Early Education

A year after new child care rating system rolls out, two centers nab top scores

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
A toddler at Loveland's Teaching Tree Early Childhood Learning Center, draws on an outline of his foot.

The Early Excellence Program of Denver shares a large brick building in the city’s Cole neighborhood with several other nonprofit organizations. Teaching Tree Early Childhood Learning Center is housed in a modest cream-colored building in a residential neighborhood in Loveland.

They are not the largest, wealthiest or biggest-name child care centers in Colorado. But they are the first two to earn the highest possible rating on Colorado Shines, a new mandatory state child care rating system meant to lift the quality of early education programs and better inform parents.

The centers earned the hard-won distinction by not only following best practices on everything from teacher-student ratios to financial record-keeping, but by completing an even more arduous task: proving it.

Childcare providers—and the coaches enlisted to help them—say that producing the detailed evidence required for the higher rating levels is tedious and time-consuming. Jennifer Luke, executive director at Early Excellence, said she felt like a lawyer preparing a big case as paperwork piled up in her living room in advance of the center’s rating last fall.

“It’s a huge audit, is what it is,” she said.

Despite the hard work required by the new system, Luke said, “Definitely, everything in Colorado Shines is beneficial for children.”

State officials say it’s only a matter of time before more centers nab the top rating—Level 5.

“I know we’ll see more eventually,” said Karen Enboden, manager of the Quality Rating and Improvement System in the state’s Office of Early Childhood.

A growing push to gauge quality

In the works since 2010, Colorado Shines launched last February and is mandatory for the state’s nearly 4,600 licensed child care providers—both child care centers and home-based providers. It replaces a voluntary system called Qualistar that was never widely used.

Childcare_providers_by_-Colorado_Shines-_rating_Number_of_Providers_chartbuilder (1)

“It’s a time of massive change and it’s exciting to see it come to fruition in programs getting these higher ratings,” said Bev Thurber, executive director of the Early Childhood Council of Larimer County.

On a national level, Quality Rating and Improvement Systems have been the trend for more than a decade and experts laud them for incentivizing providers to make improvements and helping parents compare child care options based on a consistent standards.

In many states, including Colorado, such efforts have been paid for by Early Learning Challenge grants, part of the federal Race to the Top program.

Unlike the old Qualistar ratings, Colorado Shines ratings are free for providers. State officials say they plan to keep it that way even after Race to the Top funding runs out next December, or if the state receives a funding extension, December 2017.

Teacher Rosa Figueroa plays with a child at the Early Excellence Program of Denver.
PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Teacher Rosa Figueroa plays with a child at the Early Excellence Program of Denver.

In the first year of the program, the focus was on rating programs that had expiring Qualistar ratings as well as those serving the largest numbers of high-needs children, Enboden said.  Early Excellence and Teaching Tree, as well as nationally known programs like Clayton Early Learning in Denver, serve many children from low-income families.

The lowest Colorado Shines rating is Level 1, which indicates only that a provider is licensed by the state and meets basic health and safety standards. The highest rating is Level 5, which means the provider has gone through an intensive process to demonstrate quality in everything from teacher-child interactions to business practices. Ratings through Colorado Shines are good for three years.

Providers that had Qualistar ratings were able to transfer into Colorado Shines with the same ratings. However, since the highest Qualistar rating was only four stars, no programs entered as a Level 5 in Colorado Shines.

That new level, along with various changes as program officials ironed out wrinkles in the new system, left even the highest caliber centers wondering if they could make the cut.

In fact, Teaching Tree didn’t earn a Level 5 rating at first. It came out as a Level 4, barely missing the top tier.

“We were so close to that 5. We were like a point away,” said Anne Lance, executive director of Teaching Tree, which also has a Fort Collins location that is now undergoing the rating process.

Last fall, state officials reviewed the scoring framework and made changes that helped put Teaching Tree over the top. The re-scoring process will also bump up ratings of other providers, though it’s not clear how many.

“There was some stringency in there that just didn’t make sense,” Enboden said. “We relaxed some of that.”

Burden of proof

On a recent Friday morning at Teaching Tree, lead toddler teacher Jodi Bell outlined the feet of her one-year-old charges on white sheets of paper.

Jodi Bell, lead toddler teacher at Teaching Tree Early Childhood Learning Center in Loveland, outlines a child's foot.
PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Jodi Bell, lead toddler teacher at Teaching Tree Early Childhood Learning Center in Loveland, outlines a child’s foot.

For the youngsters, who then used markers to scribble on their outline, it seemed like a fun thing to do. But it was much more.

With a steady stream of questions and encouragement from Miss Jodi, they were practicing taking their shoes on and off and balancing on one foot. They were also starting to recognize their names and the personal animal symbols she drew on their papers. Finally, with its resemblance to a shoe-buying experience, the activity tied in with their unit on stores.

This type of engagement, also visible in the classrooms at Early Excellence, made administrators at both centers confident that they’d score well on the portion of Colorado Shines that examines learning environment.
However, there was more uncertainty around the other four standard areas: workforce and professional development; family partnerships, leadership management and administration and child health.

