In 1965, our nation made a commitment to open a window of opportunity for at-risk children through "Project Head Start." In the 50 years since, Head Start has served over 30 million children and their families in urban and rural areas in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. territories. As Head Start 50th year anniversary celebrations popped up all over the country this year, they not only celebrated the program, but all those who arealumni of the program.
One such alum is U.S. Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez who represents California's 46th Congressional District, which includes the cities of Anaheim, Santa Ana, Orange and Garden Grove in Orange County. Rep. Sanchez began her congressional career in January of 1997 and is currently serving her tenth term in the U.S. House of Representatives. She was one of the first graduates of the program in 1965. As she proudly proclaimed on the floor of the House in a speech espousing the virtues of the program, “I am a Head Start kid. I have first-hand experience of the comprehensive education programs and opportunities that Head Start provides to low-income families.” Earlier this year, she made the case for the Head Start program before an audience attending the first-ever TEDxPennsylvaniaAvenue held at the Newseum (news museum) in Washington D.C. in July. Here’s what she had to say that day:
It’s a pleasure to be with you today and to talk about, to really be a voice for a program that is so near and dear to my heart. But you know it wasn’t always the case that I had a voice. In fact, when I was a little girl, I was pretty voiceless. When I was a little girl growing up in a family with my grandma and my mom and my dad and an older brother and a couple of little brothers and sisters, Spanish and English were spoken in my home, but I didn’t speak. I never spoke. My parents sometimes would hear some gibberish here and there; mostly they would hear me talking to my older brother because my older brother and I had our own language. Whenever I needed anything, it was my older brother who would translate for me. I would make hand motions etc., but I really didn’t talk to my parents, and I didn’t talk to the world. My grandma, in fact, who was poor and lived with us would spend what little money she had to take me to the doctor. I remember going several times, and she would say to the doctor, ‘I think she is deaf and mute.’ And the doctor would say, ‘she’s just not ready to talk to you.’ And so that was my life.
Then one day my mom was reading the paper, and she saw on the front page that they were starting a new program called Head Start, and she said, ‘that’s the program for my Loretta.’ So she went down to the school, and she signed me up for the program. On the first day of the Head Start, she dressed me all up. It was only three doors, three homes down from the corner. We crossed the street, and there was the elementary school, and that’s where the Head Start program was. She walked me down there, and she took me to what looked to be like a kindergarten class, and she dropped me off. When I realized my mom was going to leave me alone for the day, I screamed and yelled, and I ran and, I grabbed her leg, and I wouldn’t let go. Literally they had to pry me off my mom, and then my mom left me. She abandoned me, and I was crying and crying I was just on the side of the whole show. Kids doing their thing, and I was crying, and I just couldn’t stop crying. You see, I was really shy when I was young.
Then something happened -- snack time! They had watermelon and celery with peanut butter. I started eating the stuff, and all of a sudden, everything was okay. See, my mother wasn’t much of a snack or dessert lady, and so after that I thought this is okay, this isn’t too bad. Then they rolled out a light blue beach towel my mom had sent with me, and it was nap time. Between snack time and nap time, I figured I was living the high life. I would go every day. My mom would walk me hand in hand so joyful to go to Head Start. And what I learned in Head Start was my alphabet, how to write my name (which for a little girl Loretta is pretty long) and how to share toys. Some toys I had never seen before. There was a redheaded doll I really liked, and I had to share it with somebody else. So I learned how to socialize with other kids. It was really an amazing program for six weeks.
Head Start started 50 years ago when then President Lyndon Johnson stood in that Rose Garden and said that they were going to help with the education of the disadvantaged children of our nation. Who would have known 50 years ago that from Head Start that as that little girl I would through school, would go to college, would get my MBA, would work in some of the biggest corporations in the nation and would be standing before you as a member of the Congress of the United States. I am Head Start.
Thirty-two million kids and pregnant moms have gone through the Head Start program for language development and verbal achievement. We’ve seen a decrease in behavioral problems from children who go through that program, a complete increase in selfesteem. We’ve see kids graduating more often if they’ve gone to Head Start from high school, and more of them going to college and less of them in prison. That’s what Head Start does for our country.
People talk all the time about the achievement gap we see between disadvantaged kids -- let’s say kids that are Latino like me -- and the Anglo population. We work on this all the time in my district. And I have something to say today. That achievement gap can be lowered and can be narrowed right at the getgo, right at the starting line with a preschool for children before they ever get to kindergarten. Let’s make all of our children ready at the starting line of education in the United States by having Head Start.
You know, Head Start is not just about kids. It’s also about parents. I told you that my mom was actually with me every step of the way. Head Start not only teaches but it also tests your hearing, your vision and whatever problems you may have from a health perspective because many kids coming from disadvantaged backgrounds don’t get that type of care. My mom is an amazing person because Head Start taught her how to be a parent. Remember, I come from a home of two Mexican immigrants. So usually in an immigrant home it’s the mom who does the negotiating that navigates the new systems of the U.S. My mom was that person, and Head Start showed her how to advocate for her kids; what to look for, what to demand, what to want and what to see. In fact, my mom had seven children when all was said and done. And she was an advocate for each and every one. Head Start taught her how to do that.
Parents earn to read to their kids. They read more often than the parents of those who don’t go to Head Start. Parents use less physical discipline with their children once they go through the Head Start program. And the parents themselves are more apt to find an education for themselves, also. So my mother after raising seven children, she started going to school to get her GED, and then her B.A. and then her credentials to teach. She taught for 17 years in the public schools advocating and helping other children. Yes, my mom is pretty special. In fact, my mom is the only mom in the history of these United States to send two daughters to the United States Congress.
But let’s not take my word for it. Let’s look at the economic benefits of Head Start. We know for every dollar we spend on the Head Start program, the United States makes $9 in benefits. What do I mean by that? What I mean is less incarceration, people with better jobs, more education, etc., yet the United States ranks 25th in the world for early learning enrollment. In fact, one of out every six kids that qualify for Head Start actually get a slot in the program. Fewer 30 percent of four-year-olds are enrolled in a quality preschool program. So this past year, we have 1.076 million kids in Head Start, and yet because of budget cuts, we’re looking at 53,000 of those slots being cut. So my ask of you today is to help me be a voice for all of us. Be a voice for a program that truly helps children to do what America does best -- productive, joyful, giving back to communities. I am a voice. You can be a voice also.