Taylor, Helen 1942–2000
Helen Taylor 1942–2000
Before her death in October of 2000, Helen H. Taylor served as director of the much-lauded, nationwide preschool program, Head Start, within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. A social worker and teacher by training, Taylor enjoyed a long and honored career as an early-education expert, and was involved in the federally-funded preschool program almost since its beginnings in the mid-1960s. “Helen believed in the potential of every child to learn,” the Washington Post quoted Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala as saying. “Millions of children have benefited from her vision, compassion and inspiration,” she continued.
Taylor was born Helen Lavon Hollingshed in 1942 in Fort Valley, Georgia, but grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio. She planned to become a teacher from an early age and enrolled at the Washington, D.C.-based Howard University as a young woman. She graduated in 1964, married Robert Joseph Taylor the following year, and in 1966 was awarded a fellowship from the National Institute of Mental Health to conduct graduate research at the Institute for Youth and Community Studies at Harvard University. Taylor went on to earn a master’s degree in early childhood education curriculum and instruction from the District of Columbia’s Catholic University in 1973, but by then she had already begun a long career with the National Child Day Care Association, also located in the nation’s capital. Hired as a social worker there in 1966, Taylor was named director of its Head Start program in 1968. “We were the civil rights generation—idealistic—and this seemed like a wonderful thing to do and so I got involved,” Taylor recalled in a 1997 interview with Kay Mills for the Los Angeles Times.
Launched in 1965, Head Start was commended as one of the most important pieces of American social and educational legislation in the twentieth century. An outgrowth of the civil rights movement and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s declared “War on Poverty,” this preschool program for American children from lowincome families was designed to counteract studies which showed that children from middle-class families often scored higher on tests for basic educational skills by the time they entered kindergarten. Head Start programs at schools and community centers in lowincome neighborhoods helped preschoolers in economically-disadvantaged rural and urban pockets “catch up” with their peers from other strata by the time they entered formal elementary school.
The National Child Day Care Association, Taylor served as preschool project director from 1971 to 1978 and was promoted to chief executive officer in 1979. She held that post for four years before being named executive director in 1984. In that capacity, Taylor oversaw 20 preschool facilities in the District of Columbia area with a combined enrollment of 1,300 youngsters in Head Start programs. She was also active in numerous other committees and organizations related to early education. Appointed to the District of Columbia City Council’s Advisory Committee on Child
At a Glance…
Born Helen Lavon Hollingshed c. 1942 in Fort Valley, GA; died of cancer, on October 3, 2000, in Washington, DC; daughter of Earl Herman Hollingshed and Helen (Flowers) Southall Hollingshed; married Robert Joseph Taylor, September 11, 1965, Education: Howard University, B.A., 1964; Catholic Univ., M.A., 1973; Texas Technical Univ., certificate in management, 1985; UCLA, certif. in management, 1991. Religion: African Methodist Episcopal.
Career: Howard University, graduate assistant, 1964-65; National Child Day Care Association, social worker, 1966-68, Head Start program, director, 1968-70, preschool project director, 1971-78, chief executive officer, 1979-83, executive director, 1984-2000; Head Start Bureau, Department of Health and Human Services, associate commissioner, 1994-2000.
Memberships: D.C. City Council, Advisory Committee on Child Care Facilities, chair, 1974-78; Washington Child Development Council, founder and member of board of directors, 1975-2000; Washington Assoc. for the Education of Young Children, co-chair, 1978-80; National Assoc. for the Educ. of Young Children, conference chair, 1982, bd. member, 1991-2000; Assoc. for Childhood Education International, publication committee, 1983-85; Mayor’s Adv. Committee for Early Childhood Development, 1986-2000; Delta Sigma Theta, Inc., chair of arts and letters committee, 1984-86; Coalition of 100 Black Women; National Black Child Development Institute, child care advisory committee, 1988-2000.
