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Head Start is a must-have in Minnesota

Much has been written about the long-term benefits of high-quality early education, especially for poor children. I should know: I was one. Growing up in the projects of south Minneapolis was a challenge, and for some families, a virtual assuranc...

Much has been written about the long-term benefits of high-quality early education, especially for poor children. I should know: I was one. Growing up in the projects of south Minneapolis was a challenge, and for some families, a virtual assurance of diminished hopes. But I was one of the fortunate ones who landed a spot in Head Start. I can personally attest to the value of early learning and the great start it gave me.

The transformative impact early learning had on me has revealed itself at key moments throughout my life and in the decisions I have made about family, career and service to my community. I was one of the lucky ones who, with great support, hard work and a touch of good luck was able to break free from the grip of poverty.

Early in life, we all hope for the American Dream: the idea that we all have the same chance for a life full of happiness and that with dedication and hard work, great opportunity awaits. For too many people, however, the real story diverges from our ideal. Children raised in poverty face stressful circumstances that directly can impact their development. Their zip codes determine so much of their fate, and elements outside their control close doors before they reach a K-12 classroom.

That's why, nearly 50 years ago, Head Start was established and has since worked to make sure our most vulnerable children get the early support and opportunities they need for their chance at the American Dream.

Head Start inspired within me a love of learning that prepared me for kindergarten and still today brightens my life. Though I was young, I remember vividly the day we outlined our 4-year-old bodies on pieces of paper and labeled our anatomy. I remember conquering my first book, "Harold and the Purple Crayon," my imagination running wild with endless possibilities and the excitement of following Harold as he crafted his experience in violet-accented wonder.

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Children nationwide are waiting to be inspired and challenged to be their best. Bright-eyed young boys and girls are ready to take their best shot at success. Head Start showed me that dreams do come true. I want every child to have those same early opportunities. We can't stop, we can't rest, and we must push forward until every child has what is needed to be successful. Most of all, we must keep our commitments to our children. We made a promise to equalize the playing field, and I say, "Game on."

I share my story, adding to the chorus of Head Start alumni, as we stand up and vividly illustrate how investing in the early learning of a child in poverty can provide a pathway to the American Dream. We are Grammy Award winners, FORTUNE 500 executives and presidential cabinet appointees. More than that, Head Start alumni innately learn the value of what was given to them and often become pillars of their communities, paying it forward once again. Without Head Start, I doubt I would be Minnesota's education commissioner.

Waiting lines are posted in Head Start programs across the country -- longer now that Washington's sequester cuts have slashed more than 57,000 slots. I'm raising my voice, and I urge Head Start alumni across the country to join my call. Our children are full of potential. It is up to us to help them realize their dreams. I'm urging every American who feels the American Dream slipping away to stand up and challenge the status quo: Demand a more robust investment in early learning. Our children are depending on us.

I've been lucky: lucky to be born in the right decade, lucky that my mother had access to Head Start programming, and lucky that generations ago our nation saw the importance of making these investments to pay it forward and build a better chance for our children.

But should it come down to luck? I believe not. All children deserve access to the same great start I had. Investing now in our youngest learners by supporting high-quality early education programming through Head Start gives us the best chance to fully leverage the potential within every child.

Brenda Cassellius has served as Minnesota's education commissioner since 2011. She wrote this exclusively for the News Tribune.

Related Topics: EDUCATION
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