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Written by:  Karen M. Alley
Date: September 1, 2008

Joyce Robinson, director of The Happy Face School in Raleigh, is proud that her center has earned five stars since the rating program started in 2000. "We've gotten our five-star license three times," Robinson says. "Child care is a lot different than it used to be, and this system helps ensure that the teachers are educated and able to work well with the children."

While Robinson's track record makes it sound easy, the requirements for achieving a five-star rating are pretty intense, and the ratings are important for day-care centers when it comes to attracting parents. "These days, the Internet is such a big factor in almost any sort of research, that when parents go to look for quality child care, they begin by searching for five-star schools," says Allison Frye, director of the Goddard School in Matthews, N.C. And that's just one reason why having a five-star rating is important. It's also a valuable tool when it comes to marketing a school, talking about the school to prospective parents and receiving public recognition.

While the rating system is extremely important for day-care providers, it's also an important tool for parents. If you've searched for child care for your kids, or are looking into day-care options as you anticipate the birth of your first child or plan to re-enter the workforce, you've probably used the star-rated license system as a guide. But what does it really mean?

The history of the stars

The North Carolina Division of Child Development instituted the star-rated licensing program as a way to offer parents more information on the quality of available child-care options. All child-care centers and family child-care homes that are licensed now also receive a star rating, with one star being the minimum.The license is renewed every three years. Religious-sponsored programs continue to operate under a notice of compliance, unless they request a star-rated license.

When the rating system was first introduced, the assessment looked at three areas: staff education, program standards and compliance history. After a revision in 2005, the compliance history was removed.

"They took this requirement off to make the ratings more weighted on staff education and program standards," explains Stephanie Rietschel, former director of the quality improvement project for Randolph Community College, a program that provided technical assistance to help centers improve their ratings.

The compliance history is assessed every six months by the health department, so centers are held to a certain standard even though it's no longer part of the star-rating assessment. Centers have to have at least a 75 percent grade in compliance history to remain open.

"Taking off the compliance history was just a way to eliminate the chance that a center would be meeting the program standards and have a really well-educated staff but overlook something simple in the compliance history and have their star-rating lowered," Rietschel says.

Since the revision, the two components give equal weight to staff education and program standards. For staff education, centers can earn more credit if employees have gone beyond the basic requirements of training. The program standards part of the assessment looks at aspects of the center such as the staff-to-child ratio, the square footage per child, the materials available for kids to play with, and sanitation issues such as how often kids and teachers wash their hands and if they wash them consistently.

Looking at the entire experience

While it's important to pay attention to the star rating of your child's center, it's not the only thing parents need to look at. "North Carolina provides the star-rated licensing program to us as a guide, and I think parents should look at it as just that, an indicator of quality," says Erin Reiter, director of family support for Child Care Services Association in Raleigh.

So what else should a parent consider when choosing a child-care center? Here is some advice from professionals around the state.

First, be sure to visit each center that you are considering. "Make an unannounced visit and ask for a tour," Rietschel says. "While you're there, make sure they take you through all the classrooms and watch to see if the teachers are happy and that the students are engaged, either with materials, the teachers or each other."

Katherine Davis, director of The Growing Place in Asheboro, suggests looking at the environment. "While you can't really change your building, whether it's old or new, you can make sure that it's clean and organized. And if it is an older building, check that current safety precautions have been met."

Staying up to code also is important. "When visiting a center, make sure they have a handbook for you and their license displayed," says Faye Anderson, owner of Faye's Daycare in Greensboro for 18 years. "You should also make sure they're following the rules as far as health and safety, and provide good, nutritional meals and snacks."

Resources for parents

There are plenty of resources in North Carolina to turn to for help when it's time to make that big decision of where your child will spend part of his days away from you. Most parents will start their search online, and the North Carolina Division of Child Development has a Child Care Facility Search, which is a good place to start. You can search by ZIP code, type of center and age of child, and the results will tell you the facility's rating, the services they provide and a link to a Web site if available. Carolina Parent also offers an online directory of child-care facilities and preschools.

It's also a good idea to visit your local Child Care Resource and Referral Agency (CCR&R). Child Care Services Association, which is a nationally recognized nonprofit agency working to ensure affordable, accessible, high-quality child care to all families, provides child-care resource and referral services to the Triangle.

"We want parents to come to us when looking for child care," Reiter says. "Our services are free, and we're here to help." In addition to resources, checklists and advice on what to look for, representatives at your local CCR&R have access to a database of all child-care facilities with the ability to do a more customized search, helping find quality centers based on factors such as proximity to parents' work, classroom size and services provided.

Of course, some of your best resources will be other parents. "When I was looking for child care for my now 1-year-old daughter, I talked with friends before calling the centers," says Kim Raper of Durham. "The biggest factor influencing my decision was finding the best quality day care for a good price, and while doing my research I found centers don't list pricing in their ads." Raper was able to use her friends to find centers within her price range before spending a lot of time visiting places she couldn't afford.

When it comes to choosing a child-care facility, the most important advice is to follow your instincts. "I tell people to go with their gut feeling," Frye says. "Star ratings are important, but they don't always tell the whole story. Once you have your rating, it's good for three years, but in this industry things can change quickly. For example, if you have a big turnover, the level of staff education could change dramatically overnight."

Be sure to visit, walk through the school, pay attention to how you feel about the place and talk with the teachers. If you feel comfortable, your child will feel comfortable, too.

Karen Alley is the Web editor for Piedmont Parent, a sister publication of Carolina Parent.



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