This is what a high-quality preschool looks like

The Success by 6 program has helped to improve more than 350 pre-K centers.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

As the preschoolers made their way from the carpet to the five stations across the classroom, a buzz pulsed through the room at Chinatown Learning Center. It was a fusion of laughter and murmurs in Mandarin, Cantonese, and English. The children were ready for the day’s lesson — the life cycle of chickens.

Under the tutelage of two classroom teachers, Yian Chu and Tiffany Villafane, the classroom of 3- to 5-year-olds got to work, all engaged in activities tailored to their age and learning level. Some students drew pictures of chickens in their various life stages. Others wrote sentences about chicks or practiced letter and number recognition.

This is what high-quality preschool looks like, and the center has earned the highest rating under the state’s Keystone STARS rating system – STAR 4.

It wasn’t always this way. About 10 years ago, the center was rated as a STAR 2 – it needed to improve in areas such as teacher credentials and parent engagement.

But then it went through Success by 6, a quality-improvement program led by United Way of Greater Philadelphia and New Jersey, which gave the center a network of support and the impetus to identify and achieve strategic goals.

“Our biggest hurdle was moving from a STAR 2 to a STAR 3,” said Carol Wong, the director of Chinatown Learning Center. “It’s not that we didn’t want to be high quality, it’s that we recognized that it took time and money. And it wasn’t a big deal back then.”

The challenges that come with moving to high quality – to a STAR 3 or 4 on the 1-4 scale – persist for many centers across Philadelphia. Only 29 percent of the 68,000 licensed early care and education seats are in centers that have earned three or four stars, according to a report from the commission on universal pre-K. And just 52 percent of centers even participate in the rating program.

“Success by 6 focuses on moving centers from a 2 to a 3 in Keystone STARS because that’s where we see the biggest change in child outcomes,” said Elliot Weinbaum, a program director at the William Penn Foundation.

The difference may be indistinct to outsiders, but it means that a center has become more focused on improving its physical environment and made changes in other areas, such as management and community engagement. And its teachers have received more training: For a center to be a STAR 3, its teachers are required to accrue at least 24 professional development credits by the end of a school year.

New research from the nonprofit organization Child Trends on Success by 6 identifies key lessons for the city on how the quality improvement process can bring centers to high quality.

In the last eight years, Success by 6 has worked with more than 350 centers across the region to improve quality. Centers received technical assistance, program improvement funds, and other support. The Child Trends report found that overall, the program resulted in boosting by 16 percentage points centers’ scores that determine the STAR rating.

The program moved 46 percent of the Philadelphia centers it worked with to a STAR 3 within 24 months, the report states.

Child-care providers who participate in Success by 6 “move up in STAR quality at a higher rate than centers that aren’t participating. They move up because of the supports they receive,” Weinbaum said.

But Child Trends identified that centers still face challenges to moving up even when there is support.

“Less than half of centers that participate are moving up in quality, so when we think about [pre-K] expansion, we need to up our improvement rate and help stakeholders across the city do this,” said Weinbaum.

The report specifically identified that the biggest barrier to quality improvement is a center’s inability to satisfy the Keystone STARS standards related to staff qualifications.

“Finding and retaining high-quality teachers is a constant challenge,” Wong said. “We help our teachers get their required degrees and certifications. And there’s always the chance that they may leave to go work at the School District for more money.”

The study found that Success By 6 consultants spend most of their time helping supervisors improve the learning environment, but little time is spent looking at staff qualification issues. The report recommends that child-care center consultants work with centers on teacher development, recruitment and selection of teachers, and the retention of high-quality teachers.

Wong said, “You can have wonderful materials and resources, but if you don’t have the staff that’s buying into high quality, it’s not going to work.”

She added, “Our teachers deserve more, but it’s hard to pay them what they deserve because the true cost of care is most times not reflected in what we can charge as tuition.”

Wong has made efforts to support her staff by investing in their education and by covering the costs of professional development opportunities. She also provides her staff members with health insurance, a benefit that isn’t granted to many child-care workers.

Other opportunities, such as scholarships for education and obtaining credit for Success By 6 trainings, are options that the report recommends to help centers meet the requirements for staff qualifications.

Carmina Bonfiglio, who has been a teacher at Chinatown Learning Center for three years, said she has seen nearly 20 teachers leave in her time there.

“It’s a challenge working with bilingual children, but I am learning so much from the kids and their culture,” she said. “It’s making me a better teacher. I feel like I belong here.”

But Bonfiglio, who had her bachelor’s degree when she started there and is certified in early child care and elementary education, sometimes feels the pressure to move on.

“The hourly pay is a concern,” she said. People’s perceptions of what it means to be pre-K teacher, she said, lead her to tell people that she teaches “bilingual English and Chinese” to make her role sound more interesting.

The report also identified the need to help centers develop systems that can facilitate entry and review of documentation and produce reports that can be used for monitoring and feedback.

These recommendations may seem technical, but set the stage for creating the kind of learning environment that exists at Chinatown Learning Center.

Wong recalled the days when she would write out invoices for tuition herself.

“The paperwork is phenomenal,” she said, in light of the various funding streams the center has to manage. Over time, Wong has recruited a qualified administrative staff that efficiently handles such logistics.

And over time, becoming a STAR 4 facility through Success by 6 and other efforts has provided the center with many benefits. The yearly merit award from Keystone STARS has helped Wong buy essential materials such as mats, books, supplies, and fixtures like the child-size sinks in every classroom. The STAR 4 designation has also brought in more federal government per-child funding.

“You don’t want to put kids you’re supposed to be helping in a center where they’re going to do the minimal,” Wong said. “The incentives are having the recognition of being high-quality and being able to use high quality as a vehicle to educate others about the importance of high-quality education.”

Chinatown Learning Center’s success is apparent and it has a waiting list, but it is still working to create better outcomes for kids.

The first-floor classroom was vibrant with streams of colorful tulle and plant vines strung from wall to wall. And the ceiling was an arrangement of crimson wooden beams that mirror the roofs of homes in Chinese villages. The feng shui helped the students, who are almost all new to America, feel at home.

And though they were excited about their project – the chickens – the children moved around the room in an orderly and respectful manner, signs of an emphasis on social-emotional development. Two boys wearing bright T-shirts made way for classmates who needed to get by. The children practiced saying “excuse me” and “thank you” as they used Legos and manipulatives. When it was time for lunch, they took turns washing their hands at the sink.

In a few days, these eager young learners will become surrogate parents to a brood of newly hatched chicks.