Colorado Shine’s 5 Standard Areas

  • Workforce and professional development
  • Family partnerships
  • Leadership, management and administration
  • Learning environment
  • Child health

Partly it’s because having high-quality practices isn’t enough in Colorado Shines. Providers must provide detailed evidence in highly specific electronic formats.

“I’ve lost count of people saying, ‘I’m doing this…but I can’t prove it,’” said Soren Gall, an infant, toddler and family specialist with Denver’s Early Childhood Council.

Gall, like coaches at the the other 30 early childhood councils throughout the state, provides help to child care providers as they tackle the rating process.

Sometimes, securing the necessary evidence under Colorado Shines requires a small tweak— something as simple as instituting a sign-in sheet for parent events. But for other indicators providing adequate proof is more laborious—a major hurdle in a field where directors are often poorly compensated and stretched thin with day-to-day responsibilities.

In addition to offering one-on-one coaching to providers, state officials said many early childhood councils are also making technology equipment available to them in their offices or mobile labs.

Gall said while the new system is a struggle for some providers, particularly those who aren’t tech-savvy, he believes it represents a step forward for the field—getting away from the long-held stigma that childcare is just babysitting.

“This allows people to show that it’s a profession. It’s a business. It’s worth the time and energy and funding,” he said.

What the future holds

With Colorado Shines approaching its first birthday, state officials say the system is in good shape, even after the course corrections of the first year.

Enboden noted that 25 percent of the state’s providers have earned a Level 2 rating or higher—in other words they’ve made some effort above the basic licensing requirements. In contrast, only about 10 percent of the state’s providers chose to seek a Qualistar rating, all of which exceeded licensing requirements.

“Of course, with those statistics we’re feeling great,” she said. “Generally speaking, we are getting really good feedback from providers.”

Educating parents about the system is one of the key goals for the coming year. In addition to updating the existing English-language Colorado Shines website, the state will launch a Spanish version. It will also continue statewide print, radio and television advertising about the program.

“Parents are still not fully informed about Colorado Shines,” Thurber said, “but I fully expect over time parents will understand more about how to judge quality.”

 

early intervention

Meet Colorado’s resident expert on early childhood mental health

Jordana Ash, Colorado's director of early childhood mental health

Jordana Ash holds a job that doesn’t exist in most states.

She’s Colorado’s director of early childhood mental health — a position created three years ago within the state’s Office of Early Childhood. A local foundation paid Ash’s salary for 18 months and then the state took over.

The addition of a high-level state job dedicated to the mental health of young children was a win for advocates, coming at a time of growing awareness about the long-term impact of childhood trauma. Ash said her role helps infuse both the Office of Early Childhood, where her unit is housed, and other state agencies with programs and policies focusing on child mental health.

Before coming to the Office of Early Childhood, which is part of the Department of Human Services, Ash ran a mental health consultation program in Boulder for 13 years.

We sat down with Ash this week to discuss her background, the state’s work on early childhood mental health and her thoughts on the recent defeat of state legislation that would have limited early childhood suspensions and expulsions.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What sparked your interest in early childhood mental health?
My first job out of graduate school was in Alameda County, California and I was a child welfare worker. I didn’t have a lot of life experience at that time. I didn’t have children of my own. I didn’t know a lot about child development. But what I could really do is listen to families. We met families at the hardest times.These were families whose children were removed for suspicion of abuse or neglect.

Everybody has a story and if you spend time listening, you will hear about their hopes for their child, things that bring them joy in parenting. To me, it’s about the stories and what parents do every day to try to do better for their kids.

Can you put into context Colorado’s work on early childhood mental health compared to work in other states?
Colorado is really in a unique position compared to other states. My position was created three years ago with philanthropic dollars (from the Denver-based Rose Community Foundation, which is also is a financial supporter of Chalkbeat) looking to get a position in state government completely focused on early childhood mental health.

There are very few states that have a position of leadership in state government with (early childhood mental health) being their primary focus. Minnesota has a similar position, Connecticut has a coordinator position. A couple of states are coming along. Other states have recognized that it’s a wise investment to have a position where you can really institutionalize some of those important changes and policies for statewide reach.

Can you talk about the major efforts your unit is working on now?
Our two main initiatives are the mental health (consultant) program and Colorado Project LAUNCH. (See this story for more about Project LAUNCH.)

We are (also) studying the effects of parent adversity on child well-being. We were (also) selected to receive three years of technical assistance on infant and early childhood mental health consultation. We’re hoping that helps us finalize our system of consultation in Colorado so we are a premier program that other states look to.

Last year, the state doubled the number of early childhood mental health consultants available to help child care providers and preschool teachers manage challenging behavior. How is it going?
Our state-funded program of 34 full-time positions is one of the largest (in the nation). We’re working really hard on developing Colorado’s system of mental health consultation so it’s consistent — for state-funded positions, for positions funded by philanthropy for programs that have their own hired consultants — so everyone is working toward the same standard of practice.

Can you share an anecdote about how mental health consultation works?

