Getting a Great Start

Published on February 1, 2017 in

We’re equipping child care providers with the tools they need to support the children in their lives.

Editor’s note: Great Start to Quality services, offered by United Way, are available to any registered or licensed in-home  or center-based child care facility in Macomb, Oakland, Washtenaw and Wayne counties. Dial 877-614-7328 to call the Wayne-Oakland-Macomb resource center to speak with a quality improvement specialist. After a self-assessment survey is submitted and the facility receives an initial star rating, it is eligible for free consultation services.

Toys, puppets and books comprise a colorful landscape at Lorna Parks’ home, creating a nurturing environment that delights and inspires the six children enrolled in her House of Joy Child Care.

On any given day, Lorna can be seen reading and playing with the children in her care. No two days are the same at House of Joy.

Lorna wouldn’t have it any other way. The love she has for the children she cares for shines through.  She sings the alphabet while they wash their hands, feeds them lunch while patiently teaching them table manners, and reads with them, offering happy words of encouragement as they recognize numbers, shapes and colors.

“I know not to be married to my schedule, because a typical day is based on what the children’s needs are,” Lorna said.

Finding quality, affordable child care can be a stressful endeavor for parents, and the need is great. In Michigan, it’s estimated that 277,495 children under the age of 6 live in the tri-county area, according to the American Community Survey.

Yet only 50,000 of these children are served by child care providers that are rated by Great Start to Quality, Michigan’s quality rating and improvement system. This means tens of thousands of children are in a non-rated child care setting. These children may be missing out on the day-to-day physical and mental activities young children need in order to meet critical learning milestones.

At United Way, we believe a good quality of life can be achieved when people are healthy, educated and financially stable. To reach those goals, children need to start learning well before stepping into a classroom. If they fall behind their peers before school begins, they may never catch up.

“A child’s brain is mostly developed before kindergarten begins,” said Becky Adler, one of several  quality improvement consultants at United Way for Southeastern Michigan. “Early childhood education is an extremely important part of any pre-kindergarten child care.”

Because of the complexity and scope of this work, the State of Michigan has partnered with United Way for Southeastern Michigan to help improve the quality of child care providers in the tri-county region. As a resource center for Macomb, Oakland, Washtenaw and Wayne counties, we offer child care trainings and one-on-one personal support. Each year, 5,000 childcare providers access United Way coaching sessions, group classes, and materials to enhance the quality of their care.

Kids at House of Joy child care go for a learning walk through the neighborhood. Lorna Parks (right) and her assistants point out flowers and colors and have the kids touch tree trunks to learn what a rough surface feels like.

Lorna is one of several providers Becky visits monthly.

“Lorna is wonderful,” Becky said. “If you give her an opportunity, she wants to jump on it. She wants to learn more, and she’s always looking for ways to improve the quality of her program and to help the parents.”

During their first meeting, Becky looked over Lorna’s goals and helped her create a quality improvement plan for House of Joy.

As part of participating in Great Start, Lorna is able to ask Becky questions, and she receives resources like books, pamphlets and DVDs. Lorna can then lend support to her community by offering those resources to parents, educating them on a wide range of early childhood topics, like proper sleeping procedures for children, nutrition tips and difficult matters such as abuse. Parents are free to peruse the materials in the dedicated resource room where Lorna stores them, or they can check them out and take them home.

“You can never have enough resources, because you never know what might come up or what the parents might need, so it’s a win-win,” Lorna said.

House of Joy has a four-star rating, putting it among the top caregivers in the area. She said she values her relationship with Becky.

“It is absolutely wonderful, especially for micro-providers who need another ear or eye to run something past or who have another idea or another way of doing something,” Lorna said.

Lorna also participates in training offered by United Way, which focuses on topics like building relationships with parents, praise versus encouragement, first aid and CPR, professional development opportunities and more. The workshops are offered in classrooms, online and via correspondence.

“I try to attend as many workshops and classes as I possibly can because it’s good to stay abreast on the latest and to know and do what’s best for all the children,” Lorna said. “When you grow, your children grow.”

Lorna and the kids have fun on a play apparatus, which Lorna was able to purchase through a Quality Improvement Grant from Great Start to Quality.

A costly dilemma

The average cost of child care in Southeastern Michigan is about $1,000 per month per child, according to the Michigan Department of Education. In addition, many facilities fail to offer the quality that growing children need in order to develop properly. It’s all part of a vicious circle, said Jenny Callans, Ph. D., Child Development Director  at United Way for Southeastern Michigan.

“Child care doesn’t pay enough to attract people with the proper credentials; people therefore work in child care more as babysitters,” she said. “And many parents can’t afford to pay the prices commanded by four-star and five-star centers.”

The difference in child care provided by a rated facility and an unrated facility can be vast.

“Every single adult who watches kids (their own, someone else’s, for money, for free, in their own home, in the kids’ home or in a center) should understand what quality care is,” Jenny said.

“Hint: It’s not a screen! It’s an active interaction between adults and children, with conversation, reading, playing and outdoor time.”

Further complicating the matter, the Great Start to Quality rating system is not mandatory, and it doesn’t necessarily lead to more income for providers. The increase in pay providers may see with a star rating “is not enough to offset the costs of actually doing what’s required to increase quality, like hiring more qualified staff or purchasing appropriate educational toys,” Jenny said.

That’s why most of classes and educational resources offered by United Way are free, as well as specialized coaching sessions and networking opportunities for providers to support one another. In 2016, these efforts helped increase the number of quality child care seats in Southeastern Michigan by 23,000.

But in order to make an even bigger impact, the State of Michigan would need to expand the income threshold for parents who receive child care subsidies and work to increase wages for child care providers.

A high-quality center with a five-star rating can earn a subsidy of up to $855 per month per child, while a facility that is not ranked can only receive up to $675 per month per child. These subsidies help parents close the gap on the cost differential between rated and unrated facilities, and they also allow rated caregivers to increase the amount they charge per child without negatively impacting parents.

Lorna makes sure the children in her care get plenty of time outdoors. A child’s work is to play, according to Becky Adler, Quality Improvement Consultant at United Way. “That is their job,” she said.

Never a normal day

For Lorna, the extra work has been worth it.

“It’s very important to have early literacy and numerical thinking,” Lorna said, but she also puts a heavy emphasis on play. One morning at House of Joy, the kids tossed colorful cloths in the air and caught them as Lorna asked the children to describe the colors they saw. They later retreated to the basement, where some kids placed metal balls into a plastic contraption and watched them roll to the bottom while bells and whistles sounded, while others played with blocks nearby. They reconvened for story time, and Lorna read “1-2-3 Look At Me” as the kids called out the numbers on each page.

“Trust children to learn — they are like sponges,” Becky said.

“They have absorbent minds, so don’t be afraid to give them a little challenge. Don’t make things easy for them, and don’t do things for them. Let them explore, because that’s how they learn.

“When a child is pre-kindergarten, their work is to play. That is their job. They’re learning all kinds of stuff, including those great social-emotional skills they’re going to need when they get older, as well as those foundations for the education they need and the skills they need in order to go off to kindergarten ready.”

Lorna knows she’s making a difference in the lives of her children, and she appreciates the role United Way has played in helping her make that difference: “I’ve benefited to the third power. It’s just amazing to me.”