Head Start Celebrates 59 Years Nurturing Young Minds


One KenCrest Early Learning Center Program Director reflects on being one of the first families to join Head Start and its impact on her life.

By Sydney Kerelo

On May 18, Head Start marked its 59th anniversary, a testament to its transformative power in supporting the mental, physical, and social well-being of children and families in low-income neighborhoods. Over the past 59 years, the Head Start program has been a beacon of hope, helping children ages three to five develop academic and social skills within a welcoming, inclusive learning environment.

According to the Office of Head Start, the Administration for Children and Families, Head Start was created in 1964 as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty. This comprehensive effort addressed the economic and social issues trapping many Americans, especially children, in poverty. Deeply moved by the effects of poverty on education, one of President Johnson and Sargent Shriver’s key strategies was the creation of the Head Start program.

Originally conceived as an eight-week demonstration project, the Head Start program was designed to break the cycle of poverty by providing preschool-aged children with access to a comprehensive range of services. These services included emotional support, social skills development, health and nutritional guidance, and educational activities tailored to their age and needs. The aim was to meet all the children's needs, not just their educational ones.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, the program "is primarily a federally funded program that provides education, health, and social services to families with children aged 3, 4, and 5. Head Start programs help children develop academic and social skills that prepare them for school and life."

Students playing with block at one of KenCrest's Early Learning Centers. // Photo by Sydney Kerelo

Head Start Had a Strong Impact on Many Local Families

Shirley Gilcrest, the Program Director of KenCrest's Adam's Early Learning Center, has a personal journey that embodies the impact of the Head Start program. She was introduced to the program in 1968 and was one of the first families to benefit from it.

"I enrolled my youngest son, who is now 34 years old," says Gilcrest, reflecting on the lasting impact of the Head Start program. "It was an awesome experience; it allowed him to grow as an individual and become the strong-willed, independent person he is today."

The Director at the time was one of the main reasons Gilcrest began working in Early Childhood Education today. When her son began school at the Center, she started volunteering in the classroom and never wanted to leave. The Director was highly passionate about children and their families, and that drive made Gilcrest wish to work full-time in Early Childhood Education.

Now, 33 years later, she continues working in the field as the Program Director for KenCrest's Adams Early Learning Center. One of seven Early Learning Centers across Philadelphia offers both Head Start and Early Head Start.—which supports children from birth to age three by providing high-quality services that help them grow physically, academically, and socially.

"One thing that I wish is that more parents would take advantage of the program and become involved," says Gilcrest. "What is learned in Head Start can leave a lasting impression on one's life, and I believe I am a better parent because of the Head Start program. Early Childhood Education is not just play, but it is learning and if implemented well, it will change the trajectory of a child's life."

Consider learning more about Head Start and the impact Early Childhood Education can make on your child.