Early Childhood

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 childhood

Mike Pence passed up a big federal preschool grant. Now Indiana could have a second shot

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman

Four years ago, then-Gov. Mike Pence created an uproar when, at the last minute, he nixed Indiana’s chance for up to $80 million in federal dollars to develop the state’s fledgling public prekindergarten program.

But later, as On My Way Pre-K grew, Pence acknowledged that the federal grant could be “a good fit.” And now, Indiana could have another shot at those dollars.

The application for the next round of the federal preschool grant was expected to open Tuesday. Early childhood education advocates, who are pushing again to expand On My Way Pre-K, are watching to see if Indiana’s current governor, Eric Holcomb, will pursue the funds — which could be a key piece of making pre-K more broadly available across the state.

“It’s high time our state caught up with the rest of the nation,” said Ann Murtlow, president and CEO of the United Way of Central Indiana, one of the state’s most influential supporters of early childhood education. “Surely federal grant funding could make a significant impact in providing much-needed high-quality pre-K for low-income 4-year-olds in our state.”

Holcomb, who has been supportive of pre-K expansion, hadn’t decided whether Indiana will apply for the federal grant, a spokeswoman wrote in an email last week. His office was waiting to see the details of the grant’s requirements in the application.

Some of the political fight around the expansion of pre-K in Indiana has died down since Pence took his stand, in part because of the progress of On My Way Pre-K. But Holcomb will likely still have to weigh similar tensions: How much should Indiana invest in pre-K, and how quickly?

The federal Preschool Development Grant could be used to craft Indiana’s game plan for expanding early learning opportunities, by conducting a statewide needs assessment and coordinating existing federal, state, and local programs that serve children from birth to age 5, according to the grant description.

In that way, this version of the grant is significantly different from the one Pence walked away from. In the past, in other states, the grant funded thousands of new and improved pre-K slots or created new programs.

Pence had initially backed out of the federal grant application in 2014, saying he had concerns about “strings” that could come with it. “When it comes to early childhood education, I believe Indiana must develop our own pre-K program for disadvantaged children without federal intrusion,” a statement from his office said at the time.

Two years later, Pence changed his stance, reaching out to federal authorities to ask about the next opening for the grant. Pence said he felt the state had built the supports to further expand the program. He explained that, in pushing for Indiana to launch a public pre-K program, he had promised lawmakers to “not expand the program until we saw evidence that it was working.”

But one expert says the federal grant still could have helped Indiana take steps to improve pre-K quality, particularly with instruction and curriculum, and that the infusion of federal dollars wouldn’t have necessarily forced a fast expansion.

“Indiana really missed out on the initial opportunity to focus on quality, to start small and then put some dollars in place over subsequent years to be able to build on that and expand,” said Laura Bornfreund, director of early and elementary education policy at New America, a think tank.

In the new round of this grant, up to 40 states and territories will receive awards between $500,000 and $10 million to conduct a statewide needs assessment, develop a strategic prekindergarten plan, maximize parental choice, and improve the quality of programs. States have until Oct. 15 to apply, and the funds — almost $250 million in total — would be awarded in mid-December.

On My Way Pre-K, the state’s program for 4-year-olds from low-income families, currently serves about 4,000 children in 20 counties. About three years into the program, state lawmakers roughly doubled the amount of funding for the program to $22 million this year. That doubled the number of students served each year and expanded the program’s reach to more parts of the state.

The city of Indianapolis, with corporate and philanthropic matching dollars, is spending $40 million over five years to fund pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds from low-income families. Indiana also has federal Head Start and Early Head Start programs that last year served about 14,000 children from low-income families, and the federal Child Care and Development Fund program helps nearly 32,000 children receive care.

Advocates say they want to see continued expansion with a focus on quality. Early Learning Indiana, an advocacy organization, estimates that about 160,000 children ages 3 to 5 years old need some type of care because their parents are working. Just a small fraction of all preschool-aged children in Indiana — about 15 percent — are enrolled in high-quality care, the group said.

While Indiana has made strides toward improving early childhood education, parts of the state still lack access to high-quality preschool, said Early Learning Indiana director of public affairs Jeff Harris.

“Indiana has done a nice job of really focusing on quality,” he said. “It’s a matter of growing it strategically and responsibly to make sure we have those high outcomes.”

Correction: August 15, 2018: An earlier version of this story inaccurately stated that the grant application process opened Tuesday. That was the original schedule, but it was then pushed back.

Asked and answered

Longtime advocate (and current First Lady) Diana Rauner sizes up the challenges ahead for early education in Illinois

PHOTO: Courtesy of Ounce of Prevention

Fluent in the languages of developmental psychology (her Ph.D., from the University of Chicago) and finance (her MBA, from Stanford University), Illinois First Lady Diana Rauner is equipped more than most to navigate the maze that is early childhood education in America. As anyone who has tried to find, or build, a quality program for a child under 5 knows, there are plenty of hurdles to securing good options: availability and affordability; too few full-day seats for families that require them; and low pay and turnover among providers, just to name a few.

