The importance of facility quality in early education

ECE Graphic
At Development Centers' Winston Head Start program in northwest Detroit, a temperamental boiler kept staff on edge daily. When it broke down, parents scrambled for childcare, often days at a time.

"That boiler continued to impede our ability to provide high quality education for these children," says Sally Bond, director of development at Development Centers, a Head Start provider. "These children and families deserved better."

Winston urgently needed to relocate. For Head Start programs, federal regulations mandate a specific building type in a limited service area—a big ask in an urban area with few options. "It's not like we could go to an abandoned grocery store. We needed the premise of a school environment, in a certain location," says Bond.

After an exhaustive search, Bond and her colleagues found a former charter school on Seven Mile Road near Lahser. They completed a facilities review with IFF—a nonprofit community development financial institution (CDFI), lender, and real estate consultant and developer—scheduled some small modifications, and moved in May. There are future plans for additional renovations.

Without frigid classrooms in the winters and poorly ventilated, hot conditions in the summers, the children will learn better. "The children are already more comfortable, and they interact more. We are doing great now," says teacher Tamika Nicks.

Teacher Tamika Nicks in one of Winston Head Start's updated classrooms

Sally Bond, director of development at Development Centers

Quality early childhood educational programming held in a thoughtfully designed, well-maintained learning space is a cost-effective investment in family well-being. Studies show that quality early learning spaces have a profound positive impact on students.

Simply put, children learn better when they are comfortable in their surroundings.

Too often, true quality is confused with health and safety standards. While critically important, these minimum licensing standards do not address the many environmental aspects of a quality early childhood environment, like indoor air quality, temperature, adequate ventilation, noise reduction, optimal lighting, furnishings, ease of access, group gathering spaces, and more.

These elements impact student productivity. One study found that young students performed better on tests in classrooms with good ventilation and comfortable air temperature. Additional research supports better student performance and behavior in comfortable classrooms.

A facilities-forward approach to Detroit's early childhood education landscape can align with proven curricula and lift quality overall. "When a teacher and child have ample space to move around and engage in activities, this presents more opportunities for exciting things to happen. Cramped spaces limit the opportunity for resources and experiences," says Monica Duncan, director of early childhood services at IFF. Since establishing a presence in Detroit in 2014, IFF has, through grants and loans, added or preserved 585 early childhood seats, helped improve 23 facilities, and conducted research to highlight service gaps in Detroit neighborhoods most in need of quality childcare.

Facilities also contribute indirectly to student success by improving job satisfaction for teachers and administrators. Traditionally, childcare is a low-compensation environment, but a quality facility can provide the resources necessary for the teachers to do their best work.

"Very important to child development is the teacher-child interaction," says Duncan. "When a teacher works in an environment that is comfortable and inspiring and leverages their best, it helps the teacher, and it also helps the child."

A robust early childhood infrastructure in Detroit will increase access to high quality education for families and children most in need, supporting a population of young Detroiters prepared for school success, and productive lives well into adulthood.

These five stories from across the country illustrate the many ways facility quality impacts early learning.

A quality facility keeps programming alive in northwest Detroit

Kids at Development Centers' Winston Head Start

No center knows the importance of facility quality more than the teachers and 100 families at Development Centers' Winston Head Start program.

While the malfunctioning boiler forced the center into a difficult move, the new Northrop site is a space they can grow into. "We have a couple of empty classrooms, which is exciting because we plan to lease one to a provider for before and after care," says Bond.

The potential for full day/full year programming could also boost the quality of service the program provides. "That's exciting and an added bonus," says Bond, "because it enhances the parents' ability to go to school or work."

And an adjacent building may become a community resource center. "The goal is to expand early childhood education opportunities to family education. And now there is room and the ability to do so."

Less recognized is the way a quality environment boosts teacher satisfaction in an industry choked by high turnover and low pay. "Instantly, morale changed," says Head Start program director Rhonda Mallory-Burns. The drive to continue services, despite facility challenges, was a growth experience for staff and teachers.

Rhonda Mallory-Burns, director of Earl Head Start and Head Start Program

"We need to focus on infrastructure, classrooms and the quality that we provide," Mallory-Burns says. "The facility is first. Teachers' qualifications are important, but you need to make sure it's a good facility, and there are so many different things involved in that process."

