Spearheading lasting change in early childhood education

In 1965, the Johnson administration called upon Edmund Wyatt Gordon, CAS/MA ’50, to transform the war on poverty’s bold vision into action. 

A leader in child development and early intervention and founder of the Harriet Tubman Clinic for Children, a first-of-its kind children’s mental health center in Harlem, Gordon joined a handpicked team of top researchers to lay the foundation for what became the federal Head Start program.

A pilot designed to help preschool-aged children from low-income families meet their educational, nutritional, emotional, and social needs started with the goal of serving 25,000 kids. “The initial idea was not fathomable when we first heard it,” says Gordon of the scale, but he pushed onward, fostering its unprecedented growth. A societally vital—and politically popular—resource quickly exploded, with centers across the nation serving than more than 400,000 youngsters by the late ’60s.

Head Start’s inaugural director of research and evaluation has watched the program both expand its reach in comprehensive early childhood education to more than one million children and demonstrate its staying power. Head Start, which marked its 56th anniversary in May, has engaged 37 million kids and their families since its inception. 

While he had envisioned an even greater impact for its community and family development initiatives, Gordon—recipient of AU’s 2019 Neil Kerwin Alumni Achievement Award—reflects proudly on his creation. “Getting kids started in education broader than that it occurs at home in a systematic cultivation of their intellects was a brilliant move,” the AU School of Education scholar in residence says. “To this day, I run into people who are praising Head Start for the start that it gave them.”

Head Start stands as the crowning achievement in a 75-year career driven by Gordon’s desire to create educational opportunities for marginalized and disenfranchised children.

The psychologist has inspired students and conducted research on college campuses throughout the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, penned more than 200 academic articles and essays, and published 18 books, delivering nearly half of them in the two decades since his retirement from full-time academia in 2002. Gordon’s 100th birthday in June 2021 provided an opportunity to celebrate his legacy, as more than a dozen universities across the country held lectures and events to commemorate the occasion. 

“My privilege of being both admitted to American 78 years ago and all of the other things that I have benefited from are rare in our society,” he says.

So too are the centenarian’s lasting contributions to the education field.

Head Start

37M Kids

Head Start, which marked its 56th anniversary in May, has engaged 37 million kids and their families since its inception.

 

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