opting out

Amid Colorado’s push to get child care providers to seek higher ratings, some say, ‘No thanks’

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Loveland's Teaching Tree Early Childhood Learning Center was one of the first two centers in the state to get a Level 5 rating in the Colorado Shines rating system.

Dede Beardsley says she’s always received rave reviews about the Montessori preschool and kindergarten program she’s led in Boulder for nearly four decades.

Parents and state licensing representatives have complimented her on the way the classrooms run and the teachers’ high levels of education, she said.

On paper, however, Mapleton Montessori School is not a high-quality program. It has the lowest possible rating on the state’s child care rating scale — a Level 1.

All Colorado preschools and child care centers get a score on the state’s five-level rating system, called Colorado Shines. But providers are not required to seek higher marks and some — including Beardsley — say the effort is not justified.

“I run this school by myself,” she said. “I don’t spend my time jumping through hoops that I don’t feel really benefit us.”

That well-regarded operators choose to accept the lowest rating is an early challenge for Colorado Shines, a two-year-old system meant to better inform parents and lift the quality of child care in Colorado. Some providers balk at costs associated with pursuing a higher rating, underscoring the broader problem of a lack of funding in the early childhood system.

Currently, 53 percent of Colorado’s 4,264 child care providers carry a Level 1 rating on Colorado Shines. That rating means they are licensed by the state and meet basic health and safety standards.

Providers can stay at Level 1 indefinitely, but they may not look as good to parents who search provider ratings in the state’s online database. Without contacting providers individually and doing other research, it’s impossible to tell which Level 1 sites may be providing lower caliber care and which ones offer excellent care but have decided not to climb the ratings ladder.

Experts say measuring child care quality — and helping lower-quality programs improve — is important because high quality programs help prepare kids, especially those from poor families, for kindergarten.

“Low quality settings are actually harmful,” said Susan Hibbard, executive director of the BUILD Initiative, a national organization that helps states develop early childhood systems.

“If you care about all the children in the state you have to care about increasing the level of quality and making sure that public dollars go where they’re needed the most.”

All in

Up until a couple years ago, Colorado’s child care rating system was voluntary and only a fraction of the state’s providers chose to participate. Then, with a surge of Obama administration money for early childhood efforts, the state launched the mandatory Colorado Shines system in 2015. Now, every licensed provider in the state — with some limited exceptions — has a rating.

Currently, about 30 percent of Colorado providers have Level 2 ratings, which means they’ve taken some steps to improve, but are not yet considered high quality. Level 3, 4 and 5 ratings are all considered high quality, requiring a site visit by a specially trained evaluator and evidence of everything from parent engagement to sound business practices. Providers typically say reaching one of the top three rating levels takes months of work.

Stacey Kennedy, the state’s child care quality initiatives director, said via email that she expects more providers to earn ratings of Level 2 or higher “as the system matures and market drivers, such as parent demand for quality, also increase.”

But Hibbard cautions that relying on parents to drive demand for quality— one of the original goals of quality rating systems nationwide — is still far from reality.

“It’s a lovely little idea,” she said, but doesn’t acknowledge that that high quality care is often inaccessible to families because it’s too pricey or far away.

“Really the role that (quality rating and improvement systems are) playing in many states now is defining a quality framework around which the state can organize its resources,” she said.

Not interested

Providers decide to stick with Level 1 ratings for many reasons. Some private programs have long waiting lists and will be packed no matter their rating.

“They, from their perspective, really don’t need to go through the ratings process and … demonstrate anything,” said Nicole Riehl, director of programs and development at Denver’s Early Childhood Council.

Other providers fear the rating won’t accurately reflect their quality or worry about the time and expense involved. Beardsley, who believes most visitors would guess her school is a Level 5, falls into that category. One of her concerns is that Colorado Shines criteria don’t always accommodate approaches like Montessori, where class size or other features may be different from mainstream programs.

“I think they’re looking at (quality) through very limited lenses,” she said.

(The Colorado Shines database shows that a number of Montessori preschools in the state have achieved Level 3 and 4 ratings.)

A study underway of Colorado Shines by the nonprofit research group Child Trends included an invitation earlier this month to Montessori providers to give their feedback. Study results are due out this summer and will help guide improvements to the rating system, state officials said.

Providers who speak a language other than English make up another group that stays at Level 1, Riehl said. While there have been efforts to translate some Colorado Shines materials into Spanish or give Spanish-speaking providers alternative routes to higher ratings, challenges remain.

They’re “not going to have equitable access to the materials and the (online) platform,” Riehl said.

Giving it a try

Hiwet Ogbazion, who runs a licensed child care program out of her home in Denver’s Montbello neighborhood, was initially unsure about the rating system. She recalled attending a meeting about Colorado Shines a couple years ago and hearing other providers, say, ‘“No, we don’t need to join this. We don’t need to do this.”