I can think of a situation where a consultant provided support for a cook at a child care center. Her child was enrolled in the program. This was a 3-year-old with a lot of challenging behaviors. At first, (the mother) was really nervous to talk to the consultant. She confused the role of the mental health consultant with something like social services and wondered if she was going to be judged or somehow scrutinized about her parenting. She had never had contact with any kind of mental health service before.

In getting to know the consultant not only did she find some new ways to interact with her child so that he could be more successful in the classroom and at home, but she also had her first experience with a mental health professional. It reduced the sense of stigma (around) getting mental health help.

She found that she could get a better position at the child care center because her child was successful in his classroom. She wasn’t having to take him home because of his problems.

What advice do you have for child care providers or early childhood teachers who are at their wits’ end over a child’s challenging behavior and haven’t accessed a consultant? Take a deep breath. We want to understand that that child is telling us something. We might not understand what that behavior means but it’s our responsibility as adults to help figure that out.

We really encourage providers to access a mental health consultant or other support right away when they’re starting to be puzzled or concerned about a child’s behavior. It’s much easier to intervene if you have new ideas sooner in the process.

The role of child care providers and teachers is critically important. So we are not in a position to judge or to evaluate what you’ve done. We’re in a position to partner with you and help you provide the best care you can.

To locate an early childhood mental health consultant, providers can call 303-866-4393.

What advice do you have for parents who know their child is acting up at preschool or child care and worry they could get counseled out or kicked out?
Reach out and connect directly with your child care program about the problem before you start feeling like your child may be at risk of being suspended or expelled. That partnership between parents and providers is the most powerful part of a solution.

I would also say you can talk to your child’s primary care physician as a start. Maybe there’s a developmental concern your physician can help figure out and that’s gonna be a really important piece of the puzzle.

Connecting with a mental health consultant in your area is a really good solution to start looking at the causes of those challenging behaviors and to start putting in place some interventions while other tests or other assessments are being done.

For help locating a mental health consultant, parents can visit: http://www.coloradoofficeofearlychildhood.com/ecmentalhealth

What are your thoughts on the bill killed during Colorado’s 2017 legislative session that would have limited suspensions and expulsions in preschool and kindergarten through second grade?

The fact that the bill made it as far as it did meant lots of people were invested, were having great conversations about this problem in a way we never (had) before. Stakeholders were for the first time …. considering issues of disproportionality and implicit bias in a way that was a first. We had never had that kind of visibility to the early childhood time period and this very complex issue that affects children’s trajectories way into their school years.

Would you like to see a similar bill pass next year?
As an office, we’d be super interested in whatever’s put forward.

Early education

Colorado gets good marks on preschool access for 3-year-olds, not so much on funding

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Preschoolers play dress-up on a recent morning at Fairview Elementary in the Westminster school district.

While Colorado ranks near the back of the pack for state preschool funding, it gets relatively high marks for providing preschool access to the state’s 3-year-olds, according to a report released Wednesday by the National Institute for Early Education Research.

Colorado ranked 11th for 3-year-old access among 33 states offering preschool to 3-year-olds. The state-funded Colorado Preschool Program, which is for children with certain risk factors, served about 5,400 3-year-olds and about 15,700 4-year-olds last year.

PHOTO: NIEER
This chart shows the percentage of Colorado children served by state-funded preschool over time.
PHOTO: NIEER
This chart shows how Colorado’s per-pupil preschool funding has changed over time.

Colorado ranked 24th of 44 states for 4-year-old preschool access in the state-by-state report, slightly worse than last year. Seven states, including Colorado’s neighbors, Wyoming and Utah, don’t fund preschool at all.

Besides gauging preschool funding and access, the new report revealed that Colorado meets five of 10 benchmarks designed to judge preschool quality. Last year, the state met six of the benchmarks, but several benchmarks changed this year in what the research institute described as an effort to raise the bar.

State officials said that observers should take Colorado’s middling benchmark score with a grain of salt because while the state didn’t get credit for having certain standards enshrined in state policy, the standards are widely practiced by school districts that participate in the Colorado Preschool Program. One example is the benchmark that calls for vision, hearing and health screenings of preschoolers — Colorado didn’t check that box, but most districts conduct the screenings.

Two other benchmarks that Colorado doesn’t meet include a requirement for lead teachers to have a bachelor’s degree and assistant teachers to have a Child Development Associate credential.

Cathrine Floyd, program director for the Colorado Preschool Program and Results Matter Program at the Colorado Department of Education, said the degrees are highly encouraged by the state but not required. That’s because some state-funded preschool slots are offered at community-based preschools that would not be able to afford to pay teachers if they all had higher-level degrees, she said.

Among the five benchmarks Colorado meets on the revised list are two related to class size and staff-student ratio, one related to teacher training, one related to state early learning standards and one related to preschool curriculum.

Floyd and her colleagues described the annual report from the well-regarded National Institute for Early Education Research as a good starting point for conversation, but said the state’s annual Colorado Preschool Program report provides more detail and context about Colorado’s progress.