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.”

All over the map

What do children need to know when they start kindergarten? You might be surprised

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

How many letters should kids recognize when they enter kindergarten? Should they be able to cut with scissors? How long should they be able to sit still?

Such basic questions seem like they should come with clear-cut answers, but parents and teachers — and even Colorado state standards — differ widely in their expectations for entering kindergarteners

Early childhood leaders in Larimer County discovered just how much variation exists after they surveyed 800 local parents, preschool teachers and kindergarten teachers in 2015.

“The answers were all over the map,” said Bev Thurber, executive director of the Early Childhood Council of Larimer County. “A lot of times it was way above what research says is developmentally appropriate.”

Such findings spotlight the lack of consensus about what it means to be ready for kindergarten. The survey found parents and preschool teachers generally had higher expectations for youngsters than kindergarten teachers or state standards, suggesting that some parents and preschool teachers may be focusing too much energy on teaching academic skills to young children.

“Our concern is not only do you have this variability, but also this pressure on the academic side … when that’s really not the most important thing, especially at this young age,” said Thurber.

To help parents sort it all out, Thurber and a team of early childhood teachers and advocates created a new eight-page parent guide called “Ready Set Kindergarten.” Available in English and Spanish, the whimsically illustrated booklet gives parents tips for building academic and social-emotional skills — things like simple counting, recognizing the letters in a child’s name, naming feelings and taking turns. It also includes a month-by-month schedule for the pre-kindergarten year highlighting logistical details like registration windows and meet-the-teacher opportunities.

All three Larimer County school districts, — Poudre, Thompson and Estes Park — have agreed to use the guide, which is being distributed through preschools, elementary schools, doctors’ offices and libraries.

But some experts say too much emphasis on getting children ready for kindergarten relieves schools of their obligation to serve students regardless of their background or experience.

“It’s critical for schools to take responsibility for being ready for children – not the other way around,” said Sherry Cleary, executive director of the New York Early Childhood Professional Development Institute at the City University of New York.

Cleary reviewed the guide and worried that it would create unneeded stress for families and set up teachers to have unrealistic expectations for kids.

Thurber said many teachers and parents already have unrealistic expectations for entering kindergarteners, according to survey results. The guide scales those back, she said, and offers a more reasonable list of activities that are based on state standards and Colorado’s early learning and development guidelines.

“This is what experts have said is developmentally appropriate,” Thurber said.

“I completely buy in that schools have to meet kids where they are at,” she said. ”However, within that, there is a certain anxiety among families when you have all these differing expectations.”

Karen Rattenborg, executive director of the Colorado State University Early Childhood Center and an assistant professor at the university, saw the disparity in expectations when she analyzed the survey data.

Take letters, for example. State standards say kids should recognize at least 10 letters when they start kindergarten, specifically the letters in their name. Survey results showed most parents and preschool teachers believed entering kindergarteners should recognize more than 20 letters. Kindergarten teachers opted for a lower 11-20 range.

The same dynamic held true for counting — about half of parents and preschool teachers thought kids should be able to count higher than 20 while state standards say 10 is enough.

In some cases, both preschool and kindergarten teachers placed a high value on tasks that state standards and other common benchmarks don’t mention. Both groups rated cutting with scissors as the second most important fine motor skill for entering kindergarteners, but state standards and the state’s early learning guidelines are silent about scissors.

“It’s things like that where we had these a-ha moments,” said Rattenborg.

In some cases, there was agreement. For instance, the vast majority of both preschool and kindergarten teachers said the ability to communicate needs and wants was the top communication skill kindergarteners need.

Rattenborg said the diversity of views made one thing clear.

“We realized having a common guide throughout Larimer County would be helpful for virtually everyone involved,” she said.

Diane Umbreit, a kindergarten teacher at Kruse Elementary School in Fort Collins and a member of the committee that conceived the guide, agreed.

Over the years, she’s seen plenty of confusion and anxiety among parents. Some push their kids hard to acquire new skills before kindergarten. Some want to do learning activities with their children, but aren’t sure where to start.

Others, she said, are “shocked that their child needs to know the letters in his name.”

Umbreit said of the new kindergarten guide, “Hopefully, it evens the playing field.”

Enter to win

Denver organization to launch national prize for early childhood innovation

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

A Denver-based investment group will soon launch a national contest meant to help scale up great ideas in the early childhood field — specifically efforts focused on children birth to 3 years old.

Gary Community Investments announced its Early Childhood Innovation Prize on Wednesday morning at a conference in San Francisco. It’s sort of like the television show “Shark Tank,” but without the TV cameras, celebrity judges and nail-biting live pitch.

The contest will divvy up $1 million in prize money to at least three winners, one at the beginning stages of concept development, one at a mid-level stage and one at an advanced stage. Gary officials say there could be more than one winner in each category.

The contest will officially launch Oct. 25, with submissions due Feb. 15 and winners announced in May. (Gary Community Investments, through the Piton Foundation, is a Chalkbeat funder.)

Officials at Gary Community Investments, founded by oilman Sam Gary, say the contest will help the organization focus on finding solutions that address trouble spots in the early childhood arena.

The birth-to-3 zone is one such spot. While it’s an especially critical time for children because of the amount of brain development that occurs during that time, it’s often overshadowed by efforts targeting 4- or 5-year-olds.

Steffanie Clothier, Gary’s child development investment director, said leaders there decided on a monetary challenge after talking with a number of other organizations that offer prizes for innovative ideas or projects.

One foundation they consulted described lackluster responses to routine grant programs, but lots of enthusiasm for contests with financial stakes, she said.

“There’s some galvanizing opportunity to a prize,” she said.

But Gary’s new prize isn’t solely about giving away money to create or expand promising programs. It will also include an online networking platform meant to connect applicants with mentors, partners or investors.

“We’re trying to figure out how to make it not just about the winners,” Clothier said.

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