Sunday, March 18, 2012
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Early learning stars

Elizabeth Strother

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From the RoundTable blog

It's Monday morning at Roanoke's Raleigh Court Presbyterian Church, and women with small children in tow are streaming downstairs to the basement, where all is organized chaos.

The church preschool is having an open house, and there's plenty of excitement in the air — due almost entirely to a freakish and beautiful March snowfall filling the sky with fat flakes that will soon melt into a landscape already dotted with flowers.

Knots of visitors wandering through halls and classrooms create far less of a stir. The children might be oblivious to what brought us here, but the moms who've dropped them off for the half-day program know: an interest in high-quality child care.

Raleigh Court Presbyterian, a Virginia Star Quality Initiative preschool, has earned four stars out of five in the state's voluntary rating system for licensed or, as in this case, religious-exempt day care centers and preschools.

So far, no center in Virginia has rated five stars, so that puts this program among the best of the best.

Even one star would be an achievement, demonstrating a center's commitment to standards for early childhood education that go beyond basic day care requirements for health and safety.

Raleigh Court is one of 20 VSQI sites working with Smart Beginnings Greater Roanoke to turn what science knows — that 85 percent of a child's core brain structure is formed before age 5 — into action: to make high-quality early learning the region's norm. It can change the course of people's lives.

Of the 20 sites, 13 have achieved a star rating: six have four stars, the other seven have three.

Kris Meyers, Smart Beginnings program manager, is on hand this Monday to point out environmental features and instructional practices at Raleigh Court that together make up one of four VSQI standards used to determine a program's star rating.

Classes have a daily schedule that allows lots of time for children to learn through active play, and the program provides an environment that encourages it — for example, in the variety of interest areas such as art, writing, science and nature, and dramatic play.

The classroom areas are separated by low, brightly painted shelves where materials are at child-eye level and labeled with pictures so children can get to them. And every classroom has a "cozy reading area," set off from noisier pursuits like playing with blocks.

The standards put a high value on diversity, and one of many small ways a program can improve is to stock reading areas with materials about diverse people and cultures.

This is a happy place.

Children's art hangs everywhere, on classroom walls and doors, along hallways. Many projects incorporate math or literacy skills: an Abe Lincoln height chart where children have measured their stature against the country's 16thpresident; children's drawings of the Once-ler from "The Lorax," with artists' comments noted by their teacher ("He has a mean face and he's trying to cut down the truffula trees").

Such things are elements of only one of VSQI's four standards, the most visible to visitors. Star ratings also are based on staff education, qualifications and training; teacher-child interactions; and staff-to-child ratios. Parents searching for quality child care can evaluate these things on their own. VSQI does the work for them.

Any preschool program — for profit or nonprofit, religious or secular, private or public — can apply to participate. Not all choose to, and if they did, demand would quickly outpace available resources.

That would be a nice problem to have.

While the state-funded Virginia Preschool Initiative does a fine job preparing 4-year-olds to enter kindergarten ready to learn, localities are offered only a limited number of VPI slots targeted to at-risk, mainly low-income, children.

The Star Quality Initiative is designed to ensure the same rich learning environment, starting even earlier, at day care centers and other preschools that share a commitment to quality. Local coalitions like Smart Beginnings Greater Roanoke evaluate the programs and provide mentoring and financial help, using locally raised funds supplemented by state dollars, to improve.

It's a challenging commitment.

How challenging becomes evident in a chat with Hollie Blankemeyer, director of Greenvale School, who with her center director happens to be part of the three-person tour.

Greenvale has a long history of offering full-day, good quality child care on a sliding fee scale that keeps it within reach of working parents. The school was established in 1934. It's been with Smart Beginnings only a year, and Blankemeyer is chairwoman of its Early Educator Action Team.

"It's taking the quality of child care to the next level," Blankemeyer says. "We have three stars, and we'll be rerated next April. ...

"We'll get mentoring again. We've grown. We're here, and we know where we want to be."

"It's hard for a site," Meyers later acknowledged. "They're upset whenever they're three stars."

"At Greenvale, they were only a few points off from getting a four star. That's how Raleigh Court was too when they started. They were glad when they got the four-star rating, and that's what parents care about, too. But I would prefer to talk about what they are working on."

The initiative was created with the idea that even a one-star program offers good quality.

"In the state, there are no one stars, and there are no five stars yet," Meyers said. That indicates programs have to be pretty confident about what they're doing before they ask to be rated. And, she said, "It indicates the state has truly set some high standards. It's not going to pass out five stars."

Virginia's Star Quality Initiative can raise the bar on early childhood education, but success will depend on consumers demanding it.

A few promising signs are starting to break through.

"More parents are becoming aware of it," Blankemeyer says.

"I see it happening a little," Meyers agreed, "with the things we've done, pointing out how that's a sign of a good program for children. That you can be assured a star-rated program has been through an assessment ... and is getting support to continually improve."

Raleigh Court Presbyterian asks parents how they learned about its program. "Meg [Fitzwater, the program director] said three wrote they heard about the star rating piece," Meyers added. "It's starting to be something people have heard about."

Slowly.

Spread the word.

Strother is a member of The Roanoke Times editorial board.

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