Millions of lives transformed: 50 years of Head Start

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Head Start, a government program designed to help break the cycle of poverty by addressing the needs of disadvantaged preschool-aged children. To date, Head Start has served more than 32 million children in the 50 US states, the US territories, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. And every year the program continues to provide essential services for over a million Americans.

The Ford Foundation is proud to have been involved in the program’s creation. Our early-childhood initiatives in the 1960s helped inform the federal government’s thinking around early intervention, and Ford funding supported the Yale University researchers who helped design the Head Start program.

The Ford Foundation’s own president exemplifies Head Start’s impact and importance. Darren Walker, who was born in a charity hospital in Louisiana, became a member of Head Start’s inaugural class in 1965—an early opportunity that allowed him to pursue higher education and a successful career in business and philanthropy. He reflects on his experience and shares his views on the program at the National Head Start Association’s 50th Anniversary Conference taking place in Washington, DC, this week.

But in spite of powerful evidence—both statistical and anecdotal—that Head Start has been tremendously effective in creating opportunity for children in low-income communities, the future of the program remains uncertain. Cuts to government spending have already affected how many children have access to quality education.

“If we want to secure lasting, measurable gains for our most vulnerable young people, the answer is not to give up, but to follow through,” Darren Walker says. “We must continue investing in poor students—early, often, and throughout their entire lives. And we must look at the broader landscape of poverty and inequality, as a child’s success at school is equally dependent on community-based support, access to quality, affordable housing and transportation, and much more.”


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The Ford Foundation

The Ford Foundation is an independent, nonprofit grant-making organization. For more than 80 years it has worked with courageous people on the frontlines of social change worldwide, guided by its mission to strengthen democratic values, reduce poverty and injustice, promote international cooperation, and advance human achievement. With headquarters in New York, the foundation has offices in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.