Benu Chhabra is the new president of the Family Child Care of Contra Costa County Association and runs a child care program in Concord that is popular with parents – it has a two-year waiting list. Yet in 2014, evaluators for a new California initiative that rates child care centers and preschools gave Chhabra’s program the lowest possible score. Fast-forward two years: In the county’s newest ratings, delivered in June, Chhabra earned the top score.
The story of how Chhabra’s 16-year-old child care program went from the lowest rating to the highest offers a window into California’s Quality Rating and Improvement System, or QRIS. The statewide system launched in 2014 to establish a baseline measurement of child care and preschool quality, to help parents decide where to send their children and to help providers improve their services.
The system is focused so far on programs serving lower-income children and those learning English or with other special needs. It is in place or being implemented in 48 counties, and as of February, 3,300 family child care businesses or preschools had been rated, out of more than 50,000 statewide. In Contra Costa County, one of the first to start using the system, 109 out of more than 900 facilities have been rated.
“We’re really focused on the ‘i’ in QRIS,” said Erin Gabel, deputy director of First 5 California. A tobacco-tax funded agency that advocates for children ages 0-5, First 5 plays a lead role in the program in each county where it is operating. Assessors from First 5 conduct the evaluations. The organization also arranges for coaching, and for follow-up monitoring.
Programs are rated on teacher-child relationships; environment, which means not only safety but the availability of educational materials; teacher and/or site director qualifications; child skills and curriculum; health and development; and teacher-student ratios. The California Department of Education set those standards, but counties can add their own, such as family engagement and the number of bilingual staff. After they are rated in the individual categories, the programs are given an overall score ranging from 2 to 5.
“We’re really focused on the ‘i’” in Quality Rating and Improvement System,” said Erin Gabel, deputy director of First 5 California.
Of 18 family child care centers ranked in Contra Costa County in 2014 – among the first groups to be evaluated statewide – Chhabra’s center, Benu Chhabra Family Child Care, was one of five to receive a 2.
Chhabra said she was unfazed by her score, and was motivated to make any changes necessary to better it.
“As a teacher, I always think that there is room for improvement,” she said.
On a recent day in May at Chhabra’s child care center, before the new scores were released, a racially and ethnically diverse group of children 18 months to 4 years old practiced yoga and sign language exercises before lunch, then charged into a well-groomed yard where a play structure sat on a bed of soft rubber tiles.
Watching Chhabra tend to her young charges was Monica Joseph, a quality improvement coach with Contra Costa’s Child Care Council. Each program participating in the rating system gets a coach, and Joseph has worked with Chhabra since 2014 to remedy deficiencies in her program identified through the evaluation.
Joseph has worked with Chhabra about twice a month, she said, and “constantly” communicated with her via telephone and email. It’s an intensive process during which coaches build deep relationships with providers, Joseph said.
Joseph said Chhabra’s is a “model program” because her families have a good understanding of what Chhabra does to care for and educate their children and why. Assessors said Chhabra was “mastering” the crucial category of teacher-child relationships. She was implementing measures to improve the environment of her center and taking steps toward improving her early childhood education qualifications, the assessors said. But Chhabra scored lower in the area of health and development, which includes making sure children get annual vision and dental check-ups. Also, her curriculum was not as rigorous or flexible as it could have been, Joseph said, in large part because Chhabra didn’t have a system in place to assess children’s development and progress.
“We wanted to work on a more intensive curriculum and more opportunities through the day for the children to have more engaged conversations, (for Chhabra) to ask more open-ended questions,” Joseph said.
Joseph’s approach was twofold. She worked with Chhabra on how to introduce parents to the importance of regular health screenings. And she encouraged Chhabra to start using the Desired Results Development Profile, an assessment tool mandatory in publicly funded child care and preschool programs but not in private centers. The voluminous assessment, which requires updates through the year, is criticized by some for being unwieldy and inefficient in improving programs. But Chhabra, who took classes in using it, finds it useful, and Joseph said it has helped improve her ranking. With an effective way of assessing the children’s progress, Joseph said Chhabra can also tell where they are falling short and need extra attention, and adjust her curriculum to meet that need.
“It made my job easier, it made it easier to meet their (children’s) needs,” Chhabra said.
Khulood Jamil, who started her Pleasant Hill child care business, Khulood’s Child Care, in 1996, was also in the first group of childcare programs to be evaluated in Contra Costa County. She received a score of 4 in 2014. Her otherwise stellar scorecard indicated “mastery” or “exceeding” in four of five categories but was lower in child skills and curriculum, with assessors saying she needed to improve in observing and documenting how children were developing.
She was aiming for a new score of 5 partly because “it’s a marketing tool,” she said. “I show it to parents.”
Professional development is key to Contra Costa’s program of supporting providers’ efforts to improve. The county’s QRIS budget is $2.4 million, a combination of state and First 5 funds; most of it pays for stipends and reimbursements for classes, on-site trainings and ongoing coaching.
“It’s really an essential part, the professional development and the coaching,” said Sean Casey, executive director of First 5 Contra Costa. “Not only to train people and make sure they get their required coursework, but to make sure they’re actually applying it in the classroom.”
Patricia Haley, owner of Ms. Trish’s Preschool and Daycare in Concord, has worked to boost the score of 3 she received in 2014. Assessors said she needed to focus on curriculum and child health and development, although she was “mastering” or “exceeding” in teacher-child relationships, environment and teacher qualifications.
“In every area, I understand more and more about childhood development,” said Benu Chhabra on the day she received her new rating.
On a recent visit, she pointed to a table full of child development and curriculum materials she studies and others that she uses to assess children’s progress. They testify to skills she’s building, she said, and also to the equal weight the system places on improvement.
“I’m very good, I’m a professional. Why not try for the five star?” Haley said. “And everything they’re asking of us is good. It’s fair.”
Working with Haley that day was Suzanne Di Lillo. The early care and education liaison for the Contra Costa Office of Education and the county’s QRIS program rater, Di Lillo analyzes all the provider assessments and has the final say on rankings. She also visits each provider at least once a year. She spoke with Haley about helping a couple acknowledge their daughter’s speech impediment “in a way that is respectful.” Then she and Haley discussed how to get doctors to complete a form about children’s vision and dental checkups, a step they weren’t taking.
“Oh, lazy doctors,” said Di Lillo, a veteran educator, sympathizing. She marked the form in red pen, and said, “Try using a highlighter.”
It’s a continual process of working collaboratively with providers to make them more effective at what they do, Di Lillo said.
“We very much endeavor to portray all this energy and effort as a professional journey,” she said. The goal isn’t just compliance, but an increased focus on how and why to take steps that will improve children’s care and education, she said.
In June, nearly two years after they first were ranked, the first child care centers and preschools evaluated through the quality rating system in Contra Costa County learned their new scores. Jamil’s ranking had risen from 4 to 5, making hers one of six family child care centers in the county to reach the top of the scale. None did in 2014. Haley’s ranking rose from 3 to 4, one of 11 family child care programs to reach that score, up from five centers in 2014.
On the day she received her new ranking, Chhabra said, “In every area, I understand more and more about childhood development – and I am able to make more connections with the parents to tell them how their child is doing and how to work as a team to make improvements.”