stars in the making

New rating system on the way for preschools and child care

Children in the "3s" class at Promise Christian Preschool in Lafayette line up before circle time.

The three- and four-year-olds at Promise Christian Preschool in Lafayette were busy playing at the water table, painting letters, and pretend grocery shopping on a recent Tuesday morning.

Terri Stowell was just as busy, madly writing notes on a sheaf of papers as she examined toys and books, monitored hand-washing routines and observed teachers as they talked and played with students. Stowell, lead quality rating specialist for the non-profit Qualistar, spent more than three hours at the preschool collecting much of the information she would need to award the center a rating of one to four stars.

It was the first time the center had sought a Qualistar rating, which is a well-respected but voluntary program that costs providers about $1,000 per classroom. Director Leana Zlaten, who secured grant money to pay the fee, was hoping for at least two stars, and maybe three. In May, she will get her answer.

And then in July, everything will change.

That’s when the state is expected to launch a free mandatory rating program to replace Qualistar’s 14-year-old system. While Zlaten’s stars should transfer seamlessly into the new five-level rating system, the vast majority of the state’s preschool and child care providers will find themselves in a place they’ve never been before.

That is, with a public rating indicating their facility’s quality.

What’s the point?

Until now, child care providers, whether “centers” or “family child care homes,” were required to be licensed by the state but nothing else. Unless they pursued a Qualistar rating on their own or parents did a lot of legwork, there wasn’t much to distinguish one from another.

On a national level, “Quality Rating Improvement Systems,” often called QRIS, have been the trend over the last decade and experts herald them for improving the quality of early childhood programs and better informing parents how local child care facilities stack up. In Colorado, there is both excitement and confusion about the new system, which has been in the works since 2010.

Lead teacher Cristina Maginot squirts soap and water on the children's hands so they can lather up before rinsing. Hand-washing procedures were one of the many items that will figure into the center's Qualistar rating.
Lead teacher Cristina Maginot squirts soap and water on the children’s hands so they can lather up before rinsing. Hand-washing procedures were one of the many items that will figure into the center’s Qualistar rating.

“We are all in favor of continuing to march toward quality,” said Bev Thurber, executive director of the Early Childhood Council of Larimer County.

Still, like other early childhood advocates interviewed, she said the new system represents a huge undertaking with an ambitious timeline.

“People are definitely concerned because there’s a lot of unknowns,” she said. “It’s still a system in flux.”

With less than three months to go before the launch, many questions remain. For example, it’s unclear whether the system’s name will change from its working title, “Next Generation Quality Rating Improvement System,” or whether child care providers will earn stars, numbers or something else.

Another unanswered question is which contractor—Qualistar or Simplydigi.com Inc. —the state will choose for a $2.5 million contract to conduct some of the new ratings. With these and several other decisions pending, there’s also a possibility the launch date could be pushed back.

While state officials at the Colorado Department of Human Services, which has authority over the new system, agree that there still many unknowns, they are taking an optimistic tone.

“I am feeling so excited at the moment,” said Karen Enboden, child care QRIS manager for CDHS. “I think this is absolutely the right step for Colorado.”

Racing to the top

The Next Generation system, which is being funded with part of a $44 million federal Race to the Top grant, will roll out in two phases. Starting in July, center-based programs will be the first group of providers to earn ratings. These programs, which include non-profit and for-profit preschools and child care centers as well as early childhood classrooms run by school districts, represent 86 percent of licensed capacity for children 0-5.

Learn more

Possible ratings: Level 1-5

Components: (for levels 3-5)

1. Workforce Qualifications and Professional Development

2. Family Partnerships

3. Leadership, Management & Administration

4. Learning Environment

5. Child Health

6. Optional (includes points for home language, additional professional staff, professional leadership)

 

Possible ratings: Provisional and 1-4 stars

Components:

1. Learning Environment

2. Family Partnerships

3. Training and Education

4. Adult-to-Child Ratios and Group Size

5. Program Accreditation

Family child care homes, defined as home-based sites serving two or more unrelated children at the same time, will have the option to participate in the new system this year, but it won’t become mandatory until July 2015.

While many experts laud Qualistar for being one of the pioneers of early childhood quality improvement, they also note that the organization never was able to capture a critical mass of the child care sector because its ratings are costly. Currently, less than 10 percent of licensed providers in Colorado have Qualistar ratings, according to Gladys Wilson, the organization’s executive director.

“They never reached that tipping point,” said Thurber.

Many providers with Qualistar ratings receive funding from foundations or other funders to cover the fees. Not many providers raise the money themselves.

