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On Your Mark. Get Set. GO!!!

President Johnson believed that "children are the inheritors of poverty's curse, not its creators," and introduced Head Start to make sure that children like this boy are not captives of poverty.

You are five years old and just when you were starting to think you were pretty cool for learning how to tie your shoelaces, the bell rings, school begins, and you're off on the path of formal learning and the sometimes frightening race for a good education.

Sure, it is not exactly like running the 50-yard dash, but school sometimes seems like a race. Taking standardized tests, receiving report cards, making sure you move up a grade, and a lot of the time competing with students to get into the 'right' school, can make being you feel like you are a contestant in some big game of education.


A very solid 7-mile joke

Imagine you are in a race with your friends to the end of your street. They have brand-new scooters and in-line skates and all you have is a lousy pair of flip-flops. Doesn't seem very fair if your friends do not give you a head start, does it? Just like in most races, in the race for a good education you want to be sure to have the right equipment or a least get a head start in front of those who do, too.

Ms. Ellen has been a teacher at Head Start since the Great Society began in 1965!!!

Now, imagine you are five years old, at your first day of first grade, you don't know your ABCs and you notice that all of your classmates already know how to read! It seems to me, as to most of the rest of us Trekkers, that you would be starting off the race for education with a pretty lousy pair of flip-flops. Unfortunately, that is what the first day of first grade is like for a lot a kids that come from low-income families.

After Trekker Becky and I made our way through the rainy streets of Western Philadelphia, stopped in to try one of the city's world famous cheesesteaks, and splashed in a few puddles amidst rows, rows, and rows of worn down colonial-style houses, we spoke with some local teachers and families about life in Western Philadelphia and experienced a sobering change of mood.

A lot of the kids in Western Philadelphia (as well as a lot of the other low-income areas in the US) grow up within broken homes that are surrounded by gunfire and drugs and with parents that work around the clock. With unstructured and oftentimes dangerous home lives, more than a handful of these kids do not have a support system to give them the tools of learning they need to succeed in school.

Trekker Becky sure is great, but what about LBJ's plans for a Great Society?

Fortunately for many of these kids, Lyndon B. Johnson had them in mind when he took over the US presidency after John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963. Almost upon taking over the presidency, Lyndon B. Johnson announced in speeches across the country that young men and women who grow up without a decent education in broken homes, in hostile environments, in ill health, or in the face of racial injustice are often trapped in a life of poverty.


Johnson's attention to the cycles of poverty in the US, like in the areas of Western Philadelphia, became part of a national agenda in which he persuaded the American people that the time had come for the country to use its wealth in order to advance the quality of national life and to create a 'Great Society'.

In the push for this 'Great Society', Johnson introduced an enormous slate of legislation which included governmental support for education, medical care, and legal protection. After a sweeping victory for the Democrats in the 1964 election, Congress passed almost all of the Democratic president's bills, making the four years of Johnson's presidency the most active period of national legislation in US history.

Trekker Stephen stops in to get a heads up on the help up at Head Start

Among the almost 200 landmark laws that mark the 'Great Society' years of US History, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, speeding the momentum of the civil rights movement. There was also the Economic Opportunity Act which allowed for the development of the revolutionary Office of Economic Opportunity.

With the introduction of the Office of Economic Opportunity, President Johnson declared a War on Poverty. It was this office that administered and funded many innovative anti-poverty programs'. Medicare/Medicaid was first created and the elderly and low-income families gained access to government sponsored medical treatment. The office also provided funds to develop local community-based programs and to empower low-income people to help themselves.

Head Start director, Leslie Johnson, takes a break from some serious talk about education to appease photo-conscious Stephen

Critics of Johnson's Great Society argue that using national tax money to support government mandated anti-poverty programs is like taking from the rich and giving to the poor. Critics also say that the War on Poverty was like a government handout wasted on lazy Americans and was an ineffective way to deal with the issue of poverty.

All you have to do is walk around in Western Philadelphia like Becky and I did to see that President Johnson's War on Poverty did not succeed in eradicating poverty from America like it set out to do. The Office of Economic opportunity did, however, affect a significant decrease in the incidence of poverty. It also inspired the creation of strong social programs that continue to combat the cycle of poverty in the US today.

She's only as high as my hip, but Sasha is one of Head Start's precious gems

If for no other reason, Johnson's Great Society and its War on Poverty are significant because they created Head Start. As a program, Head Start is aware of the "lousy flip flop" scenario as far a low-income kids and the race for education are concerned and recognizes the need to provide these kids a boost, or a head start, in their communities.

Focused on nutrition, mental and emotional health, and parental education, Head Start enables communities to enhance educational development for kids less than 5 years old. By doing so, the program increases the readiness of pre-schoolers so they do not feel left behind or lost once they move on to elementary school.

The books may be small, but the knowledge gained is unlimited and huge

"If it wasn't for Head Start, a lot of these kids who don't have people reading to them at home, don't have that one-on-one, would enter school at a serious deficit," said Carlyn Burton, a teacher's assistant and mother of a former Head Start student.

Discussing the significance of Head Start as she has experienced it in Philadelphia, Carlyn said, "It's absolutely vital that these kids have someone to tell them 'I know you can do it!' to nurture them. A lot of them just don't get the attention a kid really needs at home. There are even a few of them that have been born addicted to drugs."

Once Trekker Jennifer heard that Becky and I had spent some time in a Head Start school in Western Philadelphia and had talked to some parents in order to taste the legacy of the Great Society, she told the two of us that the next day the annual Head Start Day at Congress was going on in Washington, D.C. As you can imagine, we packed our bags and hightailed it to D.C. as fast as possible to speak with some former Head Start students and with some of the program's directors.

Cart wheeling before Congress

As soon as we got into D.C., Jennifer and I trotted off into the congressional office building and almost immediately started to talk with former Head Start student, Louis Finney, just as Senator Ted Kennedy was passing along in the hallway! Louis mentioned that, "kids that enter elementary school from Head Start are noticeably better off than kids that don't, and they really do feel the effects."

Louis remembers that, "when my brother's and I went to enter elementary school, the teacher's told us they would have to hold us back, but I told them that I had already been to school. I was way ahead of the game, while my brothers had to be held back a year."

Does the Great Society's Head Start program

Now an advocate for Head Start programs, Louis agrees with Head Start director, Leslie Johnson, that "economics does NOT define how intelligent you are." What Head Start supporters like Leslie Johnson want us to understand is that no two children, no two families, have the same experiences in life so "you have to listen to the children, listen to the parents, spend time with the children, nurture them, and bring them up."

Did YOU start writing in your journal when you were 3 years old?

When I agreed with her that Head Start effectively functions to take the child where he/she is and brings him/her to where he/she should be in the race for education, Leslie corrected me to say there is no real 'race' for education. Education is not about races and test scores and going to the right school. "It's about people and parents," she continued, "it's about community and family. Head Start pools from the community and effects it."

Communities have an educational resource in Head Start and parents and children understand that with it, "we have the chance to change a nation."


Please email me at: stephen@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Jennifer - Q: What's better than a high paying corporate job? -
A: Bringing hope to Americans in poverty

Rebecca - Laying down the law of the land
Neda - Teaching democracy through the barrel of a gun
Stephanie - Working for peace is a fulltime job
Rebecca - America's royal family