In her 11 years in leadership of the Chicago advocacy group Ounce of Prevention, Rauner has used her platform to push for higher quality programs for the youngest children in Illinois and nationwide. As the wife of Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner (who is up for election this fall against another early childhood education advocate, businessman J.B. Pritzker, who has funded some of Ounce of Prevention’s work), she’s as fluent in political speak as she is everything else: “Early childhood is not a partisan issue,” she says.

She spoke to Chalkbeat Chicago’s Cassie Walker Burke amidst big developments for early childhood advocates: Mayor Rahm Emanuel is touting the rollout of an ambitious universal pre-K program in Chicago, and the state is set to release a trove of data on kindergarten readiness later this month. She was joined in parts of the conversation by Ireta Gasner, vice president of Illinois policy for Ounce of Prevention.

The interview has been condensed and edited for publication. 

Why is the issue of early childhood education so important to you?

DIANA RAUNER: This is the most important human capital and social justice issue for our nation. We are increasingly a society that requires everyone to have both social-emotional self-regulation skills and the flexibility to continue to learn throughout your life. We know that, as Warren Buffett says, all men are created equal and that lasts for the first 15 seconds. Something we know now that we didn’t know a generation ago, or even 10 years ago, is the importance of the prenatal period to long-term health and health outcomes. And so, actually it’s not even true that all people are born equal.

We really have to ensure that we’re giving all families the kinds of supports they need in order to help their children develop to their highest potential. It’s a moral issue, but it’s also an economic and civic issue as well.

Many people understand the value of early childhood programs, but we are also seeing the percentages of students enrolled in public pre-K in Illinois and Chicago dropping. What is your assessment of why this is happening?

RAUNER: The Early Childhood Block Grant (which is the Illinois State Board of Education’s early childhood education program) was cut several years in a row starting in 2010. We lost $80 million over a number of years. The block grant didn’t begin to grow again until 2016, so because of that, enrollment did drop during that time. It has rebounded. We are not sure that the numbers are not back up and over, but the (latest publicly available counts) aren’t current. We just aren’t sure.

IRETA GASNER: The other thing impacting that is that Illinois for decades had one of the nation’s shortest pre-K days: We were serving kids in 2½ -hour programs. Knowing what we’ve learned about at-risk kids, (we need to) serve up a longer day. But there’s some tension there: We can give a lot of kids a little dosage or we can grow the programs back up a little more slowly and give kids who need it the right dosage. So there’s some nuance around the number of kids served now compared to where we were 10 years ago or so.

Funding for early childhood comes from a lot of places; it’s complicated. Some providers lost a state grant recently and complained the application process rewarded good grant writing, not quality programming. How do we build a pipeline of providers and sustain it?

RAUNER: Those are huge questions. Clearly, we know that the Early Childhood Block Grant, while we’ve seen increases, is still not sufficient to serve all the kids who need it. There is a big gap between how we’re funding now and where we need to be to reach all the kids who need it. The recompetition (to reapply for the Preschool for All grants that fund programs throughout the state) that was done this year wasn’t a perfect process. You combine the fact that the process wasn’t perfect with the fact that there’s not enough money to go around, and you end up with an outcome that doesn’t satisfy everyone.

You talked about what it takes to do quality. As a state, for a very long time, we’ve had probably one of the strongest early childhood systems — birth to 5 — of any state. It’s truly a birth to 5 system, it has a birth to 3 set-aside, and it has real attention to birth to 3 funding. It’s also a mixed-delivery system, which means both community-based settings and school settings. It’s meant to meet families where they are and meet families’ different needs. And it sets aside investments for quality infrastructure: that means professional development, data collection, research, innovative programming. That’s been a hallmark of the way that we in the state, and in the city, have prioritized our early childhood system.

Researchers also stress that only quality programs really move the needle with kids from low-income backgrounds. How do we ensure quality?

RAUNER: For a long time in education we’ve had this myth that teachers are somehow superhuman, and that a great teacher is great, and that an average teacher is average, and that bad teachers are bad. At Ounce, what we’ve focused a lot on this: Teachers, like other adults, work in organizations. They work in organizations that either support and enhance and develop their performance, or they work in organizations that don’t. Rather than focusing everything on the individual teacher and how good or bad the individual teacher is, we need to look at the organizational supports that help that teacher do great work in the classroom. We focus on leadership in instructional support and instructional excellence, and all of the essential elements of organizational support for great teaching — it doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

What’s an example of a program that you’ve visited recently that you’d like to see scaled?

RAUNER:  Our work with universal newborn support. The Illinois Family Connects program is a model that comes out of Durham, North Carolina. It is a nurse home visiting program that serves as a coordinated intake to a web of community supports for new parents and their children. It is a validated and well-trained individual assessment of a new parent and new family and a system of referrals that support families in all kinds of things they need. It’s a universal system, and it’s one that right now we are piloting in two Illinois counties, Peoria and Stephenson. We are hoping to expand in the city of Chicago and other counties across the state.

A year in, what have you learned from the newborn visitation program?