It was clear from Stowell’s half-day visit, which she planned to follow with a return visit to meet with Zlaten the next day, why ratings aren’t cheap. They represent a complicated and time-consuming process, well beyond the more basic considerations of licensing. They weigh student-teacher ratios, teacher credentials, parent surveys and even questions like how the walls are decorated, whether toys reflect age, race and gender diversity and whether teachers use language to help children develop reasoning skills.

Terri Stowell, right, interviews lead teacher Cristinia Maginot about the preschool's schedule, materials and practices during her recent visit.
Terri Stowell, right, interviews lead teacher Cristina Maginot about the preschool’s schedule, materials and practices during her recent visit.

Enboden said ratings will be free under the new system, at least until the federal grant expires at the end of December 2016. In addition $7-8 million of the grant funds will be available to help providers improve their facilities and practices so they can obtain better ratings.

Under the current Qualistar system and perhaps under the new system as well, the motivation to improve often comes before the rating as well as after. For example, Zlaten and her staff made several changes before Stowell’s visit, which occurred unannounced during a one-month window. They moved furniture around the large classroom, opening up a sunny area near the windows for free play and circle time.

At the same time, there were some things they couldn’t easily improve. They knew the playround, which Stowell said is a problem area for many facilities, would cost them some points. While it appeared perfectly acceptable to a casual observer, Stowell found several issues as she measured equipment spacing and looked for hazards like easy-to-open gates, protruding bolts and wide gaps between rails.

“The inside, that’s what we focused on,” said lead teacher Cristina Maginot.

Overall, the facility, which provides scholarships to about a quarter of its students, had much to recommend it — small class sizes, conscientious teachers and a lots of engaging activities.

Enboden said the goal is for 20 percent of the state’s licensed child care facilities to earn a rating of three, four or five by the end of 2016. A state-run parent portal where families can look up Next Generation ratings could be up by January 2015.

Qualister rater Terri Stowell measures the slide height as part of her assessment of the playground.
Qualister rater Terri Stowell measures the slide height as part of her assessment of the playground.

“My hope is that parents will have more information so they can make informed decisions,” said Wilson.

Like many early childhood advocates, she said most parents decide where to send their children based on cost, convenience and word of mouth recommendations, not necessarily provider quality.

The City and County of Denver, which has hundreds of Qualistar-rated facilities, may be somewhat of an exception. That’s because the Denver Preschool Program, which provides preschool subsidies to families of four-year-olds, has put a premium on preschool quality and pays for Qualistar ratings as well as improvement measures.

“Denver’s far ahead of the rest of the state,” said Cheryl Caldwell, director of early education for Denver Public Schools.

Embedded in licensing

One of the biggest differences between Qualistar and the Next Generation QRIS is that the rating system will now be embedded in licensing. In other words, all center-based and family child carehome providers with a valid license, which requires basic health and safety measures, will automatically get a rating of one.

There will be no requirement to pursue a two, three, four or five, but some observers believe providers won’t want to settle for the lowest score once they see their competition attaining higher levels of quality.

“Peer pressure,” said Thurber.

Providers will be able to advance to a level two if their staff members complete state-approved online trainings and enroll in the state’s professional development information system. In addition, providers will have to complete a self-assessment of their program and create an improvement plan. The Department of Human Services will oversee awards of ones and twos.

The "ECERS" manual is the environmental rating scale that Qualistar raters use during preschool visits. A related tool, called the "ITERS," is used during visits to facilities that care for infants and toddlers.
The “ECERS” manual is the environmental rating scale that Qualistar raters use during preschool visits. A related tool, called the “ITERS,” is used during visits to facilities that care for infants and toddlers.

To earn a level three, four or five, providers will go through a process similar to the current Qualistar process, which includes a site visit like the one Stowell recently conducted. Depending on the outcome of the contract award, it’s possible that Qualistar’s ten rating specialists will continue to rate programs seeking one of the highest three ratings.

One differences between the Qualistar system and the Next Generation system will be the scoring methodology for the three higher ratings. In addition, while Qualistar raters look at every classroom in a facility, the new system will look at 50 percent of classrooms. Finally, Qualistar ratings typically last for two years while Next Generation ratings will extend for three.

 Grandfather me in

While some center directors are no doubt nervous about their new obligations under the Next Generation system, some can rest easy during the first year or two. That’s because providers with existing Qualistar ratings will keep their existing numerical rating under the new system. In addition, providers that are accredited by yet-to-be-determined national bodies, as well as Head Start sites that have undergone federal reviews, will also transition into the new system with scores of either three or four depending on whether they meet certain criteria.

