A five-star start: How a rating system is improving quality in Detroit's early childhood centers

Skylar Brady's mother chose her daycare center. But her grandmother approved it.
"I know it's not just a place to house your child when you go to work," says LaRetha Wynn, a grandmother of two from Detroit. "The main factor for me was finding a place that teaches. What are they doing besides feeding and housing them while they are there?"
At Rachel's Day Care and Learning Center on Wyoming in Detroit, Wynn says her three-year-old granddaughter has blossomed socially and academically.
According to Research by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, "children who experience high-quality, stable child care engage in more complex play, demonstrate more secure attachments to adults and other children, and score higher on measures of thinking ability and language development."
Benefits begin at younger ages than traditional preschool programs, according to a report by James J. Heckman, a University of Chicago economics professor who specializes in the influence of early childhood development. Heckman estimates that each dollar spent on high quality programs for disadvantaged children from birth to age five results in a 13 percent return per year, compared to a seven to 10 percent return for three- to four-year olds.

Quality early childcare is clearly important. The question is how we get there in Detroit.
Working to improve quality

Kids and a provider at Child Star Development Center

In recognition of the importance of quality programming, the State of Michigan launched Great Start to Quality, a voluntary, online tool with information about the quality of their programs that licensed providers can share with parents. Each center or daycare home is listed on the website and quality-rated on a scale of one- to five-stars. 
As of this March, 8,431 programs participated statewide, representing 43 percent of licensed providers—574 had one or two stars, and 3,024 had three, four, or five stars. 
To make an informed decision when choosing childcare and preschool, experts encourage parents learn more about various types of providers, about how licensing differs from quality rating, and what goals are measured by the Great Start to Quality program.
There are three types of licensed or registered child care providers in Michigan, with classification depending on how many children the provider cares for. All are eligible to participate in Great Start to Quality.
Licensing regulations measure health and safety, but no the quality of the facility or programming. Great Start to Quality, however, helps parents measure providers against quality indicators using a 50-point system.
"The star system rates licensed childcare providers against five areas of indicators: staff quality and professional development, family partnerships, administration and management, curriculum, and instruction," says Jeremy Reuter, chief executive officer for Early Childhood Investment Corporation, a Lansing-based nonprofit which implements the Great Start to Quality program. "It was designed through a collaborative stakeholder environment and launched in 2011."
Great Start to Quality shines a light on the importance of quality instruction for the youngest children. But many people, including some parents, do not recognize this need. Child development experts know otherwise, regularly highlighting the brain's capacity for learning during a child's first 1,000 days
 Yvette Clark, director of Child Star Development Center
"We are not just babysitters," says Yvette Clark, director of Child Star Development Center on Seven Mile Road in Detroit. "We create an individual lesson plan for each child which describes every activity. Especially for infants on the floor, this is really important."
Providers earn quality points for meeting educational and professional development goals for teachers. This encourages the support of a highly educated staff, a measure directly related to instructional quality. 
"A big change for us is our teachers are using the High Scope curriculum and are eager to go to classes and learn what more they can do for the children," Clark says. "This opened up all sorts of resources. Some teachers started with just their [Child Development Associate credential], and now they are taking classes toward their bachelor's degrees, and two have just gotten their master's."
Getting to five stars
The best programs recognize the need to teach parents about child development, and engage parents to reinforce early educational goals at home. Parental expectations for kindergarten readiness have increased over the years, yet at-home activities to support these skills have not kept pace, according to a report by NAEYC.
"Parents don't always understand, so we have to train the parents, not only the child," says Waymond Hayes, program director for early education at Focus:HOPE Center for Children. "A lot of families live in low-income housing or an urban area where they have their own cultural perspective. We enhance their life within their cultural understanding, using their language and giving them tools to take with them to learn how to do what is best for their child and their family."
As a Great Start to Quality metric, family and community partnerships recognize a provider's commitment to provide parenting education, especially when delivered in a culturally appropriate way. 
"Our kids learn from each other and our parents learn from each other," says Hayes. 
Providers that service low-income families receive higher subsidy benefits if they have a higher star rating. This is important to the small business that depends on a consistent revenue stream, according to Reuter. Providers must achieve at least a three star rating to participate in Great Start Readiness, the state-funded preschool program for income-eligible four year olds. 
"This ties back to families and can be a marketing tool for [providers] to say they are a four star or five star center," Reuter says.
Clark agrees that parents respond to a five star rating. "Each center has the choice, and we elected to participate because we wanted everyone to know we have quality here at Child Star Development Center. The outcome is we have many people come to us and look in our classroom. They want their children to come here," she says. 
"We like to be able to let parents know that they can find the same service they would get in the suburbs right here in their own neighborhood at Seven Mile and Birwood."

This article 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 by Nick Hagen.
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Claire Charlton is a Metro Detroit freelance writer. Connect with her on FacebookInstagram, or Twitter.