The oldest and largest federal program to give kids early educational opportunities is expanding its efforts beyond the classroom and into the homes of some of the country’s poorest families.
Head Start, which serves 32 million low-income children today, announced on Tuesday that it is partnering with the NAACP to help struggling families break out of the cycle of poverty.
The initiative helps parents register to vote, provides advocacy services to ensure fair housing, and aids with enrollment for health care coverage. Parents will be able to find such tools at about 1,700 local Head Start centers across the nation.
“We believe that whole family needs to be supported to ensure economic stability,” Sally Aman, a spokesperson for the National Head Start Association, told TakePart. “A part of that is access to affordable health care and housing.”
Aman says the NAACP will run the parent-focused Head Start programs and distribute tool kits for families. According to Aman, the idea for the initiative came from NAACP President and CEO Cornell William Brooks, who spoke at Head Start’s annual conference last year. Brooks is also an alumnus of the Head Start program.
For 50 years, the Head Start program has been working to support children with a range of services including early schooling, health screenings, dental screenings, home visits, and nutritional information. President Lyndon B. Johnson started Head Start in 1965 as a summer school program for children ages three to five. In 1998, President Bill Clinton expanded it into a full-day program that ran year-round. This year also marks the 20th anniversary of the program's expansion to aid kids from birth to age five.
Nationwide, 44 percent of children come from low-income families, with one in every five living in a poor household, according to a 2015 report from the National Center for Children in Poverty.
Early education sets the stage for children to live successful lives later on. HighScope Perry Preschool, an independent nonprofit research organization, initiated a study in the 1960s that tracked kids from age three or four until age 40. When it was published in 2005, the research found that those who received a high-quality preschool education were more likely to have a stable job, commit fewer crimes, and have a high school diploma than those who didn’t attend preschool.
By ensuring that parents have full access to economic opportunities, Head Start is not only making sure that children have a better chance for success later on in life but that whole families are offered that chance as well.
“Head Start has always emphasized that parents are their children’s first teachers and a program’s most important partner,” said Head Start Executive Director Yasmina Vinci in a statement. “Expanding access to these resources is a crucial part of breaking the cycle of poverty and empowering families to achieve their own goals for education, employment, stability, and success.”