Children play at the water table during free play at Promise Christian Preschool.
Children play at the water table during free play at Promise Christian Preschool.

The grandfather provision, officially called “Alternative Pathways” in the new system, is part of the reason some providers are choosing to get Qualistar-rated this spring. Not only will they avoid the uncertainty of a new system in its roll-out phase, they have the opportunity to come in with high rating from day one.

Thurber said a number of providers in Larimer County have worked to get Qualistar ratings this year for that very reason. In Zlaten’s case, it helped that the Qualistar system was a known quantity.

“We know what Qualistar is like. We don’t know what the state’s [rating system] is like, so we thought, ‘Let’s do Qualistar,’” she said.

 

 

farewell

Head of Denver Preschool Program resigning after more than five years

PHOTO: Eric Lutzens/Denver Post
Jennifer Landrum, president and CEO of the Denver Preschool Program

Jennifer Landrum, who oversaw the Denver Preschool Program for the last five and a half years, announced Friday that she’s leaving for personal reasons.

During Landrum’s tenure, Denver voters increased the sales tax that supports the program, allowing it to cover summer tuition costs and serve more children, and extended it through 2026. Landrum also oversaw the redesign of the tuition credit scale, expanded scholarships and awards for teachers and directors to better support quality improvement efforts, and developed a new strategic plan.

Landrum said she was leaving not for a new job but to take care of herself and her family after experiencing “extreme loss.”

“I need time to pause, reflect and recharge,” she wrote in an email to supporters of the program.

The Denver Preschool Program provides tuition subsidies that scale according to family income and preschool quality for students in the year before they enter kindergarten. The largest subsidies go to the poorest families enrolled in the best preschools. The program also supports quality improvement efforts, including for younger students, part of a broader shift in focus in the early childhood sector. It is funded by a voter-approved 0.15 percent sales tax and has become a model for communities around the state.

“Jennifer has served with vision, boldness, and a constant and deep commitment to improving the lives of Denver’s young children and supporting Denver families,” preschool program board chair Chris Watney wrote in an email. “The board, staff, and community are going to miss her in this role. The board of directors firmly supports Jennifer’s decision and wishes her all the best.”

Deputy Director Ellen Braun will serve as the interim director while the board conducts a search process for a new leader this spring.

Meet Reggio Emilia

Power to the kids: A preschool approach imported from Italy comes to public schools in Denver

PHOTO: Courtesy of Boulder Journey School

Boulder Journey School feels different from most other child care centers almost as soon as you walk through the door. In the hallways, there’s a kid-sized mail-sorting station, a giant metal spaceship trimmed with white and green lights, and a child-designed memorial for the school’s chickens, who were killed by raccoons a few years ago.

Preschoolers there help decide what and how they learn, drawing on their interests, imagination, and environment. Which means trying out adult-style jobs, building 10-foot-tall contraptions, and even talking about death are all par for the course.

“Rather than covering the curriculum, we’re uncovering the curriculum with the children in the classroom,” said Alison Maher, Boulder Journey’s executive director.

It’s all part of the school’s Reggio Emilia-inspired approach to early education — one that prizes play-based and project-based learning, grounded in the local community. At least two public preschools in Denver will soon begin using the approach.

Early childhood leaders in Denver see the adoption of Reggio in district classrooms as a milestone that brings a celebrated approach typically found in private preschool programs to a diverse group of children in the public sphere.

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
A spaceship designed by preschoolers at the Boulder Journey School.

Next fall, with help from Maher and other partners, a new Reggio Emilia-inspired child care center and preschool will open in a facility called Z Place in the Green Valley Ranch neighborhood. A new preschool program planned for Inspire Elementary School in the Stapleton neighborhood will also use the Reggio approach, which school leaders said ties in well with the expeditionary learning focus in other grades.

“Denver has been a bold city around early childhood,” said Rebecca Kantor, dean of the school of education and human development at the University of Colorado Denver, a partner in the work at Z Place. And adopting the Reggio approach is a “continuation of that bold theme.”

Denver isn’t the first community to incorporate Reggio principles into public classrooms. Early education programs in Boston, Indianapolis, and Tucson, among other cities, have implemented them, but the approach is hardly widespread.

At Z Place, the student body will include some children in the federally funded Head Start preschool program. School leaders say that there are special challenges when adapting Reggio for taxpayer-funded classrooms because of additional state and federal regulations governing everything from technology use to how children are assessed. Still, they believe it’s doable since Reggio is a philosophy of teaching and learning, rather than a prescriptive program.