Reinvestment Fund lifts facility quality in Philadelphia

Like Detroit, Philadelphia is an old city filled with buildings not designed for childcare centers. Purpose-specific refurbishment is needed, but there's little public money coming in to fund facilities improvement—Pennsylvania hasn't seen a childcare subsidy increase in 10 years.
Bevin Parker-Cerkez -- courtesy of Reinvestment Fund
The climate, however, is ripe for change. "In 2013, we got more traction with the PreK for PA campaign to increase access for three- and four-year-olds to free pre-K across the state, regardless of income," says Bevin Parker-Cerkez, director of Reinvestment Fund Early Childhood Education and Healthy Communities. "Funders got excited."

Reinvestment Fund is a CDFI that boosts quality and expansion in existing early childhood providers to close the service gap in underserved districts.

In 2014, through a partnership with The William Penn Foundation, Reinvestment Fund launched an interactive map of Philadelphia childcare. The analysis showed a shortage of about 7,000 childcare seats, a fraction of Detroit's gap of about 28,000 seats.

The map revealed Philadelphia had its own challenge: access to quality care. While 70 percent of center-based childcare providers participate in Pennsylvania's quality rating system, only 21 percent are considered high quality.

Expanding facilities and operations quality became Reinvestment Fund's focus. In 2014, they launched Fund For Quality with a $4.5 million grant from The William Penn Foundation, $1.5 million from Reinvestment Fund, and support from other stakeholders. In 2016, The William Penn Foundation granted an additional $15 million, and Reinvestment Fund committed up to $7.6 million in loan capital.

In two years, Fund For Quality added 630 new high-quality early childhood seats—90 percent to children of low-income families—and plans to increase that to 1,500 by 2021.

"A lot of providers are small business operators without a lot of capital behind them. They make it work as they go," says Parker-Cerkez. "Programming is the No. 1 priority, as it should be. They understand the safety issues, but these don't always apply to the high quality piece."

Centers that boost facility quality see a corresponding jump in programming quality, even in unexpected ways. Parker-Cerkez says it might seem cost prohibitive to put a bathroom in every classroom, but when teachers aren't taking time to walk children down the hall, they can focus on classroom activities.

Reinvestment Fund believes, in other words, believe everything follows from facility quality. 

"We have to position it as life-safety improvements, which are integral," says Parker-Cerkez. "Especially in old building stock like in Philadelphia and Detroit."

What universal pre-kindergarten achieves in Cuyahoga County, Ohio

In 2007, stakeholders in Ohio's Cuyahoga County wanted to deliver the benefits of high quality early childhood education to every child, countywide. In the absence of federal early childhood education policy, the Office of Early Childhood and the public-private partnership Invest in Children launched a universal pre-kindergarten (UPK) program with the goal of increasing access to these kinds of centers. It's the first of its kind in Ohio.

Through a 100-member task force, the program sets rigorous, research-based quality standards for preschools, Head Start programs, and childcare centers, and provides support to meet benchmarks. Invest in Children partners with Case Western Reserve University to analyze every program's impact.

The effort is paying off. "We, like others, have clearly seen that the kids who are most disadvantaged are the ones that make the biggest gains, which is what you hope for," says Dr. Rebekah Dorman, director at Invest in Children.

On Ohio's mandated kindergarten readiness assessment, UPK students score, on average, three points higher than their non-UPK peers in the Cleveland school district. "Each point higher means a 12 percent greater chance of passing the third grade reading assessment. So that's a 36 percent higher chance," says Dorman.

In 2005, Ohio's proficient third grade readers were five times more likely to achieve college and career readiness than their non-proficient peers.

According to a 2016 report by Dorman, statewide UPK is not in Ohio's immediate future, but the state will require all center-based childcare programs and publicly-funded preschools to be high quality by 2025.

In the balance between quality staff, programming and facilities, Dorman recognizes the classroom environment's role. "Any adult can imagine that having a nice office space or home affects mood and how you function," says Dorman.

In addition to safety, the young child's environment must facilitate exploration. "They don't sit at a table all day. They move between spaces, so it's important how these spaces connect and how they are conducive to transitions."

[Learn more about Cuyahoga County's efforts in this video]

Operating as a nonprofit means fundraising for all-around quality in Atlanta

For most providers, a paper-thin budget barely covers the lease and utilities, teacher salaries, and programming costs. Facility improvements happen only when the roof leaks. Yet some providers find creative ways to break through financial barriers.

By operating like a traditional nonprofit, Sheltering Arms, a 129-year old Atlanta, Georgia provider, leverages relationships with foundations, applies for grants, and partners with private businesses to provide a comprehensive quality education to its students, nearly all of whom are below the poverty line.
Blythe Keeler Robinson -- courtesy of Sheltering Arms
"We have an annual fundraiser and make sure the right people are in the room to give," says president and CEO Blythe Keeler Robinson.

