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Originally published Sunday, November 21, 2010 at 4:00 PM

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Jule Sugarman and Head Start — a life-enriching legacy

Jule Sugarman created Head Start, the nation's longest-serving early learning program. His death at age 83 is a reminder to Congress to invest and reform Head Start.

THE early years in children's lives are critical to growth and development, underscoring the need to bolster and improve Head Start, the federal program aimed at giving an educational boost to poor preschoolers.

More than 27 million children and their families have gone through Head Start. Each year, about 900,000 children from 3 to 5 years old enroll to learn basics such as language development, following directions and cooperating with teachers and other children. These skills ease young learners through the transition to kindergarten and primary school. Students who do not receive the benefit of preschool tend to enter school academically behind; many never catch up.

Head Start combats childhood poverty's deleterious effect on learning by providing health, dental and eye screening. Meals and snacks have always been crucial components. Now they take on added significance as the number of families relying on food stamps and other aid rises.

Credit Jule Sugarman for taking the concept of leveling the academic playing field for poor children and creating Head Start nearly a half a century ago. Sugarman died at his West Seattle home earlier this month at age 83.

After declaring his War on Poverty, President Lyndon Johnson called upon Sugarman to use education as the weapon of choice. Early learning was critical, Johnson said, because 5-year-old's are "inheritors of poverty's curse and not its creators."

Head Start has survived because it works. The program suffers from inconsistent quality and attention but promising changes are in the works.

The Obama administration has boosted spending to Head Start. About $2 billion in stimulus funds were added to the program and other early-learning efforts. At the same time, the administration proposes new regulatory changes steeped in stronger quality and accountability.

A new, five-year, $40 million national Head Start grant led by the University of Washington's College of Education is expected to spur improvements in curriculum and instruction, professional development of Head Start teachers, and build stronger connections between the program and elementary schools.

The combination of efforts link Sugarman's work to the future.

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