Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell announced the appointment of Dr. Blanca Estela Enriquez as the new director of the Office of Head Start at the 50th National Head Start Conference in Washington, D.C.
Dr. Enriquez has been the executive director of the Region 19 Head Start program in El Paso, Texas since 1986. During her tenure the program has grown from 1,200 preschoolers attending 11 sites to more than 4,000 students at 30 sites. Region 19 has also won numerous local, state and national awards.
"As a 30-year champion of Head Start, it is particularly fitting that Dr. Enriquez is taking the helm of OHS as Head Start marks its 50th anniversary," said Yasmina Vinci, executive Director of the National Head Start Association. "We have every confidence that Dr. Enriquez will continue her tireless efforts to promote access to quality early learning and embrace our national commitment to providing our most vulnerable children and families a window of opportunity to a lifetime of self-sufficiency and success. We look forward to working with her as she answers the call of service to our country."
Meanwhile, HHS Secretary Burwell also discussed her time growing up as Head Start student in Hinton, West Virginia. She told the attendees that a summer school program opened up there two years after the Head Start program for low-income preschoolers that was launched in 1965 by the Lyndon B. Johnson Administration.
Burwell thanked one of her teachers, Mrs. Pack, for instilling in her a desire to better herself through education.
"I learned to love learning, and that love has stayed with me my whole life. In fact, when my mom called my Head Start teacher, she said every day I came bounding in the door with the same question: 'What are we going to learn today?'," she added. "I'm sure it doesn't come as a shock to anyone that I was anxious to get started. That's a foundation all children can have."
The mother of a 5 year old and 7 year old, Burwell added that 2-year-old toddlers have a cerebral cortex that contains more than a hundred trillion synapses. Between age 3 and 9, a child's brain activity is twice the level of an adult's. Despite this critical development time, she added, children living in poverty hear 30 million fewer words by the time they are 4 years old than their more affluent peers.
"We know that less than half of poor children go to school prepared with the skills they need to be ready to learn. They are 10 times as likely to drop out of high school," she said. "Children's brains are shaped by the chronic stress of poverty, and parents struggle to fit in time for Goodnight Moon while working a second shift. Low-income parents often feel defeated by their situation. One study found that parents living in poverty underestimate their power to influence their children's cognitive development, sometimes by as much as 50 percent.
NHSA's Vinci said Burwell is another "testament to the power and promise" of Head Start and the 32 million children it has served.
Head Start alumni are in all walks of life – educators, entrepreneurs, artists, military personnel, public safety officials – and, yes, a member of the President of the United States' Cabinet," she said. "Secretary Burwell not only is an inspiration not only to the children and families currently enrolled in Head Start, but to the thousands of Head Start directors and staff who work tirelessly each and every day to ensure our most vulnerable children have access to a comprehensive early learning experience designed to get them ready for Kindergarten."