When Head Start was first created in 1965, the idea of providing comprehensive health, nutrition, and education services to children in poverty was revolutionary, if not radical. Flash forward fifty years to President Obama using his State of the Union address to call for more focus and dedicated work to ensure vulnerable children and families have access to high quality care and education in their earliest years. Just recently, the president announced his FY16 budget will include a commitment to expanding and strengthening child care and early education programs, specifically increasing the duration of Head Start to a full school day and year.

Clearly, providing early learning opportunities for at-risk children has become not only a focal point for lawmakers, but a shared national commitment. And Washington State is leading the way with the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP), modeled on Head Start. Based on evidence that most successful early learning programs are those that replicate Head Start’s comprehensive approach to the whole child and the whole family, ECEAP works hand-in-hand with local Head Start programs to expand access to high quality early learning to Washington’s most vulnerable children.

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In fact, findings published last month by Washington State Institute for Public Policy revealed just how strong the outcomes of the Head Start model can be. The report examines third, fourth, and fifth grade test scores for children who received food assistance benefits when they were three or four years old and, therefore, were eligible for ECEAP between 2003 and 2009. Among this group, children who attended ECEAP had significantly better test scores than those who did not, and their test score gains were twice that of average pre-K impacts in other states. Gains were in line with the strongest state pre-K studies nationally, such as the Abbott Preschool Program in New Jersey - which also implements a whole child and whole family model. Among the control group, about a quarter attended Head Start and received similar services, often from the same agencies providing ECEAP, so the true impacts of ECEAP may well be even more dramatic.

So what makes the whole child and whole family model so powerful? Nobel-prize winning economist James Heckman has suggested that the social-emotional development cultivated by programs that focus on more than simply academic skills may be the true contributor to long-term impacts of the program, and health benefits ranging from decreased child mortality to adult health behaviors also make a difference over a life-span. But the true motivator behind children's success through elementary school and beyond very likely is their parents. By helping families who are struggling with poverty and other socio-economic challenges achieve their goals for education, employment, and housing, Head Start and programs like it play a transformative role for two generations together.

As Head Start celebrates its fiftieth year as a beacon of early learning success, states are poised to follow Washington’s lead and dramatically affect the early learning landscape by adopting the Head Start model to expand access to at-risk children and families across the country.

Vinci is the executive director of the National Head Start Association.