By Annemarie Lanesey
When I was four years old, my family was struggling with challenges I was too young to understand. Despite our struggles, my mother remained focused on my development and decided to enroll me in Head Start. After a difficult separation from my father, my mother was alone raising two children. While she made best efforts to maintain a stable, loving home, she didn't have the resources to keep us out of poverty. My mother saw education and Head Start specifically as a window of opportunity to something better.
I can say definitively that Head Start did provide that opportunity — for me, and for the other 28 million who have been served by Head Start since the program began in 1965.
When my mother signed me up for Head Start, she knew I would be safe and engaged. The comprehensive services offered by my Head Start program fostered my development and allowed my mother to find her own window of opportunity. With my brother enrolled in kindergarten, my mother registered at Hudson Valley Community College. Despite our struggles, Head Start afforded my entire family with the flexibility to pursue their own educational growth and path out of poverty.
Today, my life is very different. Nearly 30 years after walking out of that Head Start, the rewards are clear. My education and love of learning, a disposition I picked up at Head Start, have been the cornerstones of my success. I have two STEM degrees from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. I've taught on the faculties of both Rensselear and SUNY Albany. I've won international awards for my creative projects, and I built my own business, a software development firm.
Every day I work with highly-successful entrepreneurs, organizations and CTOs to build robust, scalable web-applications for millions of users worldwide. Skills I use to make my business successful originated at Head Start.
In a few short months, I will be having a child of my own. I am both grateful and proud that the cycle of poverty has been broken for him. Thanks to my mother's determination and my experience as a Head Start child, I found my window of opportunity towards a brighter future.
Hundreds of studies, and almost five decades of research, make a strong case for Head Start. Early education delivers academic and social-emotional gains, provides support for stronger, more stable families and pours a foundation for immediate and long-term economic growth.
That's not abstract. My life has been a vivid example of every one of those improved outcomes. I honestly believe I wouldn't be where I am now without access to Head Start's high-quality early learning environment.
Here's your takeaway: Head Start has opened a window of opportunity for 28 million children just like me. Some of my fellow alumni are still young, working hard to become Honor Roll students or to get into college. Others have gone on to success in every field you can name. The 28 million of us believe in the power of our own experiences, and we remember what we learned in our Head Start classrooms about community and kindness and curiosity.
I'm proud to sit on the board of directors at the same Head Start program that touched my life as a child. When I spend time with the children there, basking in the light of their optimistic smiles, I'm reminded of my own experience. I hope that my success will one day be their success, and I know that Head Start will be a foundation for them to achieve great things.
For now, Head Start children are too young to speak for themselves, too young to be their own advocates and tell the country what they need. Head Start alumni — the tens of millions of us — have to speak out. We need to share with anyone who'll listen — family, friends, fellow air travelers — how early childhood education can change lives.
President Obama is committed to expanding early learning opportunities, but automatic budget cuts under “sequestration' are forcing programs to cut children in communities across the country. These children could have been us, and they need us now.
I want to echo Yasmina Vinci, Executive Director of the National Head Start Association, who has called on former Head Start children and parents to stand up and step up by joining the fight to hold open the windows of opportunity Head Start delivers. From experience, Head Start alumni know how critical it is for America to keep its commitment to young children. Together, we are America. Our children are the future of America. And no American future will shine bright unless we can keep the window of opportunity open.
Annmarie Lanesey is co-founder and president of Greane Tree Technology.