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.”
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.
Stacy 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 the reality 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.
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.”
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.