History of Head Start

Head Start from the Beginning

Since 1965

Learn about how Head Start was born out of Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty" and how the original premise of interrupting poverty early in a child's life has shaped the program to what it is today.

In January of 1964, President Lyndon Johnson took up the cause of building a Great Society by declaring “War on Poverty.” in his State of the Union speech. Shortly thereafter, Sargent Shriver took the lead in assembling a panel of experts to develop a comprehensive child development program that would help communities meet the needs of disadvantaged preschool children.

This program was called Head Start  – a comprehensive eight-week summer program staffed by thousands of volunteers from across the nation with a budget of $96.4 million. The plan was to open the doors to a few thousand children nationwide that would teach low-income children 3-5 in a few weeks what they needed to know to start elementary school by providing a comprehensive program to meet their emotional, social, health, nutritional and psychological needs of early child development through community-based organizations. When more than 561,000 children showed up, each one was welcomed with open arms.

Many summer programs became nine-month, half-day programs in the first few years, in 1969 under the Nixon administration, Head Start was transferred from the Office of Economic Opportunity to the Office of Child Development in the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.

Congress required Head Start programs to deliver open participation of the parents. Parents were asked to participate in the development, leadership, and overall program direction. This is still true today.

In 1970, the Parents Manual was published. The manual strengthened and clarified the role of parents and community representative in the decision-making process. It was incorporated as part of the original Head Start Performance Standards in 1973.

Here are some interesting facts about Head Start:

  • In 1972 10% of national enrollment was set aside for children with disabilities
  • In 1977, the Carter administration began bilingual and bicultural programs in 21 states.
  • Head Start’s budget exceeded $1 billion in 1984 under the Reagan administration

The expansion to Early Head Start began in 1988. Congress authorized the Comprehensive Child Development program, a five-year demonstrated program to provide comprehensive, integrated, continuous support services to low – income families with infants. Twenty-four (24) programs were funded initially and in 1993, 10 more programs were funded with a special emphasis on services to families with substance abuse problems.

The Head Start Expansion and Quality Improvement Act was passed in 1990, and the Head Start State collaboration project began. There is a Head Start State Collaboration office in every State.

In 1993, the President’s Commission on Head Start was established. A year later the Commission rolled out major changes in Head Start re-authorization. The reauthorization of the Head Start Act in 1994 made it possible to establish Early Head Start as a program to serve infants and toddlers under the age of 3, and pregnant women. This expanded the Comprehensive Child Development program to Early Head Start programs across the country.

Under the Clinton administration in 1995, Head Start’s appropriation was $3.53 billion and the first Early Head Start grants was given with services to some 752,000 children.

The second revision for the Performance Standards was 1998, and the re-authorized to expand to full-day and full-year services.

Under George W. Bush administration in 2007, the School Readiness Act was passed. The Reauthorization created six National Centers and a state-based system to ensure success. These centers provide training and technical assistance to early learning programs across the United States.

Also, the Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act and Congress instructed the Office of Head Start to update its performance standards and to ensure any such revisions to the standards do not eliminate or reduce quality, scope, or types of health, educational, parental involvement, nutritional, social, or other services programs provide.

The statute also included a provision that regulations be promulgated to move programs from an indefinite project period to a five-year grant cycle. Programs would be required to demonstrate they are of high quality or a competitive grant opportunity would be made available within the community.

Under the Obama administration in 2009, the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act added more than 64,000 slots for Early Head Start and Head Start programs.

The Office of Head Start moved in 2013 from indefinite project periods to definite project periods of five years (60 months) for all Head Start grantees as part of the Designation Renewal System (DRS). The DRS ensures that organizations of the highest quality continue to provide Head Start services and opens the service areas of others to competition. This renewed commitment to quality provides an opportunity to implement changes in HS funding practices and oversight of Head Start programs.

The third revision of the Performance Standards was in 2016.

Presently, Head Start is administered by the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) in the Department of Health and Human Services. Head Start serves over a million children and their families each year in urban and rural areas in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. territories, including American Indian, Alaskan Native and Migrant/Seasonal communities.

Head Start is one of the longest-running programs attempting to address systemic poverty in the United States. As of late 2016, more than 30 million children had participated in Early Head Start and Head Start.

Today there are more than 1800 organizations in the United States, serving children from birth to five and their families. Head Start and Early Head Start programs offer a variety of service models, depending on the needs of the local community. Many Head Start and Early Head Start programs are based in centers and schools.

Other programs are in child care centers and family child care homes. Some programs offer home-based services that assigned dedicated staff who conduct weekly visits to children in their own home and work with the parent as the child’s primary teacher. Head Start programming is responsive to the ethnic, cultural, and linguistic heritage of each child and family.

As the ‘war on poverty” continues the head start program has shown us that the true weapon against a life of limited options is education.

This program continues to make a difference in the lives of many youth, preparing them for elementary school and education beyond.

If we were to take a moment to look into the childhood of some of our countries’ most successful business men and women, medical providers, policy changers and leaders. I’m sure we would find a few head start graduates among them.

The Head start program is much more than a preschool for the economically disadvantaged, it is an effective tool in our success as a country; Creating a smarter, stronger and more globally competitive generation in this nation.