Ogbazion, a former middle school teacher in the east African country of Eritrea, was confused. She called Denver’s Early Childhood Council the next day and a staff member explained the system’s process and benefits.

She took a number of online trainings available through Colorado Shines and earned her Level 2 rating in 2016.

“They really helped me in order to improve myself and (understand) how to work in the daycare…how to interact with the kids,” she said.

Ogbazion, who someday hopes to open a child care center, said the higher rating allowed her to get a grant that helped buy a slide and water table for her yard, and blocks and music CDs for inside the house.

Worth their while

While many parents make child care decisions based on cost, or proximity to their home or job, some providers worry low ratings could eventually affect enrollment.

Beardsley, of Mapleton Montessori, said she’s never had a parent ask about her Colorado Shines rating, but has no way of knowing if anyone’s steered clear after looking it up online.

While top ratings may help attract families, programs have a variety of other incentives for earning higher ratings. These include special quality improvement grants, and for providers with one of the top three ratings, higher reimbursement rates for serving low-income kids who qualify for state child care subsidies.

Advocates say getting providers to go for higher ratings can also provide valuable data to organizations that provide training and support.

Staff at Denver’s Early Childhood Council realized that many providers were scoring low in the business administration category as they sought higher ratings, Riehl said. The council subsequently developed a six-session training on basic financial practices. The first group enrolled in that course recently finished.

Riehl recounted how one provider said, “For the first time ever I have a budget and I know how much money I made from enrollment.”

Wanna go outside?

Less plastic, more trees: New effort seeks to reinvent preschool playgrounds and capture kids’ imaginations

This play structure at Step By Step Child Development Center in Northglenn will go away under a plan to create a more natural and engaging outdoor play space.

Michelle Dalbotten, the energetic director of a Northglenn child care center called Step by Step, doesn’t like her playground.

Sure, it’s spacious, with a high privacy fence bordering an adjacent strip mall parking lot. It’s also got a brightly colored play structure surrounded by lots of spongy rubber mulch.

But Dalbotten and her staff have long noticed that the kids get bored there. They clump together in the small shady area or on a few popular pieces of equipment. Sometimes, they start throwing trucks off the play structure or shoving their friends down the slide.

Something about it just doesn’t work.

Recently, Dalbotten found a solution in the form of a new grant program called the ECHO initiative, which aims to reinvent more than 100 preschool and child care playgrounds across Colorado over the next few years. Think mud kitchens, looping tricycle trails, vegetable gardens, stages, shady reading nooks and dump truck construction zones.

The idea is to create outdoor spaces that capture kids’ imagination, connect them with nature and keep them active in every season. Such efforts grow out of a recognition in the education field that healthy habits start early and boost learning.

The current preschool playground at Step by Step is covered by rubber mulch.

Step by Step staff members had talked many times about their stagnant play space. But it was hard to envision anything different until they attended a design workshop with experts from ECHO, a partnership between the National Wildlife Federation, Qualistar Colorado and the Natural Learning Initiative at North Carolina State University.

“We knew we were missing the boat somewhere because (the children) weren’t super-engaged and we had a lot of behavioral issues,” Dalbotten said. “But we just couldn’t see past it, I guess.”

For child care providers, it’s a common challenge, said Sarah Konradi, ECHO program director with the regional office of the National Wildlife Federation

“This is a very new idea to a lot of folks,” she said. “It’s hard to sort out as a layperson.”

ECHO, borne out of a decade of research from the Natural Learning Initiative, will hand out $355,000 in grants over the next three years. The initiative prioritizes centers that serve children from low-income families or other vulnerable populations.

Fourteen centers — Step by Step and Wild Plum Learning Center in Longmont are the first two — will get $10,000 awards for serving as demonstration sites willing to host visits for other Colorado providers.

Leaders at Step by Step say kids and teachers often congregate in the limited shady spots.

Around 100 other centers will receive ECHO’s $5,000 seed grants and expert assistance to revamp their outdoor spaces.

Such transformations can have a big impact on children who may spend thousands of hours a year at such centers, said Nilda Cosco, director of programs at the Natural Learning Initiative.

“When we do a renovation of the outdoor learning environments as we call them — not playgrounds — we see increased physical activity … more social interactions among children … less altercations,” she said.

“The teachers have to do less because the children are so engaged. There is so much to do.”

ECHO, which stands for Early Childhood Health Outdoors, is the latest iteration of a program Cosco started a decade ago called “Preventing Obesity by Design.” That effort revamped outdoor space at about 260 child care centers in North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas.

Cosco said such makeovers can ”prevent obesity by counteracting sedentary lifestyles. Children walk more, exercise more, are conversant with healthy eating strategies.”

