‘Father of Head Start’ and Zigler Center leader reflect on Head Start at 50

If you believe in karma — the good kind, that is — then you’ll believe it was working for Head Start pioneer Edward Zigler two years ago. He was preparing to undergo hip surgery when he became the direct beneficiary of the educational program he helped form 50 years ago.

Zigler’s wife and colleague were at his side at Yale-New Haven Hospital when the anesthesiologist, John Paul Kim, realized that he was about to care for the man who started the program that helped educate him as a child growing up in poverty in New York.

“Dr. Zigler was in a groggy state and was giving me directions for the work he felt needed to be done with Head Start, as if in case the surgery did not go well,” recalls Walter Gilliam, the current director of the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy at Yale.

“Is he talking about Head Start, the program for poor children?” Kim asked. Gilliam told him about Zigler’s role on the planning committee that created Head Start at the federal level. Zigler had also administered the program during the Nixon administration, and has devoted his whole career and life to supporting and guiding Head Start.

Kim, the son of refugee immigrants from Cambodia, looked at his patient in awe, walked over to him, and thanked him profusely. He told Zigler that he was a Head Start child himself, and that his mother often said that the reason his life turned out so well—so much differently than of many of the other children in his neighborhood — was that he had the support of Head Start.

“It was as if Dr. Kim was finally able to express his gratitude to his previously unknown benefactor — the man responsible for opening the door to opportunities he may otherwise have missed. It was a touching moment for everyone in the room,” said Gilliam.

Zigler will reunite with Kim for the first time since that surgery on March 31 during the National Head Start Association’s (NHSA) Annual Conference and Expo. Their reunion will take place in front of an expected audience of more than 5,000 Head Start directors, teachers, and families.

Kim is one of more than 32 million Head Start graduates who have benefited from the educational, health, and nutritional services provided by the federally funded program. In addition to Head Start, Zigler helped to develop several national projects and policies, such as Early Head Start and the Family and Medical Leave Act. He was the founding director of the U.S. Office of Child Development (now the Administration for Children and Families in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) and chief of the U.S. Children’s Bureau. He founded and is director emeritus of Yale’s Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy, one of the first centers in the nation to combine training in developmental science and social policy construction. He conceptualized the School of the 21st Century program, which has been adopted by more than 1,300 schools in 20 states. Working with state governments and private foundations, he has played a central role in generating momentum toward establishing universal preschool education. He has also advised seven different U.S. presidents on child-care policies.

Zigler is described as the “Father of Head Start” for his role as one of the program’s staunchest champions. Like any great father, Zigler has been fiercely protective of the program during the times it came close to being dismantled during different presidential administrations.

During an interview with YaleNews, Zigler expressed wonder as to why the Johnson administration chose him to lead the program over two other highly qualified candidates. He finally posited that it was because he had the ability to remove the cloak of academia and quickly assimilate to government culture. Being a champion poker player who once quit college to play professionally also didn’t hurt, he said, as poker involves assessing people, which helped when managing the Washington politics.

“No ordinary academic would have survived Washington,” said Zigler. “I was a truck driver and a poker player, and I was one of the poor kids that Head Start sought to nurture. I could operate the way those in Washington do.”

Gilliam said, “They chose you because they knew Head Start needed a bulldog and they got a Yale Bulldog.”

YaleNews spoke with Zigler and Gilliam to learn more about the history of the various child development programs they have both nurtured, and to get their thoughts on the future of programs like Head Start and the Zigler Center.

What drew you to child development programs like Head Start and the Zigler Center?

WG: I first became interested in child development when I was a public school teacher. A string of tragedies including suicides and an accident occurred at my school. The administration struggled with how to respond, and it made me rethink what I wanted to do with my life. I loved teaching, but I wanted to work with children at the psychological level so I went back to school and got my graduate degree in psychology.

What wakes me up everyday is thinking that my work will have an impact on the lives of children and families.

EZ: My parents were immigrants. English was not my first language. Back in those days we lived in settlement houses, which helped incorporate immigrant families into this country. It was terrific. I went to preschool at the settlement house. I got my health services there. In many ways, it was like Head Start. I grew up in the Great Depression, so everyone was poor. My father supported his family by selling produce from a horse and wagon. I started working on that horse and wagon when I was about 7 years old. Because of my own background, I relate to all the children Head Start serves.

What has been Head Start’s biggest impact?

