Public Program Delivers Seal of Approval to Private Pre-K Schools

Meir Rinde | April 6, 2016 | Education
Grow NJ Kids program completes first evaluation, awards three stars to Newark early-education facility

Credit: Meir Rinde
Teacher Fernetta Lewis reads "Hello Baby!" to her students at Clinton Hill Community & Early Childhood Center in Newark.
For more than two years, the state has been working to create a uniform rating system for private preschools. The effort aims to shed light on the murky question of preschool center quality, spur improvements, and help parents as they decide where to send their children for daycare and early education.

The program, Grow NJ Kids, is still years away from its goal of rating 1,800 preschool providers on a scale of one to five stars. But this week the Department of Human Services announced that a preschool in Newark, Clinton Hill Community and Early Childhood Center, has become the first to make it through the lengthy evaluation and improvement process and receive a rating, in this case three stars.

The celebration comes with some caveats. As an Abbott preschool, Clinton Hill already meets strict standards and receives state funding; critics say the program should focus more on struggling non-Abbott schools. In addition, Grow NJ Kids comes with little new funding to help schools make recommended improvements, like renovating substandard facilities.

The Department of Human Services, which runs Grow NJ Kids in partnership with the departments of Education, Children and Families, and Health, is waiting until more centers get through the process before it starts publishing ratings online and publicizing the program website. Officials say they don’t want the first few rated schools to be overwhelmed by a surge of interest from families eager to enroll their kids.

The agency held a low-key event at the Clinton Hill center this week to recognize the school’s success and demonstrate the impact Grow NJ Kids is already having, particularly at centers attended by low-income children, who have the most to gain from high-quality pre-K programs. Officials toured the center’s five classrooms, observed and played with the 85 students, and gave the director a $1,000 check.

Credit: Meir Rinde
Acting Human Services Commissioner Elizabeth Connolly talks with students at Clinton Hill Community & Early Childhood Center in Newark.
Acting Human Services commissioner Elizabeth Connolly said she expects providers’ interest in the voluntary program will grow as they see how a stamp of quality from the state stimulates parents’ interest.

“Systemwide, once you have a few rated programs, more and more other programs will want to emulate them, when they see the great things that are happening there,” she said.

The state launched a pilot version of Grow NJ Kids in 2013 and subsequently received a four-year, $44 million federal Race to the Top grant to expand the program statewide. The Obama administration has sought to emphasize early-childhood education, citing studies that show that high-quality pre-K improves poor students’ academic achievement and reduces crime, poverty, and other social problems.

The Grow NJ Kids process begins with a self-assessment to establish each center’s strengths and gaps. It provides professional development for teachers, family workers, and administrators, as well as visits by expert consultants and grants for curriculum materials and other supplies. Trained raters from William Paterson University tour facilities, evaluate them on a number of detailed quality measures, and produce star ratings, which can go up or down over time.

[related]As part of Clinton Hill’s process, staff signed up on a statewide registry of early-childhood professionals, and teachers and assistants were pushed to get child-development certification, assistant director DeNiqua Matias said.

Family workers got practical advice on how to do their jobs better, and the system for documenting students’ progress and communicating it to parents was improved. A visiting expert provided useful advice and even helpful tricks, like a method for getting kids dressed quickly in which they lay their coats on the floor and flip them on over their heads, Matias said.

“We were really happy with this program because it made us look at ourselves and where we had those gaps, and fill those in. We’re going to keep working and striving and get better and better,” she told the visiting officials and guests.

“Clinton Hill is growing and we’re adding more and more quality initiatives to our program. We don’t want to stop at level three — we definitely want to go to four and five. If you guys can give us information, or tips on where we missed, that would be really helpful,” she said.

Unlike many other private centers, Clinton Hill is an Abbott preschool, which means it already must meet stringent program standards and receives relatively generous state funding. Abbotts provide free preschool to all children in Newark and 34 other poor communities as ordered by the state Supreme Court. The state spends $14,375 per Abbott preschooler, while the average cost of preschools statewide was only $9,546 in 2013, according to the NJ Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies.

Advocates for Children of New Jersey, the state’s leading organization on early childhood issues, has said Grow NJ Kids’ resources should be focused less on Abbotts and more on licensed centers that are not government-funded, as well as on small, unlicensed childcare providers in private homes, which are often of poor educational quality.

Grow NJ Kids also does not provide operating funds or other continuous financial support for participating centers. The state does have a childcare subsidy program, but rates are low and there are strict eligibility requirements, making it difficult for non-Abbott centers that serve low-income families to earn a profit, retain well-trained teachers, and improve their quality, childcare experts say.

“For a completely private program … it would be very difficult to manage (Grow NJ Kids), especially with state subsidy being flat-funded for so long,” Matias said.

Even Clinton Hill could use help beyond its Abbott funding. Among the barriers it faces to achieving four stars is its facility, which consists of a former bank building and two trailer units in the rear parking lot. Executive director Cheryl Bush said the building’s basement classrooms lack wheelchair access and the proper bathroom configuration called for by state standards. To address those issues and earn a higher rating, she would have to renovate the building or relocate, she said.

Grow NJ Kids coordinator Andrea Breitweiser said Clinton Hill could also work to boost its rating by reviewing issues raised in the William Paterson evaluation, ensuring all the teaching staff get Child Development Associate (CDA) certification, and having the teachers do more hours of curriculum training.

When asked about financial support for improvements, officials said preschools should act quickly to take advantage of free professional development sessions, free curriculum materials, and other resources the state can provide for the time being, thanks to the four-year federal grant.

“We’re going to maximize what we can while we have it,” Breitwieser said.

“It’s about using the opportunity we have right now with the Race to the Top grant to come in and get these improvements,” said Natasha Johnson, director of DHS’s Division of Family Development. “Some of these improvements are one-time things. You don’t need to do it five years from now. You have the opportunity to do it now. Get on board and get it done.”