“Everybody has been in some kind of a foot race where one group, by reason of a handicap, is given a head start,” Sargent Shriver said in 1990.* Those words capture much of the philosophy behind Head Start, a program Shriver founded in 1965 with hopes of creating a fairer race for children in poverty.
Shriver passed away yesterday at the age of 95.
Head Start originated from the Office for Economic Opportunity, which administered programs that were part of Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. Shriver was the Office’s first president. As a former president of the Chicago School Board, he was familiar with problems facing the school system and was early among policymakers in recognizing early childhood programs as a strategy toward helping children from low-income families succeed in school.
Two books on Head Start’s history, Head Start by Edward Zigler and Susan Muenchow and The Birth of Head Start by Maris A. Vinovskis, feature Shriver’s role in conceiving Head Start and convincing those around him to launch it as a large-scale, nationwide program at a rare moment where funding and support made such a move possible.
Without this momentum, it is unlikely that Head Start, the nation’s largest federally funded program for children 5 and under, would have ever come close to its current size and scope. Head Start was launched as a summer-school program for 100,000 children in the summer of 1965, less than a year after Shriver was sworn in as the first president of the O.E.O., and is considered by many to be the most successful program to come out of the War on Poverty.
Shriver’s legacy also includes founding the Peace Corps, the Special Olympics, and other programs Shriver created while carrying out the War on Poverty on behalf of Johnson— such as Job Corps and Vista.
* Quoted from an interview with Susan Muenchow that is included in the book, Head Start.