Saturday, August 25, 2007

State creates ratings for early childhood centers

"Texas has become the first state to rate preschools, day-care centers and Head Start programs on how well they prepare children for kindergarten." -Angela

State creates ratings for early childhood centers
Texas first in nation to assess how well pre-kindergarten programs teach kids
05:36 AM CDT on Friday, August 24, 2007

By STACI HUPP / The Dallas Morning News


Pam Flentroy teaches Adalia Loredo, 3, how to use scissors at the Bock ChildCare Group Center in Dallas, one of 19 area centers to get state certification.

Texas has become the first state to rate preschools, day-care centers and Head Start programs on how well they prepare children for kindergarten.

State officials hope the new School Readiness Certification System will transform a parent's search for a good preschool from a game of chance into more of a science. The system was launched under an education law sponsored by state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo.
Also Online
Report: See a list of certified classrooms (.pdf)
BACKGROUND: The ratings system grew out of a state law sponsored by state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo. The law directed the Texas State Center for Early Childhood Development to develop a certification system with grant money from the Texas Education Agency.

WHO PARTICIPATES: Public and private preschools, day-care centers and federal Head Start programs

HOW IT WORKS: Pre-kindergarten programs apply for voluntary certification for each classroom. Classrooms that make the grade get a certificate and one-year stamp of approval.

THE MEASURING TOOL: Ratings rely on scores from the Texas Primary Reading Inventory, a test for kindergartners. Children also are graded on a scale of one to five in social skills. A classroom passes if at least 80 percent of its children fare well on both tests.

COST: $4 million in state money to start the system; about $1 million a year to run it
The goal is to improve teaching in public and private pre-kindergarten programs and boost the odds that children will enter kindergarten ready to learn.

"We are the only state in the nation that now links the certification or rating of an early childhood classroom to what's happening in that classroom and how it predicts kindergarten readiness," said Susan Landry, director of the Texas State Center for Early Childhood Development, which created the certification system using about $4 million in state money.

Critics worry that the system may lead to burdensome pressures on young children and say that because the program is voluntary, it doesn't go far enough in making schools accountable.

The early childhood development center, a branch of the University of Texas, did a test run on about 1,000 pre-kindergarten classrooms across Texas this year. According to results released Thursday, 450 of them – including 19 in the Dallas area – earned the state's seal of approval.

About 300 classrooms were disqualified because of various problems, including paperwork glitches, state officials said. The rest of the classrooms didn't measure up.

The certification system is voluntary. Once the system is up and running statewide, an online database will tell parents whether a pre-kindergarten classroom has the state seal of approval, which is valid for one year.

That information would have come in handy for D'Rinda Randall, who scouted preschools for her 3-year-old son this year.

"That way, you know what you're getting into," said Mrs. Randall, a mother of three in Plano. "At this age, I don't want a day care. I want somebody that loves him, but I want somebody who cares about teaching him."

The certification system tracks children from preschool to kindergarten. It then uses kindergartners' scores on reading and social skills tests to determine whether the pre-kindergarten classrooms they were in the year before prepared them.

Children unprepared
Children should come into kindergarten able to identify some letters of the alphabet and read basic words, such as "cat," Dr. Landry said. They also should get along with other children and follow directions.

In Dallas, educators say too many children show up for kindergarten never having picked up a pencil.

"It's a challenge for those who've not had a lot of experience with books," said Beth Steerman, director of early childhood education for the Dallas school district.

Unlike the state's ratings system for public schools, early childhood programs that don't make the grade won't face penalties. Instead, the system sets aside money for teacher training. Initially, the system will cost about $1 million a year to operate.

Most children under 5 are in day care, which is why those programs are included in the new system. But many day-care centers have low standards and poor employee pay.

Workers at licensed child-care centers are required to have only a high school diploma and eight hours of training. That compares with 1,500 hours of training needed to become a licensed barber in Texas, said Susan Hoff, president and chief executive officer of ChildCareGroup, a Dallas nonprofit that is helping to implement the new certification program.

"There's a lot of disparity," Ms. Hoff said. "It's pretty frightening when you know how much happens in terms of brain development in those first five years, and you know what the system is currently like."

Day-care centers already are subject to state licensing and inspection laws that focus on health and safety. The certification system deals only with education-related issues.

While the program is voluntary, Dr. Landry predicts that most preschool, day-care and Head Start programs will apply for certification of their classrooms if enough parents start looking for seals of approval.

"That will make it competitive," she said. "I think it can be very effective because parents are going to be basing their decisions on, 'Who's got this?'"

The certification system does have its share of skeptics.

Lyn Voegeli, who runs private preschools in Richardson and Frisco, worries that the pressures tied to accountability in public schools will trickle down. She doesn't want to see preschoolers poring over worksheets instead of a puzzle or a book.

"It shouldn't be the constant drill of information that unfortunately too many kindergartens are becoming," Ms. Voegeli said.

Others say the system lacks enough accountability to make it a catalyst for change.

"There's no force of law to make a preschool participate," said state Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano. "The most value that it brings is informational. It is a good tool for parents, but will parents avail themselves to the tool? That's the question."

State officials expect about 3,500 classrooms to sign up for the certification system this fall and 1,000 more to join later in the school year. Most of the classrooms judged in the system's test run were from public schools, but day-care and Head Start programs were well represented, state officials said.

A good foundation

Bock ChildCareGroup Center in Oak Cliff was among the programs that made the cut.

Esmeralda Salinas didn't need the state stamp of approval to know that Bock has helped her 4-year-old daughter, Destiny. Ms. Salinas went to the Bock center as a child.

Ms. Salinas said she has seen her daughter evolve since starting at Bock. Destiny showed up at the center a year ago with few basic skills and a lot of attitude, her mother said. Today, she knows the alphabet, knows that the skirt she wore Thursday was purple and understands who's in charge when Mom and Dad aren't around.

"It was difficult for me to put her in somebody else's hands," Ms. Salinas said. "But I know that they actually teach the children. That way she'll be prepared for what kindergarten has in store for her."

States are pumping more money into pre-kindergarten programs because research shows an early start can narrow the educational gap between poor and wealthier students.

But Texas is ahead of the curve in holding the programs accountable, said Jonathan Plucker, an educational psychologist who heads Indiana University's Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

"It makes perfect sense that we put some of these things in place for accountability purposes and for parents," Dr. Plucker said.

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