My Head Start

05/19/2015 04:24 pm ET | Updated May 18, 2016

Sometime around my fifth birthday, a clipboard-carrying young woman knocked on the door of my mother's shotgun house in our working-class, east Texas town.

She worked for a new education program, and asked if she could enroll me. My mother said yes, and not long thereafter I began attending a makeshift preschool at a church just minutes from our home.

The program was called Head Start. It gave me mine.

This year Head Start celebrates its fiftieth anniversary, yet the challenges facing the program are as great now as when it was first founded.

As I reflect on the half-century that it and I have shared, I am struck--and slightly overwhelmed--by a sense that every meaningful opportunity of my life followed from this first one.

In many ways, my life has come full circle. The Yale University researchers who helped design Head Start were supported by none other than the Ford Foundation, the institution I am privileged to lead.

My experience is not unique. Since Head Start's inaugural class, of which I am a proud member, more than 32 million children and their families across the United States have benefited from the same opportunity as me. Their ranks include NAACP President Cornell Brooks, Girl Scouts of America CEO Anna Maria Chavez, Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, Grammy Winner Esperanza Spalding, and Paralympian and former director for the White House National Economic Council Bonnie St. John. The list goes on.

Of course, these extraordinary individuals are not the reason that Head Start continues to make headlines. The program, once a crucial front of President Johnson's War on Poverty, has become a favorite target of those who want to cut government spending - regardless of the human cost.

In 2013, for example, Head Start was dealt its worst blow in history, with more than $400 million slashed from the program and 57,000 children cut from its ranks. Teachers were furloughed; school years were shortened; summer programs were ended. And these impacts are only compounded by disproportionate cuts to other government programs which help poor Americans -- with the current House and Senate budgets being no exceptions.

Critics often cite a so-called "fade out," by which the measurable academic benefits of Head Start seem to disappear by third grade, if not before. They declare Head Start a "failed program."

A closer examination of the data, however, reveals a very different -- albeit more complicated -- reality.

For one, a team of researchers at the University of Chicago and University of California-Davis contend that the lack of visible gains may result from what they call "catch up" rather than "fade out." At least part of Head Start's benefits accrue to children who do not participate in the program, the scholars suggest, by enabling teachers to focus more attention on non-Head Start students. In this way, the best way to address what looks like "fade out," would be to actually expand Head Start enrollment.

Moreover, several longitudinal studies have demonstrated that Head Start's ongoing benefits include emotional and social advantages not measured by standardized testing. Harvard University's David Deming, for example, has shown that Head Start graduates are 8.5 percent more likely to graduate high school, and 6 percent more likely to attend at least one year of college.

Most fundamentally, we cannot evaluate Head Start without acknowledging the larger, structural forces surrounding the program - namely, America's struggling, starved-for-resources schools that stifle student achievement across the board. Using data from 1968 to 2007, Rucker Johnson of the University of California-Berkley demonstrates that Head start plus well-funded, quality schools yields excellent results; Head Start minus them yields negligible returns.

An ebbing tide strands all boats.

These studies and others are a powerful affirmation of Head Start's original purpose - and direct challenge to those committed to abandoning the program.

When President Lyndon Johnson signed the program into existence, he avowed that it was meant, "to make sure that poverty's children would not be forevermore poverty's captives." And yet, the chains of poverty do not break simply because a child attends preschool. We must look at the broader landscape of inequality and opportunity, as a child's success at school is equally dependent on community-based support, access to quality, affordable housing and transportation, and much more.

My life's journey was made possible by public schools, Pell Grants, and an America that had my back, from my formative foundation to the Ford Foundation. In ways not captured in any study or statistic, I know personally what Head Start is and what it is not.

If we want to secure lasting, measurable gains for our most vulnerable young people, the answer is not to give up on Head Start, but to follow through. Rather than cut funding for our children, we must increase it - early, often, and throughout their lives.

Elected officials must realize what millions of girls and boys like me already know to be true: Head Start is neither a golden hammer nor silver bullet. It is an essential beginning-- a uniquely American step to realize the promise of our nation.