WG: Head Start is a wonderful testament to a great idea. The idea behind Head Start is that all children deserve a decent chance at the plate. They might not all be able to hit a home run, but they deserve a chance at the plate with a good bat and a fairly pitched ball. It’s the idea that even our poorest children deserve some kind of opportunity to start school ready to learn and to do well in school. It’s an idea based in equity and the hope that all our children can grow up to lead productive lives.

Head Start is about a child’s health, emotional, educational, dietary, and social needs. It’s about making sure the electricity is turned on; it’s about parent involvement — making sure that all the services necessary for that child to succeed are available for that child and that child’s family. No child exists all alone. Children exist within the context of their family. Head Start takes that “whole child” approach to understanding all the facets of that child’s needs.

EZ: Before Head Start, programs for poor children were interested only in education.

Head Start introduced the whole child approach. We recognized that these kids needed more than educational help and that their social and emotional development was also important. What also makes Head Start important is the strong focus on parent involvement.

If you’re going to work with a family, you have to involve the parents. Head Start doesn’t raise children. Parents raise children. Head Starts focuses as much on the parents, as it does on the children.

Head Start also introduced the idea of offering multiple services. A sick kid can’t learn very much. So the planning committee included psychiatrists, pediatricians, social workers, and others. As a result, Head Start became this multifaceted program.

You’ve worked with many children over the years. Are there any who are most memorable?

WG: I remember a cute, exuberant little boy who was about 4 years old. He was new to the Head Start program. Whenever he would get tired, he would crawl into his teacher’s lap, and sometimes he would rock back and forth and fall asleep, and other times, out of nowhere, he would punch her in the face. The teacher never knew what to expect. We spoke to the family to find out more about this child. We found out that he had been raised by his mother and never knew his father until he was about 2 years old. That’s when she dropped him off at his father’s house, told him she was going to the store, and never returned. The father had remarried and he adopted him into his new home, but the child was very angry. We realized that this was a child who was trying to figure out how to be comfortable with women again, and whether this woman, this teacher in the classroom, was someone who was going to be there for him or not. He wanted her to be, but at the same time he was quite angry. So we worked with that family and that teacher and tried to help him understand what had happened to him. That child had a great outcome, but it was a long, hard road to get him to feel secure enough so he could trust.

That’s just one example of what Head Start does. It is a lot of things to a lot of different children. Some of our children come to us needing a few extra academic skills. Some, like this little boy, come to us with some heavy-duty needs. The role of Head Start is to figure out what those needs are and to meet children  where they are in development and education.

What will programs like the Zigler Center and Head Start look like in the next 50 years?

WG: In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need a Head Start or an Edward Zigler Center. We would have all the research that we need and all the know-how that we need in order to help children and families. Government policies would be in line with all of that know- how, but I’m not optimistic that we’re there yet or that we’ll be there soon.

So I think there’s always going to be a role for programs like Head Start and the Edward Zigler Center. We take the best research we can find on how to help children and families and translate that into actionable policies that governments at the state and federal levels  and in other countries can implement to help children and families around the world. Then we would need to be there to evaluate whether those government efforts are actually beneficial to those children and families.

We will always have children and families, and we’ll always need those who are looking out for their betterment in terms of creating policies that help make the world a better place.

What do you feel are the biggest challenges to programs like Head Start?

EZ: We have to keep improving the quality of the teachers and staff. I’d like to see more teachers with degrees in child development. The fight for continuous improvement in the quality of Head Start has been there from the beginning.

An ongoing challenge is to get Congress to evaluate Head Start based not only on the progress in children, but by progress in parents as well. Anything that improves the life of the parent rubs off on the child. Head Start should be evaluated based on how involved the parents and families are as a result of participating in the program. Why shouldn’t we evaluate also on the success of the parent? I might win that one yet.

How did you feel when you realized Dr. Kim was a Head Start graduate?  

WG: This was a great story for me to witness. It is a story about someone who devoted his life to helping poor children to succeed, only to find out 50 years later that he was going to have to place his own life in the hands of one of those children — one of those poor children of immigrant parents who used that opportunity to become a doctor at Yale. The parallels are amazing. Both Drs. Kim and Zigler were raised in poor immigrant families.

EZ: I was pleased. We chatted. He said Head Start changed his life. I believe him. I have been a professor at Yale for over 50 years. I’ve had graduate students who come to the psychology department tell me that they were Head Start graduates. I love meeting Head Start children anywhere. A million kids go through Head Start each year, and that is a success. The first summer we started the program, there were 160,000 children signed up. It’s a good program. It’s been there for 50 years, and it’s going to be there for 50 more years.

If you were starting Head Start now, what would you do differently?

EZ: I’m not going to start all over. I’m going to keep playing poker.