More than 40 years ago, President Lyndon Baines Johnson passed away. The Texas native set the stage for many of our country’s most critical services for those in need, including the Head Start program. His philosophy of providing support services to help American families thrive is an inspiration for our overall work helping the working poor in our community, and particularly the Success By 6 program.
In his 1964 State of the Union address, President Johnson declared a War on Poverty – a war we would fight through education and opportunity – and from that speech, the legacy of Head Start was born. The program was based on emerging research that you could break the cycle of poverty by providing a high-quality education to the youngest and most vulnerable among us: preschool-age children.
The Head Start model that LBJ championed ensured that the emotional, social, nutritional and psychological needs of children would be met, knowing that it’s not just ABC’s and 123’s that children need to be ready for school, work and life. This is the same philosophy that inspires our work in early childhood.
Today, research continues to affirm the value of the Head Start program. Longitudinal research shows that, to predict long-term success, it is not enough to look at what children know – – like how many capital letters they can recognize – but to include executive function and self-regulation – the ability to pay attention, exercise self-control, communicate, use what you know, and take on new challenges.
In the years that followed the creation of Head Start, LBJ’s successors carried the torch of his legacy –
- Bringing the value of Head Start to children even earlier in life, with the creation of Early Head Start in 1995
- Demanding higher quality standards and programmatic oversight in 2007
- Adding more than 64,000 Early Head Start and Head Start slots through the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act in 2009
To date, Head Start has served over 30 million children.
Unfortunately, in Travis County, less than 10 percent of eligible children are currently receiving Head Start services. The wait lists are long – but the slots just aren’t available.
More than that, there are over 28,000 low-income children under the age of 4 in living in Austin. Only 5,000 of them are receiving any kind of service.
And we see the impact of this gap in services, because only 13 percent of children in our community from low-income neighborhoods are on track to start school prepared for success. Once children start behind, they tend to stay behind – 21 percent of Austin’s low-income students do not graduate from high school. Just one cohort of drop-outs costs our region $430M in lost earnings over the course of their lives.
In our program, we’ve managed to bump the number of school-ready children to 90 percent – but there’s still work to be done.
I had the privilege of meeting one of Head Start’s many graduates at the National Business Leader Summit on Early Childhood Investment in Atlanta last month – a graduate who now serves as the managing counsel for Coca-Cola. He credits his tremendous career success to the quality education he received during his formative years.
“If a business in Austin said, ‘We will deliver a seven-fold increase,’ people would be beating down the door to be first. That is the return on dollars invested in quality early education – the kind of quality work that UWATX provides.” – Heather Ladage, Publisher, Austin Business Journal
UWATX Board Members Jon Armstrong (President & COO, Stormpulse) and Heather Ladage (Publisher, Austin Business Journal) and Success By 6 Leadership Council member Matt McDonnell (VP of Operations, Famigo) joined me to hear from national experts on these very issues. Their key takeaways were:
- We need to ratchet up our national early childhood efforts to remain globally competitive. Other countries, including China, are thinking about their future workforce now.
- Early childhood education is socially fair and economically efficient.
- As a high-tech community, we need to invest in fundamental STEM and literacy skills now in order to prepare our children for the STEM academic and career options ahead of them.
The event left a strong impression for our group – that investing in quality early childhood services. As Heather said at our panel on early childhood last night at the LBJ School, “If a business in Austin said, ‘We will deliver a seven-fold increase,’ people would be beating down the door to be first. That is the return on dollars invested in quality early education – the kind of quality work that UWATX provides.”