RAUNER: First of all, we’ve learned it’s very, very welcome by families. The uptake rates are high: More than 80 percent of families say, yes, I’d love to have a nurse visit me at home. We’ve also learned that 97 percent of the families that have visits have some kind of need. Many of those needs, more than half, can be addressed right in that visit. Over a third, though, are getting referrals to some kinds of support, including mental health programs, intensive home visiting programs, other kinds of family support programs. A very small percentage, maybe around 1 percent, are getting referred for really urgent issues: medical issues, mental health issues, safety issues in their home. That’s amazingly important and critical to getting addressed quickly.

Do you think Illinois has the ability to scale a program like that? Is there the will on the public side and on the political side?

RAUNER: I think the most important thing we can do is demonstrate both the important outcomes we are seeing, and also, over time, population-level changes that save the state money. In Durham, this program has shown substantial decreases in emergency room visits and child welfare referrals. Those are extremely expensive. And so, if you can really do this kind of program at scale and prevent those kinds of expenditures, you can actually save money and put that money toward prevention and toward serving more families.

"For a long time in education we’ve had this myth that teachers are somehow superhuman, and that a great teacher is great, an average teacher is average, and bad teachers are bad. "Diana Rauner

What else can Chicago learn from other states and cities that are doing early childhood well?

RAUNER: We’ve worked really hard to bring things back here. We brought a program that was developed in Florida called Baby Court to Illinois, which is intensive supports for families with very young children in the child welfare system.We’re always thinking about opportunities to bring innovations here and try new things, and we’re also trying to share some of our innovations with other states.

Pay is really low throughout the early childhood education system. Do you see a realistic path to changing that?

RAUNER: There’s no silver bullet unless we have $100 billion drop from the sky. But there are a lot of things we’ve been doing in Illinois: alternative certification programs, pathway programs, better connections between our high schools and community colleges. There are a lot of things we want to try, but it will take ongoing attention. It’s a little bit like — oh, I shouldn’t make a sports analogy — but you gain a yard at a time. You just keep pushing. It’s not like something is going to transform overnight.

As Chicago has more CPS-backed pre-K seats come online and pays teachers on the CPS scale, community programs are going to have to compete with their wages. Isn’t that going to become an issue here as universal pre-K rolls out?

RAUNER: It is an issue, and part of that is ensuring that the universal pre-K program is still a mixed-delivery system (a mixed-delivery system includes community providers who receive public funding as well as school district-funded programs). We want to make sure the community providers are still part of the preschool system. Clearly pay parity is really important in the long run, and we’re certainly still some way away from that across the board, but it is a really high priority.

It’s important to recognize that a birth-to-3 program is more expensive than a preschool, so that’s one of the reasons why, as universal preschool rolls out, we’ll be focused on it continuing to become a community-based program.

Why is a mixed-delivery system something you advocate?

RAUNER: Very often, community-based programs are actually more reflective and responsive to the communities they serve. Another reality: Many community-based programs blend and braid funding streams, so they can provide full-day coverage for children whose parents are working. The trouble is that programs that operate 6 hours a day cannot serve families who need 10 hours of coverage.

Will the universal pre-K program being rolled out in Chicago have a watershed effect on other places in the state?

RAUNER: I don’t know. We’ll have to see. We have many districts in the state, so they all have very different priorities.

Later this month, the state will release its first kindergarten readiness reports. What can we expect?

RAUNER: It’s a milestone. It’s a tool that serves many different purposes. One is a professional development tool for kindergarten teachers, it helps them see and observe their students and understand (what it takes) to move them along on their developmental path. It’s helpful for parents to understand the range of developmental expectations for kindergarten. And it’s helpful for policy makers to understand how we’re doing relative to our expectations and goals.

I do think that we have to be prepared for some instability in the data in the very beginning — that’s pretty typical. But obviously, well — sometimes the truth is a difficult thing. Here we have always focused on third-grade test scores as evidence of the achievement gap, but we all know the achievement gap opens up much, much earlier. Being able to articulate that and identify that and document it — we hope it will change the conversation so we can talk about it at a much earlier level.

"Sometimes the truth is a difficult thing."Diana Rauner

I imagine that wasn’t an easy sell. How did you convince people?

RAUNER: We had many conversations. We did this as an early childhood and K-12 partnership, we brought together teachers, and school administrators, and early childhood advocates, and researchers. We wanted to make sure this tool was developmentally appropriate, that it was valid and reliable, and that it really served the purpose of professional development as well as accountability. Not accountability for individual students — we wanted to be really sure it wasn’t used in any inappropropriate ways to penalize individual students — but rather, as a way to hold us adults accountable to our very youngest learners.

We’re in the middle of a heated governor’s race, as you know. How does this affect the work you do?

RAUNER: We know from our work in Illinois and at the federal level that early childhood is not a partisan issue. The majority of every partisan persuasion are strongly in favor of investment in early childhood. That makes our work easy. It means we are able to articulate a vision for early childhood education and to promote the best practices to all candidates and all legislators. We have seen strong bipartisan support here in Illinois on the issue for decades.