Celebrating 50 Years of Head Start

05/18/2015 09:53 am ET | Updated May 18, 2016

Fifty years ago today, Head Start was launched across the nation. At the announcement in the White House Rose Garden, President Johnson called it, "One of the most constructive, and one of the most sensible, and also one of the most exciting programs that this Nation has ever undertaken."

A few years later, a class was established in my home town of Hinton, West Virginia.

In a rural town like Hinton, Head Start was one of the only early educational opportunities available. It meant a lot to the families there, and still does today. I know, because it meant a lot to my family.

That's right; I'm a Head Start kid.

In that little classroom, I hatched chickens, listened to stories and made lifelong friends. Thanks to Head Start, and an excellent teacher, Mrs. Rita Pack, I learned to love learning, and that passion has stayed with me my entire life.

I did get a head start, and that's a foundation all children should have.

Head Start was founded on the principles that education is the door to opportunity, and that everyone, no matter their background, deserves a shot at a productive life.

Since it was founded in the summer of 1965, Head Start, along with Early Head Start, has served more than 32 million children. This year alone, those programs will help more than one million children prepare for school and build a foundation for a healthier, happier life.

But this work doesn't just help children; it strengthens families and our entire community.

Parents are powerful partners, and as the original multi-generation program, Head Start helps them create and implement family strategies and supports their ability to work.

It also has a long history of supporting the field of early learning. Using the best and latest developmental science and research, Head Start provides guidance on best-practices and promotes excellence in teaching.

Stronger students, families and teachers have an impact on all of us. A Rand research brief found that high quality early childhood interventions generate a return to society ranging from $1.80 to $17.07 for each dollar spent.

And Head Start continues to grow and improve.

We recently awarded the last of the $500 million Congress budgeted for new Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership grants, adding up to 275 new grants. Those grants will serve over 30,000 new Early Head Start children.

In the coming month, we will issue the revised Head Start Performance Standards for public comment. These standards are rooted in evidence-based research and will improve classroom quality and program transparency. We also think they will make it a little easier to manage programs by eliminating out-of-date requirements.

As we look to the next 50 years and beyond, we can see that the need for Head Start is greater than ever.

Today, more than 16 million children in the United States -- 22 percent of all children -- live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level. And that includes a disproportionate number of children of color: Nearly 40 percent of black children and 35 percent of Hispanic children. With the struggles that families in poverty face, less than half of these children go to school prepared with the skills they need to be ready to learn and they are 10 times as likely to drop out of high school.

In light of these facts, and as we celebrate this historic milestone, now is the time to rededicate ourselves to ensuring all children have the resources they need and deserve.

Early education is a top priority for this administration. That's why President Obama's budget requests over $10 billion to provide more children with more intensive high-quality Head Start services. Unfortunately, the Republican budget resolution would cut funding, closing off access to these important services for tens of thousands of children. We believe that ensuring America's children have a strong foundation no matter where they come from is essential to our nation's future, and we will continue to push for services that give children opportunities for success.

President Kennedy said, "Children are the world's most valuable resource and its best hope for the future." There is no better investment we can make than investing in the minds of our children, and with Head Start and Early Head Start, we know our returns will be great.