Youth Justice


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The colors were brighter than any she had seen before. Shapes, letters, and lots and lots of colors adorned the walls; around the room, children worked together building high rises with colored blocks and “read” colorful picture books. “I had never seen so much color,” Angelica Salazar recalls of her first days as a Head Start preschooler in Duarte, Calif. She remembers the discovery of library books and spending hours curled up on the reading rug. Head Start was Angie’s first formal experience learning English. Her parents, who spoke mostly Spanish, enrolled her in the program knowing that their little girl would need English to succeed in school.

Today, Angelica Salazar, a graduate of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, serves as a juvenile justice policy associate at the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), where she works to help identify and change policies that trap millions of our nation’s children in a pipeline to prison every year. Before studying at Harvard, Angie taught middle school English in an impoverished Los Angeles neighborhood as a Teach for America corps member. Angie believes her early childhood experience in Head Start put her on the path to academic success and her commitment to serving others.

In a videotaped interview for the National Head Start Association, Angie and her father, Alejandro, talk about Head Start’s influence on their family. Her father, speaking in Spanish, relates how he never had the opportunity to finish elementary school. Their family was poor, and he and his wife could not afford to pay for preschool. Head Start was a God send for the entire family, helping her immigrant parents become more fully integrated into their community. It allowed Angie’s mother to work for the first time while her children received safe and high quality care. Angie is so grateful she had the right combination of opportunities beginning with her parents’ commitment to her education, and grateful for the great start she had as a preschooler.

Angie is one among over 20 million children Head Start has given a positive start in life since 1964. Today, 15.5 million children in rich America live in poverty, and more than 20 percent of children under age five are poor, including more than 40 percent of Black children and more than 33 percent of Hispanic children. These are the children Head Start is designed to serve and get ready for school through educational, health, nutritional, social, and other services. When the latest tests show more than 60 percent of students and 80 percent of minority students can’t perform at grade level in grades four, eight, and 12, school readiness—especially for poor and minority children—is more critical than ever. But right now less than half of those eligible for Head Start and fewer than 3 percent of those eligible for Early Head Start, a program for infants and toddlers, are enrolled.

Poor children are already behind their higher income peers in cognitive development at nine months old; the gap is even wider by 24 months. By kindergarten, poor children have to beat the odds to catch up—and as the testing shows, many never do. Quality, comprehensive child development programs are crucial for the physical, emotional, and educational health of all children—especially poor and at-risk children. Extensive research also shows that early childhood programs significantly increase a child’s chances of avoiding the prison pipeline that Angie now studies as a policy expert, and investments in quality early education can produce a rate of return to society significantly higher than returns to most stock market investments or traditional economic development projects.

There is a tragic irony to the fact that as our nation prepares to celebrate the Week of the Young Child from April 10-14, Congress is debating whether to slash more than $1 billion from Head Start and to cut the Child Care and Development Block Grant, the Women, Infants and Children Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the Maternal and Child Health Block Grant, and other essential programs for young children. But that is just the beginning. This week, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan unveiled a proposal that would dismantle Medicaid and other lifelines for poor children in order to give trillions of dollars in tax cuts to the richest Americans and corporations. Where are our nation’s values? We must stand up for programs that support the cradle to college pipeline. We simply can’t afford to leave even more poor babies, toddlers, and preschoolers behind. Watch Angie’s story yourself—and tell Congress, don’t cut Head Start.