Four years ago, every licensed preschool and child care provider in Colorado received a rating, for the first time in the state’s history. 

The vast majority of programs started out with Level 1 ratings, the lowest in the new five-tier “Colorado Shines” system.

Since then, the state has pumped millions of dollars into the system to encourage program improvements and help providers climb up the ratings ladder. And hundreds of providers have done just that. A quarter of the state’s providers — nearly 1,000 — now carry a Level 3, 4 or 5 rating, all of which are considered marks of high quality. 

Still, the state faces a major challenge in nudging the 1,800 providers lingering at Level 1 to aim higher. Some providers don’t have the time or energy to go through the rating process, local early childhood leaders say. Others have full classrooms already and don’t feel higher ratings will make much difference. 

State leaders say they’re pleased that more than half of the state’s child care and preschool programs have moved beyond Level 1, but plan to survey providers in the coming year to learn more about the system’s sticking points. 

“The toughest part is just really being able to understand why folks are choosing not to engage,” said Karen Enboden, the state’s quality rating and improvement system manager. 

She said the state aims to have 28% of providers in the top three rating levels by next year at this time, but hasn’t set longer-term goals. 

“It’s just not an easy, quick lever,” Enboden said of Colorado Shines. 

Early childhood experts say it’s crucial that young children, especially those from low-income families, receive high-quality care during the most critical years of development. Recent research out of North Carolina shows that quality rating systems can spur low-rated providers to make improvements and sway parents away from poorly rated programs, but that occurred only in areas with higher levels of competition among providers. 

The Colorado Shines system, created with a surge of Obama administration funding for early childhood efforts, replaced a voluntary rating system that wasn’t widely used. Under the new mandatory system, Level 1 ratings mean a program is licensed by the state and meets basic health and safety standards. Providers can stay at Level 1 indefinitely, but they may not look as good to parents who search out their ratings in the state’s online database.

Level 2 means providers have taken some steps to improve, but are not yet considered high quality. Level 3, 4 and 5 ratings require a site visit by a specially trained evaluator and evidence of well-equipped classrooms, supportive teachers, efforts to engage parents, and sound financial practices. Providers typically say reaching one of the top three rating levels, which entitle them to larger state child care subsidies, takes months of work.

The share of providers who’ve earned one of the top three Colorado Shines ratings varies by county. In northern Colorado’s Larimer County, 28% of providers have hit that mark, while in neighboring Weld County, only 15% have, according to local early childhood council leaders. 

Sheri Hannah-Ruh, director of the Promises for Children early childhood council in Weld County, said the chronic shortage of child care slots there can make other factors more important than a program’s rating. 

Some parents say, “I’m going to go to this child care provider because they’re on my bus route and that’s the one I can get to,” she said.  

In Larimer County, child care providers who work out of their homes have been slower to seek higher ratings, said Lisa Sadar, quality resources manager for the Larimer County Early Childhood Council. 

In recent months that’s begun to change, but some are still nervous about the scrutiny they’ll face from outside evaluators during the three-hour observation visit, she said. 

One veteran home-based provider in the county resisted seeking a higher rating until recently, taking the attitude, “I know what I’m doing. Leave me alone,” said Sadar. When she finally went through the process, she earned a Level 4 and became an evangelist for other home providers thinking about seeking higher ratings.

While Sadar believes Colorado Shines is well-intentioned and should continue, she said there’s room for improvement in how it rates providers who accept the youngest children.

“I don’t see anything in the system that incentivizes caring for infants and toddlers,” she said. 

Carol Schmidt, the director and lead teacher at Lord of Life Preschool in Thornton, said she didn’t know much about the Colorado Shines process until a member of her church mentioned it. 

“If she hadn’t explained it to me, I don’t know if I would have done it,” said Schmidt. 

Although Schmidt has decades of experience, she made lots of changes to her program in advance of the Colorado Shines evaluation. 

She bought racially diverse puppets and new books, including several that focus on kindness and feelings. She put in a classroom garden, added a second parent-teacher conference in the spring, and started doing more lessons on social and emotional skills. Through it all, she worked closely with a coach from the local early childhood council, Early Childhood Partnership of Adams County. 

Schmidt, who jokes about her lack of attention to detail, ultimately earned a Level 4 rating — after appealing her Level 2 rating and providing more complete documentation to the state. 

“I thought we were good before, but now we’re just better,” she said. “I think our day goes so much smoother.”

Schmidt, who in the fall will double the number of preschool slots in her program from 18 to 36, expressed mild frustration about a few areas where she lost points in her Colorado Shines evaluation. For example, her assistant teacher got dinged for drinking a seltzer water in front of the students and a couple of the books in her classroom library including “Three Billy Goats Gruff” were deemed too violent. 

She also got penalized for washing her hands for too short a time — 17 seconds instead of the required 20. But mostly Schmidt lets such minor missteps roll off her back. 

“I just always laugh because I grew up in the ’60s and I don’t know if I touched soap except on a Saturday night.”