NEW YORK — Bettye Caldwell, an apostle of a prekindergarten program that prepared poor children for elementary school and became a catalyst for Head Start, died April 17 in St. Louis. She was 91.
The cause was complications of heart disease, her son, Paul F. Caldwell, said.
Throughout her career, Ms. Caldwell campaigned for what she called educare — early-childhood programs that begin in infancy and are integrated into the school experience, rather than being relegated to separate custodial day care.
In the early 1960s, Ms. Caldwell, then director of the Children’s Center at Syracuse University, collaborated on a pilot project that suggested children born to poor families developed normally until they were about 1 year old, but then declined intellectually compared with their peers.
That decline could be prevented or arrested, the project concluded, by creating a conducive environment for learning without breaking the bonds between infants and their families.
The Syracuse center was considered a groundbreaking university-based program for infants and toddlers of working mothers; it required a waiver from the state, which, at the time, did not permit infants to be cared for in a group setting. The effort focused on children from 6 months to 5 years old.
Ms. Caldwell’s collaborator was Dr. Julius B. Richmond, chairman of the pediatrics department of what is now called the State University of New York Upstate Medical University in Syracuse.
After President Lyndon B. Johnson declared war on poverty in his 1964 State of the Union address, Richmond was recruited by R. Sargent Shriver, director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, to create Head Start, initially an eight-week summer program that combined day care and learning to prepare prekindergartners for elementary school.
Richmond and his successor, Jule Sugarman, drew on the research of Ms. Caldwell and other prominent early-childhood education experts in shaping Head Start as it evolved into a comprehensive year-round child development program. It has provided educational, nutritional, health, and other services to more than 30 million children since 1965.
“Four programs have particularly been credited for providing the framework and impetus for the development of Head Start,” Mical Raz wrote in “What’s Wrong With the Poor?: Psychiatry, Race, and the War on Poverty” in 2013. “The first was Bettye Caldwell and Julius Richmond’s early enrichment program at Syracuse.”
Bettye Ruth McDonald was born on Dec. 24, 1924, in Smithville, Texas. She graduated from Baylor University in 1945 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and speech. She earned a master’s from the University of Iowa and a doctorate in early childhood education from Washington University in St. Louis.
Her husband, Fred T. Caldwell, died in 2004.
Ms. Caldwell left Syracuse in 1969 and became principal of the Kramer School in Little Rock, Ark., where she researched and developed a curriculum that integrated children from infancy to elementary grades.
She was a professor of education at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and at Fayetteville, where she also directed the Center for Early Development and Education.
A prolific author, she headed the National Association for the Education of Young Children and advocated for public school sponsorship of child care. She maintained that caring for and protecting young children went hand in hand with educating them, as a supplement and not a substitute for good parenting.
“They need to be loved,” Ms. Caldwell told The Post-Standard of Syracuse in 2013. “They need to be spoken to, all the time. They need opportunities to explore. They need to be safe and to feel safe. They need stable figures in their lives. They need new experiences. They need to repeat experiences they enjoy.”
In an interview with The Boston Globe in 1972, when she was at the Kramer School, Ms. Caldwell observed, “Most day-care centers look at their function from the standpoint of the mother’s benefit — relieving them from custodial care of their children during working hours.”
By contrast, she said, her school’s goal was the child’s enrichment.
“Our day care actually strengthens the bonds between mothers and children,” she continued. “In many cases, we take enough of a load off a mother so that she can be more loving, more patient and take more time to play with the child. Separation during the day can heighten the enjoyment and appreciation of each other when they are together.”