Awards: Administration for Children, Youth and Families, service award, 1986; National Head Start Assoc. service award, 1988; community service award, D,C Dept of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, 1990; Guardian award, National Black Child Devel. Institute, 1994; Martin Luther King community service award, United Planning Organization, 1994; National Public Service Award, American Society for Public Admin,; Lifetime Leadership Award for Quality Child Care, National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies.
Care Facilities, she was a founder of the Washington Child Development Council in 1975 and served on the Mayor’s Advisory Committee for Early Childhood Development after 1986.
In the spring of 1994, Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala announced that Taylor would become the associate commissioner of the Head Start Bureau inside the cabinet department. This appointment gave Taylor nationwide responsibilities, including a budget of $3.3 billion, for the federally-funded, but locally administered, preschool programs. At the time, 721,000 preschool children were enrolled in Head Start. Mary Jo Bane, an assistant secretary for children and families at the Department of Health and Human Services Department, called Taylor’s range of qualifications “exactly the type of experience that is needed to bring Head Start into the 21st Century.”
Taylor rose to the challenge. By this point, welfare reform had ended nearly all direct subsidies to impoverished Americans, and the poorest, most uneducated and unskilled Americans were expected to find minimum-wage jobs. Instead of direct payments from state welfare programs, various incentives and tax credits were provided, such as transportation vouchers and child-care assistance. The Head Start program remained an important oasis against this era’s undeclared “war against the poor.” Taylor presided over the expansion of Head Start programs, winning new budget allocations from Congress to expand an Early Head Start program for infants and toddlers; she also implemented performance standards for Head Start facilities as well as a new computer-literacy program. She was especially passionate about urging more community and parental involvement in Head Start programs. “Keep the faith and trust the common sense of people,” Taylor was quoted as once advising her Head Start administrators, according to the Washington Post. “Listen to your parents. The best programs involve families, local staff and communities.”
In her six years on the job, Taylor saw her budget increased to $5.3 billion, and Head Start enrollment significantly enlarged to include 865,000 preschoolers. The Clinton Administration had declared a goal of expanding Head Start to include one million children by 2002. Taylor admitted that Head Start was focusing on an entirely new set of challenges at the century’s close than it had been when the groundbreaking program was launched in the 1960s. As she told Mills in the Los Angeles Times, however, “Poverty is always a hard life. I don’t care what era you’re in. It’s a mistake to say that poverty is harder now than it was 30 years ago. Poverty’s hard, period. The external environment has changed and impacts very differently on families than it did in the ’60s. In the ’60s, we didn’t have the scourge of drugs that we have now.”
Taylor credited Head Start with making a positive impact on the communities it served, and studies had borne that out. However, enrollment in underperforming urban and rural public schools caused many of those statistical gains made by Head Start graduates to be lost in the first few grades. As Taylor pointed out to Mills in the Los Angeles Times interview, “We need to begin to look at what’s happening to poor children in America—in kindergarten, first grade, second grade, third grade.” Still, she termed Head Start “an economic development institution” and noted that thirty percent of Head Start employees were current or former parents of children in the program. “That’s the untold story of Head Start—what’s happened to parents and families,” Taylor said in the Los Angeles Times interview. “I’m astounded constantly as I move around, meeting people whose lives have been affected by this program. They come up to me and tell me their stories. They’ve gone back to school. They’ve gotten motivated, gotten jobs. It’s an incredible story.”
Taylor’s post required adroit political skills, since she and the Head Start program were answerable to all of Congress. She admitted that at times her job was a tough one, but she admitted to Mills in the Los Angeles Times that when she experienced job-related stress, she liked to visit Head Start “centers and see real children and real families and talk to them.” She said, “That reminds me why I’m doing what I’m doing when I think it all gets ridiculous. That keeps me focused on what my mission and my goals are. That gives me the energy to keep up the fight.”
Jet, April 4, 1994, p. 12.
Los Angeles Times, August 10, 1997, p. M3.
Washington Post, October 6, 2000, p. B6.
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