Happy Birthday Head Start!

05/19/2015 04:09 pm ET | Updated May 19, 2016

"We set out to make certain that poverty's children would not be forevermore poverty's captives..."

That is how President Lyndon Johnson described his vision of Head Start in the White House Rose Garden on May 18th, 1965.

In a time of great prosperity and boundless optimism, Head Start was a national commitment to provide a window of opportunity for our most at-risk children -- a chance to realize the American Dream. And for 50 years since, the nation has been fulfilling that commitment in one neighborhood after another with family engagement and empowerment, innovative partnerships, and the dedicated support of community leaders and local organizations.

In 50 years, Head Start has changed the lives of more than 32 million children. But many more millions of vulnerable children remain unserved. Currently, only 15 percent of children in poverty under the age of five are enrolled in Head Start.

In recent years, our understanding of the development of the brain during the first few years of life has rapidly expanded. There is now broad agreement among research scientists that the beginning years of a child's life are critical for building the foundation of health and wellness necessary for success through later life.

Our deepened understanding of these early years has led to calls for providing early learning for all children, especially for those whose families cannot afford it. Research has documented that for every dollar spent on providing a low-income child with high-quality early learning, seven dollars is returned to our economy every year of that child's life. So, it seems clear that investments in high-quality early learning are the best human capital investments that our nation can make.

This week, on the 50th anniversary of President Johnson's announcement, Head Start programs all over the country are planting rose bushes both as an appreciation for President Johnson's and Congressional vision and commitment, and as a reminder to everyone who encounters a Head Start rose bush that Head Start programs are a viable and beautiful part of their communities. Every year the healthy rose bush produces blossoms that everyone can enjoy; and every year a Head Start program blooms eager, healthy, loved, and school-ready children who move on to successful lives. Why can't we provide an opportunity for every child to bloom?

Today, our nation faces socio-economic circumstances very similar to those facing the United States in 1965. Notably, amidst great prosperity there remains great poverty. Today, 5 million low-income children need, but are unable to access, early learning opportunities. To reclaim the promise of the American Dream, our nation must recommit itself to providing high-quality early learning and comprehensive services.

When you see a rose bloom this spring, think about Head Start. Ask your colleagues, friends, co-workers if they attended Head Start. You might be surprised how many did! When you hear their stories, I bet you'll understand why Head Start has been strongly supported in so many communities for 50 years and why our nation should fortify its investment in a strong future.