An evaluation program designed to identify high-quality day-care and preschool programs across the state shows very few kid-care centers rated three stars or higher in the Tucson area.
First Things First rolled out its five-star rating system this week through the website QualityFirstAZ.com
Using the site, parents can search for a program by location, age of child, the star-rating and provider type — home-based or center.
The organization’s star ratings range from Rising Star (1) to Highest Quality (5).
And even though most Tucson service providers fall into the one- or two-star categories, First Things First evaluators say even programs in those categories are considered to be committed to quality improvement, primarily because the program is voluntary. Those at the top of the scale have been identified as “far exceeds quality standards.”
In all, there are 185 Tucson-area programs participating in Quality First, which provides coaching, resources and funding in an effort to improve the quality of early-learning experiences throughout the state.
While nearly half of the Tucson programs have not yet been rated because they have not been enrolled in the program for long enough, of those that were rated, nearly 19 percent were considered to be quality, meaning they earned three or more stars.
Lisette DeMars, community outreach liaison for First Things First in Pima County, isn’t concerned by the relatively low number of “quality” programs.
“It’s to be expected,” DeMars said. “When we first started enrolling centers three years ago, there were those at the bottom of the quality spectrum where we were hoping to make the biggest impact, but that also takes the greatest amount of time.”
DeMars is confident the majority of the programs earning two stars or below — 77 percent of the rated programs here — are on their way to higher ratings .
“The big message is, anyone participating in improving quality is a good thing,” DeMars said. “We don’t want anyone to be ashamed because they got one or two stars. We want them to be proud that they’re committed to quality improvement.”
Statewide, the trend is similar, with about 24 percent of rated programs earning three stars or more, while the vast majority of the remaining providers are in the two-star range.
Each program is assessed using what research shows are the key components of quality early care, including adult-child interactions, learning environments and staff qualifications.
There is a correlation between quality and cost — in Tucson, a high-quality program could eat up more than $6,500 of a family’s annual income.
That cost tends to go toward hiring teachers with degrees in early childhood education, implementing a curriculum focused on literacy, providing developmentally appropriate materials and an engaging learning environment.
But the importance of a quality early experience is crucial to success once a child enters kindergarten.
“Children who have quality early education experiences are more prepared when they enter kindergarten, and do better in school,” said Pamela Powell, an associate professor of literacy and early childhood at Northern Arizona University and vice chair of the First Things First board. “Skills like motivation, self-control, focus and self-esteem are rooted in early childhood and are learned from interactions with adults.”
Ninety percent of a child’s brain develops by the age of 5, but 80 percent of that development takes place by the age of 3.
Additionally, children exposed to high-quality learning in their first five years are 80 percent more likely to graduate from high school, 70 percent less likely to commit a violent crime by age 18 and 40 percent less likely to be held back a grade, First Things First statistics show.
First Things First is working to address the financial barrier many parents face by providing funding to Quality First programs for improvement efforts, like scholarships for children and incentives for providers to improve classrooms and learning materials, without the cost being passed on to families.
Like many efforts, resources for Quality First are limited, so First Things First does not have the capacity to enroll every provider in the state. If a provider isn’t on the list, it does not mean that they are not quality.
“It’s our sincere hope that the information at QualityFirstAZ.com sparks conversations — between parents and providers and across communities statewide — about the importance of quality early learning and about the stake we all share in improving the quality of child care and preschool for our children,” said First Things First CEO Sam Leyvas.