start was more than just pre-school— I received health and wellness screenings and immunizations, was fed nutritious meals, and had a safe and nurturing environment where I could learn and interact.

Having this early classroom experience ensured I had key school readiness skills, such as how to absorb and apply information, how to interact with teachers and classmates, and how to behave in a school setting.

By laying a foundation for a positive academic, social and emotional experience in Kindergarten, Head Start set the course for an equally positive, productive and engaging lifetime of learning. Head Start emphasizes a whole-child, whole-family approach that addresses every aspect of school readiness, ensuring children enter Kindergarten prepared to succeed. And succeed I did.

I excelled throughout my academic career— as an honor student, a varsity athlete and student body vice president. I graduated from Brown University, becoming the first in my family to earn a college degree. I went on to get my JD. I studied creative writing while practicing law, and later, earned my master’s of laws degree from Columbia Law School with honors.

Head Start instilled in me a lifelong love of learning which always motivated me to pay the entire costs of my education myself, which I have been fortunate to complete.

After serving as a hospice care provider for over four decades, my mom knows her middle child — not just Social Security— can help her in retirement. Had it not been for my early “head start” in school, I cannot help but think that the trajectory of my life could have turned out very differently.

Research proves Head Start works. Head Start children are better prepared for Kindergarten and less likely to need special education later in school. Children who attended Head Start are overall healthier— they have lower obesity rates, better nutrition, and are even less likely to smoke as adults.

Studies show that Head Start children have lower incarceration rates than their peers and are more likely to enroll in college. Fifty years, 32 million lives changed— Head Start is something that our leaders in Washington can agree on.

So as we honor Head Start’s incredible legacy, we are renewing our commitment to creating opportunities for vulnerable children and propelling our great nation forward in the years to come.