In addition to Z Place and Inspire, Denver district officials may also bring Reggio to two programs in South Denver in 2020: The Stephen Knight Center for Early Education, which includes preschool and kindergarten, and Place Bridge Academy, a school for immigrant and refugee students that will soon be getting new preschool space.

Lisa Roy, executive director of the Denver Public Schools’ early education department, said incorporating Reggio principles into preschools in different neighborhoods advances the district’s plan to offer high-quality school choice options throughout the city.

Currently, most district-affiliated preschools use what’s called the Creative Curriculum, a research-based curriculum popular nationwide. About 15 use a curriculum called Tools of the Mind, which emphasizes social-emotional skills. Another handful uses the Montessori method, in which students in multiage classrooms learn at their own pace with the help of special educational materials. In addition to using the Reggio philosophy, the Z Place program will incorporate Montessori principles and emphasize the inclusion of students with disabilities alongside typically developing children.

Unlike Montessori, which is named for its founder, Italian educator Maria Montessori, Reggio Emilia is named for a place — that is, the northern Italian city where the educational philosophy first emerged after World War II. That’s because learning about and through the local community figures prominently into the approach, even for the smallest children.

For example, in Molly Lyne’s toddler classroom at Boulder Journey School, “bus” is the name of the game these days. That’s because city buses and school buses often pass by the playground just outside her room — regularly piquing the interest of her 1-year-old charges who watch the vehicles through holes in the fence and often blurt out the word “bus.”

To capitalize on their interest, Lyne and her two assistant teachers sometimes project a video on the wall showing what it’s like to be on a moving bus, from showing the traffic passing by to a simulation of the loud, creaky lurch passengers hear when the bus stops. Like all the technology used at the school, the video isn’t meant for the kids to sit and watch quietly. It’s intended as a backdrop and inspiration for their play.

Older students at Boulder Journey get even more opportunity to interact with the community. When a new pizza restaurant opened near the school several years ago, preschoolers got to visit — taking photos and interviewing restaurant patrons. They also offered up a critique: The restaurant didn’t quite work for little kids — the stools didn’t spin, for example, and the toilets in the bathroom were too high. Back at school, the children fashioned their own ideal restaurant furnishings out of clay, a collection featured at the pizzeria for a time and now displayed in the school hallway.

“It’s not only getting kids ready to read at third grade proficiently, but it’s for them to become citizens, owners of their community … and understand how their neighborhoods are different from other neighborhoods in the city,” said Roy, who last year visited Reggio Emilia schools in Italy with a delegation from Boulder Journey School and the University of Colorado Denver.

Maher said there’s a common misconception that Reggio-inspired schools are unstructured.

“People think because children have a voice in their education, in the way the day’s organized, in the projects that are developed, that the teachers are invisible and hands-off, and that’s not the case,” she said. “It’s a highly structured dance between children and adults to make sure all voices are represented.”

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
The “materials room” Boulder Journey School.

At Reggio schools, you won’t likely see any commercially produced alphabet charts, daily schedules, or cartoony posters. Many Boulder Journey classrooms have attractive blond wood furniture, colorful light tables and aquariums full of fish. The “materials room,” where kids can craft and create, is a feast for the eyes — with wood, colorful fabric, tubes, lids and other supplies arranged neatly on white shelves that line bright orange walls.

Maher said people who tour her school tend to think she has a big budget because the school is beautifully appointed. But many of the school’s decorations and supplies are inexpensive, everyday items that can be found around town, she said.

Maher acknowledges that being in Boulder, an affluent community northwest of Denver, means a wealthier pool of families. About 20 percent of her students receive some kind of help paying tuition, which is about $1,300 a month for a preschooler who attends four hours a day, five days a week.

The percentage of students who need financial assistance will be higher at the Denver programs’ adopting the approach next year. A little over one-third of Inspire’s student body come from low-income families, and the new Z Place program will likely serve a high proportion of such students.

At Inspire, there are already two teachers with training in Reggio, both graduates of a special masters degree program run by the University of Colorado Denver and Boulder Journey School.

One of them is Sarah McCarty, a kindergarten teacher who had never heard of Reggio before she entered the program. She believes the approach, in addition to helping kids build creativity, work collaboratively and develop problem-solving skills, instills a love of learning.

“I’ve never seen a kid who, when they got to do what they wanted, wasn’t happy about it,” she said.