Peg Oliveira, PhD
Our Gesell family is deeply saddened by the passing of Dr. Edward Zigler,
the “Father” of Head Start and pioneer of applying developmental
psychology to social policy. He was the first director of the U.S. Office of
Child Development and an advisor on child and family policy to senior
officials in every White House Administration from Presidents Johnson to
The timing of Dr. Zigler’s passing is worth noting. Not only was it, nearly to
the day, a year after losing his adored wife Bernice, but Dr. Zigler leaves us
just as a presidential hopeful has put the establishment of a federal system
of child care on the national agenda once again, after nearly a half decade.
Not since The Comprehensive Child Development Act of 1971, of which Dr.
Zigler was an architect and advocate, has our nation seriously debated
such a proposal. The 1971 Act positioned child care as a civil right; it was
passed by both House and Senate but vetoed by President Nixon. The
foundation of such a system remains fundamental to Head Start, Dr.
Zigler’s signature program: a “whole child” approach that honors parent
engagement and cultural responsiveness.
Ed carried a heavy heart about America’s inability to invest in universal
child care, noting in The Hidden History of Head Start (2010), “I have
continued my battle for quality child care for all of America’s children, but I
have not been very successful. I can only trust in my students to continue
the good fight” (p. 177). “I remain optimistic that our nation will eventually
accomplish what many other industrialized nations have already achieved
to promote their children’s well-being” (p. 242).
Personally, my career to date has been strongly influenced by Dr. Zigler. I
began as an intern in a Head Start classroom. My greatest mentors from college to graduate school to my early career in advocacy were all students
of Ed’s. And I have been blessed to be Ed’s office neighbor for three years,
sharing space with the Zigler Center at the Yale Child Study Center here in
New Haven. There is no better reminder of how far we have come, nor
greater inspiration to keep going, than the “hall of fame” leading to Ed’s
office, lined with plaques, pictures and letters illustrating a life of innovation
and dedication to the wellbeing of children. Interspersed with the accolades
are children’s drawings, anchoring us in the real meaning behind the work.
What really struck me about Ed, when I first met him 20 years ago, was
that he not only had a deep understanding for child development but that
he had a passion for helping children in need and that passion came
through in an urgency to do better. He wanted to give children the best
chance possible to learn and, more importantly, to thrive.
The Gesell Institute of Child Development is donating to ABCD Head Start
in Bridgeport, CT, in honor of Dr. Edward Zigler’s life.
Edward Zigler, ‘Father of Head Start’ and Yale professor, dies at 88. New Haven
Peg Oliveira, PhD