There is no universally agreed upon definition of quality early learning programs. There are, however, lots of indicators that can help parents and guardians know when they have found a good one.
Many states and many Early Learning Coalitions across Florida have come up with Quality Rating Improvement Systems (QRIS) that are intended to help both child-care providers and their clients know where they are on a program quality continuum.
The Early Learning Coalition of Southwest Florida is joining that group, and is pleased to announce the introduction of the Southwest Florida Stars program.
Early-learning/early-care providers in Collier, Glades, Hendry and Lee counties under contract with the coalition may now voluntarily participate in the Southwest Florida Stars program. If they choose to join, their program will be assessed on those components of early-learning programs that have demonstrated positive impact on child outcomes.
These components include: health and safety conditions; the learning environment and interactions between teachers and students in the classroom; the use of screening and child assessment results to plan appropriate curriculum; the extent of professional development participation and the quality of the teaching staff; adherence to professional responsibilities; and the extent of family and community relationships that the child-care facility maintains.
The compiled ratings in each of these six areas determines a child-care provider's ranking from one star to five stars, with the five-star rating indicating the highest quality facility.
Child-care providers, in return for participating in the Southwest Florida Stars program, can receive memberships in early-childhood organizations, scholarships for further professional development, discounts on services offered by the coalition such as required fingerprinting and background screening and training verifications, business cards, marketing assistance, scholarships for conference attendance and resource awards of potentially $1,000 annually to improve program quality.
Initial Southwest Florida Stars ratings for participating child-care providers will not be available until the summer of 2013. During this current roll-out year providers will receive their initial ratings in each of the six areas listed above and support from Early Learning Coalition mentors to create and implement program quality improvement plans.
A full-fledged Southwest Florida Stars program should be of significant use not only to the clients of early-care and early-learning programs, but also to community and business leaders. They eventually will have a resource available that will tell them in a snapshot about the quality of care offered in Collier, Glades, Hendry and Lee counties to working parents and their children. The availability and quality of child care in any community is a function of adults' abilities to report to their jobs relaxed in the knowledge that their children are in healthy and safe environments engaged in appropriate learning activities, and overseen by competent professionals. Quality child care is one of the required variables that must be in place to attract that talented workforce needed for our evolving and diversified economy.
The staffs of the Early Learning Coalition of Southwest Florida and its board of directors intend to make this local QRIS — the Southwest Florida Stars — a valuable resource to help communities understand how well their youngest and most vulnerable students are supported. The research is pretty clear at this juncture; kindergarten is too late, and enrollment in high-quality early learning programs can positively impact the course of a life.