Colleen Kraft was in preschool when she heard something that helped chart the course of her life.
“I remember that my Head Start teacher told me that I was so smart I should be a doctor,” Kraft told me in a recent conversation. She’s now a pediatrician and current president of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Kraft is also a graduate of the 1965 inaugural Head Start class, which she proudly proclaims in the first line of her bio.
Head Start and Early Head Start programs provide services to poor children and their families in three core areas: learning, health and family wellbeing. Early Head Start provides services for infants from pregnancy until age 3 and Head Start is for children ages 3 and 4. Both programs were established as part of the War on Poverty under President Lyndon Johnson, with the goal of preparing low-income preschoolers for kindergarten.
Children from families that qualify for public assistance, foster children and homeless children are eligible for the programs. Some children with family incomes above the poverty level, including some disabled children, also qualify for Head Start. The programs even offer assistance to disadvantaged pregnant women through Early Head Start programs that emphasize the importance of a healthy pregnancy, parenting skills, child development and early learning.
The annual federal budget for Head Start programs is just above $9.5 billion and a significant portion of that funding – about 11 percent – goes to California, which serves nearly 100,000 children and pregnant women.
Poverty is associated with lower academic performance for reasons related to the child, the household and the community. Low-income parents often have attained less education, are less involved with learning activities with their children and preoccupied with the ongoing stress of meeting their family’s basic needs for food and shelter. As a result, their children hear fewer words, have poorer health and nutrition, miss more school days, and face more struggles with attention and impulsivity compared to more affluent peers. Impoverished children are also more likely to live in neighborhoods with fewer resources such as libraries and grocery stores.
Research has shown the benefits of the Head Start programs for learning, behavior, health and parenting skills. Head Start students scored better than a control group for cognitive and social-emotional development, had higher rates of immunizations, healthier weights and less problematic behaviors. A 2016 study showed that Head Start children were more likely to graduate from high school, attend college and get a post-secondary degree, license or certification.
“I went to Head Start by Watts Tower,” said Nancy Munoz, mother of Armando, “I always knew Head Start was important and I wanted Armando to go.” Now 3, Armando just completed his first year in Early Head Start.
Munoz is a single mother who works full-time as a bail bond agent, but she couldn’t afford most preschools. She learned about the Head Start classes at Children’s Institute, Inc., in her neighborhood in Watts, an impoverished area in Los Angeles. As a pediatrician in South Los Angeles, I work closely with the organization’s child development and mental health experts, who introduced me to Munoz and Armando at their Watts center.
Children’s Institute serves nearly 2,000 children in its Early Childhood Education programs, including Head Start, Early Head Start and home-based programs, throughout the poorest communities in Los Angeles. Almost 90 percent of the participants are Latino and African American.
“We can do all we want in the classroom, but if the kids still have health or mental health issues or the families aren’t ready, then the kids aren’t ready.” said Justine Lawrence, vice president of early childhood programs at the organization.
Kids growing up in poverty are also at risk for adverse childhood experiences, called ACEs. ACEs include traumatic events such as abuse, homelessness, hunger, witnessing violence and separation from a parent. Children who are hungry, frightened or anxious can’t learn as well.
As part of school readiness, Head Start programs help nurture resilience for disadvantaged kids with a history of ACEs. Resilience is defined as good mental and physical health despite adversity—in other words, the ability to withstand and recover from adversities.
After years of working with low-income families, I’ve come to believe that combating ACEs contributes as much to a child’s academic success as learning the ABCs.
Munoz contended with multiple ACEs, including time in the foster care system, because her mother struggled with mental illness and her father with substance abuse. At 16, she and her siblings were taken in by their aunt. She is grateful to Head Start and her tia for her survival.
Munoz reads to Armando’s class once a week and credits Head Start for helping her be a “more present” parent. Munoz and Armando haven’t had an easy beginning, but “having him in Head Start is one thing to make his life easier,” she said.
“I refer families to Head Start all the time,” said Kraft. “I use it as a mechanism to support kids in unstable situations.”
Like Kraft, I also refer children to Head Start. Most of my patients are low-income and many have had ACEs. I know their parents need better coping skills. Overweight toddlers need more activity and their parents may need to learn about nutrition. I turn to the program to help children who are smart and others who are struggling because they all need the stimulation. Low-income families need more resources and the programs provide key supports. That’s why Head Start is one of my weapons in the War on Poverty. It changes lives, one kid at a time.