Edward F. Zigler, a psychologist who in the mid-1960s helped design Head Start, the vanguard federal government program for preschool children, died on Thursday at his home in North Haven, Conn. He was 88.
His death was confirmed by his son, Scott, who said the cause was complications of coronary artery disease.
Dr. Zigler was an early champion of guaranteed time off from work for new parents, the teaching of child-rearing skills to teenagers and the integration of health and social service programs and day care into neighborhood public school buildings.
But he was probably best known as one of the architects of Head Start, which began as a summer program under President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. More than 35 million children have been enrolled since 1965 in the program, which provides early education and medical services to about a million children under 5 years old annually and costs about $10 billion a year.
When it was first proposed, the program had its critics, some of whom even called it a Communist plot to take children from their parents and to destabilize the American family by encouraging women to work outside the home.
But child care later became a necessity for more working parents. And research in child development, a discipline that Dr. Zigler helped to validate, attributed improvements in educational achievement, physical and mental health, and even reduced delinquency to the Head Start and Early Head Start services.
“He had to really fight to be taken seriously, but he did, and that’s made it possible for the field to have the credibility it does today,” Ruby Takanishi, then president of the Foundation for Child Development, said in remarks when Dr. Zigler was honored by the American Psychological Association in 2003.
To Dr. Zigler, Head Start was not just another ivory-tower theory to be tested on the nation’s most vulnerable children. He had seen it work in a settlement house in Kansas City, Mo., where he and his immigrant parents learned English and were given medical care, meals and social support.
“As the son of a non-English speaker, and having grown up in poverty,” Dr. Zigler said, “I’ve been able to exceed expectations and possibilities.”
Serving as an adviser to every president from Johnson to Barack Obama, he sought to debunk what he called “the myth that we are a child‐oriented society.”
The litany of neglect he outlined included inadequate services for expectant mothers, the proliferation of largely ignored latchkey children and an increase of child care that was basically custodial. He also lamented that children were becoming “overprogrammed” and “not valued for themselves but only for their accomplishments.”
Dr. Zigler wrote in The New York Times in 1976 that “children and families all too often come last, and the social barriers to providing a better quality of life for our nation’s children have become almost insurmountable.”
In early 1970, President Richard M. Nixon nominated Dr. Zigler as chief of the children’s bureau of what was then the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Within months, he became the first permanent director when the bureau became the Office of Child Development,
In 1971, he collaborated with Representative John Brademas of Indiana and Senator Walter F. Mondale of Minnesota, both Democrats, to transform child care from what Mr. Zigler called “a welfare mother’s issue” and a “women’s issue” to a national issue affecting workplace productivity.
They introduced a bill to provide affordable child care for working families, with fees based on income. It was approved by Congress, but vetoed.
“Nixon vetoed the bill because of the outpouring of mail from the evangelicals and the far right,” Dr. Zigler told The Times in 1989. “They didn’t want women to work. They said we were Sovietizing America’s children, that children would be raised in centers rather than by their mothers.”
In 1975, Dr. Zigler was chairman of a committee overseeing the resettlement of 3,000 infants and children evacuated during the fall of Saigon.
Edward Frank Zigler was born on March 1, 1930, in Kansas City, Mo. His parents, Frank Zigler and Gertrude (Gleitman) Zigler, were Jewish immigrants from Poland who sold fruit from a horse-drawn wagon. Ed helped.
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A neighborhood social center also helped the family acclimate. Inspired by the late-19th-century settlement house model, volunteers would live temporarily in poor urban communities and provide social services.
After graduating from a vocational high school and serving in the Army during the Korean War, Dr. Zigler earned a bachelor’s degree in 1954 from the University of Kansas City (now the University of Missouri at Kansas City). Four years later he received a doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Texas at Austin. He joined the Yale faculty as an assistant professor of psychology in 1959.
He married Bernice Gorelick in 1955. She died in 2017. In addition to their son, Perrin Scott Zigler, dean of the School of Drama at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, he is survived by two granddaughters and a sister, Maurine Agron.
In 1976, Dr. Zigler was named a Sterling professor, Yale’s highest professorial honor. In 2005, Yale’s Bush Center for Child Development and Social Policy was renamed the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy. He served as director emeritus until his death.
The author or editor of 40 books, Dr. Zigler developed what was called the first parenting education program for teenagers in the nation’s public schools. He also established a replicable model called the School of the 21st Century to embed child care and other social services into public school buildings.
In the mid-1960s, he was among the experts recruited by Jule Sugarman, the executive secretary of a panel commissioned by President Johnson to conceive and implement Head Start.
He later expressed concern that the program’s educational impact had been oversold by “the mistaken impression that a one-year Head Start program could compensate for a lifetime of deprivation.”
“But while Head Start cannot guarantee a poor child’s entrance into Yale or Harvard,” he wrote in 1982 in a Times Op-Ed article, “there is now unequivocal evidence that Head Start provides lasting educational benefits.”
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