Sheltering Arms serves more than 3,600 children in 15 locations, and will open another location this year. The educational nonprofit owns some locations, while others are leased or co-located in schools, service agencies, or family resource centers.

The learning spaces are designed with the children and families' well-being in mind: abundant windows provide natural light and some classrooms directly access outdoor playgrounds. Learning spaces reflect the dignity of the families served. "Children come here and are in a beautiful space where they can sit with their friends, and eat, and play, and learn, and rest," Robinson says. "Our families need to experience that."

To sustain and scale, Robinson and her team hire people with strong business sense, rather than the typical seasoned educator, for executive and administrative roles. "We are not afraid to talk about the business of early childhood education," she says. "We need to understand finances, make smart decisions, manage risk and efficiencies. This is not our money and we are very careful how we spend. It all plays into the big picture."

Quality elements make a difference in an early learning environment

Effie Ellis Early Learning Center in Chicago, a case of great ECE center design - photo by Leslie Schwartz

Church basements are popular locations for childhood centers. But old church buildings often struggle with seepage, insufficient natural light, and heating problems. Ideally, locations are above grade to ease dampness, provide easy egress for quick evacuation, and are barrier-free, according to architect Jack Murchie, principal with Chicago-based SMNG A, Ltd.

Natural daylight, and lighting control as activities change, can create a pleasant ambiance. "During naptime, you can turn lights off, but if some children are active nearby, to adjust the lighting in a refined way, with dimmers or zones, impacts the perception of the space for the child," says architect Marta Gazda Auskalnis, an associate with Quinn Evans Architects.

Also important are quiet spaces where children can retreat, and entry spaces that accommodate a transition zone for children who struggle with separation. "We have always tried to integrate opportunities to create niches, nooks, and crannies."

Low windows allow children to expand their world beyond the primary room, a mix of carpeted and hard floors serve multiple purposes, and natural wood creates a homelike feel. Storage and furnishings should provide flexibility.

"As funding sources and needs of the community change, designing more uniform classrooms gives the opportunity for providers to change the mix of kids in the center, which, for nonprofits, is so important," says Auskalnis.

This special report is part the series "Early Education Matters" on the importance of facilities and programming in early childhood education. It is made possible with funding from IFF. Read more articles in the series here

All photos, except where mentioned, by Nick Hagen
Monica Duncan
Monica Duncan
Director of Early Childhood Services for IFF

What role does the facility play in quality early childhood education?

It sets the tone for the environment. The functionality, ease of access, and beauty of a facility presents as a space that is welcoming and inspirational. It supports the learning and development of children, while also valuing the importance of usage by teachers and other guests and staff. 

What impact can a facilities-forward perspective have on the urban early childhood education landscape? 

It could truly promote innovation in land usage, facility collaborations and building renovations. It could also set the standard of what learning environments for children should be reflective of regardless of their neighborhood or economic status and how academic success and pride in community can be cultivated.

How does IFF work to impact facility quality in Detroit? 

We are working to not only bring awareness to the importance of facility quality, but also to shift the mindset within the landscape. The facility (internally and externally) should be reflective of the dignity that those entering deserve. It is important to re-imagine and renovate space to reflect best practice. Specifically in early childhood, we are starting with best practices related to Indoor Environmental Quality: air quality, natural and artificial lighting, proper temperature and temperature controls, classroom size, space, and furnishings. We are working to support these types of facility transformations by using research, data, and our expertise to be the driver of our investments: professional development, grants, technical assistance, and capital.

In your opinion, why is facilities enhancement so often overlooked as a catalyst for growth and quality improvement in early childhood? 

Historically, operators have sought facilities that they can afford and that meet licensing standards. They simply do the best they can with what they find. They are also juggling so many aspects of the work, like staffing, fiscal management, curriculum fidelity, enrollment, and parent and community engagement. Adding facilities management is not within their typical scope of expertise. So now we sit in an opportunistic space of reframing the approach. It is so much better to select and design facilities through the lens of programming with the users at the center. 

In addition to IFF, who are the other major forces for change in facilities quality here in Detroit?

We are honored to be in partnership with several stakeholders, foundations, and organizations that care about the citizens of Detroit and their quality of life. They have supported and joined us in efforts to be catalysts of change of facility conditions within communities. We take the stance that all Detroit children and families deserve to reside in safe neighborhoods that they can be proud of, and that contain facilities of beauty.