Dalbotten and her staff have big plans for their play areas, which sit behind a plaza that houses a bingo hall, Dollar Tree and Big D’s Liquor store. They’ll get rid of the colorful play structure and the rubber mulch in favor of a more natural look. There will be trees, shrubs, small grassy hills and a winding trail leading to a wide array of activity areas.

This porch will get new lighting, fencing and foliage to make it a more attractive outdoor space at Step by Step.

The center’s smaller toddler playground will get a similar reboot and its tiny yard for babies — mostly bare except for a couple low-hanging shade sails — will be expanded to include a shaded deck where teachers can sit or play with babies. A barren concrete porch on the side of the building will be remade into a cozy activity area decorated with bird houses, planter gardens and butterfly-attracting foliage.

At the recent design workshop Dalbotten attended, ECHO leaders displayed photos from other centers around the country that have gone through outdoor transformations. She saw one that stuck with her.

“There were kids everywhere,” she said. “It was super cool looking. I was like, ‘Oh look, we can be that. We can have kids everywhere.’”

PHOTO: Natural Learning Initiative
The play space at Johnson Pond Learning Center in Fuquay-Varina, NC, after a makeover.
PHOTO: Natural Learning Initiative
The outdoor play space at Spanish For Fun Academy in Chapel, Hill, NC, after a makeover.

Starting early

For a struggling Colorado school district, full-day preschool — and the unusual way it’s paid for — shows promise

A staff member works with full-day preschoolers at Fairview Elementary School in 2016,

Promising first-year results from a study of full-day preschool in a high-poverty suburban Denver school district have stoked optimism about a new financing approach officials are testing there.

It’s called Pay For Success and has gained traction nationwide in recent years as a way to pay for social programs that yield long-term dividends but are expensive to launch.

The struggling 9,600-student Westminster Public Schools is using a version of the complicated financing model, also known as social impact bonds, to fund and rigorously evaluate full-day preschool.

While similar projects in Salt Lake City and Chicago have been underway longer, Westminster’s three-year pilot project provides the first Colorado case study of Pay For Success as a preschool expansion tool.

It’s also a key component of the early childhood efforts outlined in the district’s state-mandated improvement plan. Only about a third of Westminster kindergartners meet expected benchmarks when they start school.

This year, about a quarter of the district’s 600 preschoolers attend full-day programming — at a cost of about $10,000 per student.

The full-day classrooms are the most expensive in the district because of state class size and student-teacher ratio requirements, but not as pricey as some high-quality preschool programs elsewhere.

The idea behind Pay For Success financing is that private investors or philanthropists pay upfront for social programs and get repaid with interest if those programs save public money by preventing the need for costly services such as special education or reading remediation. If a project doesn’t yield the hoped-for savings, the investors lose some or all of their money.

Westminster Public Schools dipped its toes into Pay For Success waters last year, offering full-day preschool to 112 4-year-olds at seven elementary schools. Two foundations — Gary Community Investments and the Ben and Lucy Ana Walton Fund of the Walton Family Foundation — put up a combined half million dollars for the project.

(The Walton Family Foundation and Gary Community Investments — through the Piton Foundation — are Chalkbeat funders).

Westminster’s pilot is not a full-fledged Pay For Success transaction because the state is not a partner in the agreement as would typically be the case. In addition, the project agreement doesn’t require the two funders to be repaid fully if the district’s full-day preschool program yields the hoped-for savings.

However, the gold standard study by outside evaluators comparing full-day and half-day preschoolers is standard Pay For Success fare. It’s also a key part of what funders and other school districts may be looking at as they consider preschool expansion efforts.

So far, Westminster’s results look good.

Full-day preschoolers there performed better than their half-day peers on a bevy of early childhood assessments that measure everything from early literacy to social and emotional development.

“We’re seeing some real statistical significance in terms of full-day (preschool),” said Mat Aubuchon, the district’s director of early childhood education.

Further evaluations over the next two years will provide more definitive results, he said.

In addition to preliminary data gleaned from the official evaluation, Aubuchon said the district has discovered some unanticipated benefits of the full-day program. These include higher attendance rates in full-day preschool classrooms and increased likelihood that full-day preschoolers will come back for kindergarten.

While 60 percent of half-day preschoolers returned for kindergarten this year, that number was 76 percent for full-day preschoolers.

Asked if the district’s full-day preschool initiative might continue beyond year three as a full-blown Pay For Success project, Aubuchon said, “I certainly hope so.”

Steffanie Clothier, investment director for child development at Gary Community Investments, said Westminster’s project will provide a valuable evidence base for other districts interested in preschool expansion even if they don’t use Pay For Success.

“I think Pay For Success is a great way to help understand the financing and short term and longer term savings from preschool programs,” she said. “But I don’t think it’s essential as a funding stream.”