Grants Fuel Meteoric Keystone STARS Rise

by Tom Livingston

If “money talks,” Pennsylvania has made a big statement about improving the quality of state-licensed day care centers. This year the state has committed $34 million to its Keystone STARS program, which awards “stars” to day care providers as they upgrade.

After a two-year pilot program, Keystone STARS formally began in 2003. Now, fueled by incentive grants for centers with enrollments of at least 5 percent low-income children, the program has grown from 1,313 participants in July 2004 to 2,888 in March, 2005. That total represents 32 percent of the state’s 9,090 licensed day care centers, family providers and group facilities.

Pilot Program in Delaware

Delaware is moving toward a STARS program of its own. The state is piloting Delaware STARS for Early Success under the auspices of the Family and Workplace Connection (FWC).

“We have a model for child care centers that has already gone out for public comment and drafts for family child care that will go out for comment later this spring,” says Evelyn Keating, the FWC’s provider services director. “We are currently looking for funding to pilot this program.”

New Jersey has no STARS program in the works, according to a Department of Human Services spokesperson.

Four Star Levels
STARS is an acronym for Standards, Training, Assistance, Resources and Support. After joining at the “Start withStars” level, participants must meet increasingly difficult performance standards to earn one, two, three or four stars.

These standards include staff qualifications, development and compensation; director education and development; learning environment; business practices; and continuous quality improvement. While a facility must do little more than meet licensing standards and complete an environmental checklist to Start with Stars, gaining each subsequent level is tough.

As of March 2005, 1,358 facilities statewide had achieved one star, 295 had earned two stars, 11 had attained three stars and only one had reached four stars. An additional 240 providers joined the program at the four-star level because they have been accredited by an organization such as the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) or the National Association for Family Child Care (NAFCC).

“We gave consideration to the work and levels of quality achieved by accredited providers by honoring their accreditation standards, since they are cross-affiliated with STARS,” explains Stacey Ward, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Welfare, which administers Keystone STARS.

Promotes Improvement
“I think it’s a fabulous, fabulous program,” says Paula Cosden, owner-director of the Margaret George School and Child Care Center in King of Prussia. Her center has attained three stars and is going for its fourth. “I learned in a workshop how to properly sanitize my center. It taught me how to look at my center and see what needs improvement.”

Cosden also credits Keystone STARS and its accompanying grants and merit awards with improving staff training and compensation, helping to buy equipment and improve the facility. The Margaret George Center received a $6,000 award for earning its second star and $9,000 for its third star. “We were good, but we’re better now,” says Cosden.

The Trinity Cooperative in Swarthmore has no state-subsidized, low-income children enrolled and does not qualify for Keystone STARS grants or awards. Nevertheless, four of Trinity’s six programs participate in the program. “I think it’s great,” says director Barbara Quaintance. “It promotes continuous improvement. It’s easy to schedule your improvement and to monitor what you’re doing. I’ve sent all the staff to courses and they’ve benefited.”

Foulkways Child Care Center in Gwynedd resurfaced its playground with the cash award it received for achieving two stars. “The staff are better trained,” says director Mary Ellen Malloy. “They’re receiving more training hours, attending more

workshops and conferences. There’s more paperwork, but I find it’s worth it because it’s improving the program.”

‘Seal of Approval’
Sharon Easterling, executive director of the Delaware Valley Association for the Education of Young Children (DVAEYC), the area’s NAEYC
chapter, strongly endorses Keystone STARS.

“I think it’s actually one of the best models in the country for supporting quality in child care,” she says. “It tries to provide incentives and resources, and it’s a voluntary system. It’s always better if people step up to the plate and initiate their own child care improvements.”

Some NAEYC-accredited centers have not joined the STARS program. “We ran into some problems when the program first started,” says the director of a NAEYC-accredited Philadelphia day care center who asked not to be identified. “We had a situation where a little boy stopped breathing. I resuscitated him and his parents were certainly happy with the way it turned out.

“But because a police report was filed, even though we were vindicated, it was regarded as a complaint and that kicked in a whole lot of bureaucratic paperwork. There are a lot of sticky details to this stuff. It’s not quite as easy as it seems. Now that the record has been cleared, it’s (the STARS program) on my list to pursue, but I’ve been too busy.”

“At some point, this will become a consumer seal of approval,” says Easterling. “Then more accredited centers will join. What parent, given a choice between a 4-star and a no-star program would choose no stars. It’s a no-brainer.”

NAEYC and other accreditations currently are the consumer gold standard. But Cosden says she decided not to seek NAEYC accreditation because “I can’t afford it. The state pays me to get two, three or four stars. NAEYC accreditation is an expensive process.” She says once The Margaret George Center earns its fourth star, putting it in alignment with NAEYC standards, she might use some of the accompanying grant money to secure the organization’s accreditation.

NAEYC just upped its fees significantly, says Easterling. “NAEYC completely revamped its system, updating standards to reflect more recent research and best practice. They’re hiring people instead of relying on volunteers. So it’s costing more. If you’re a large center, you could spend upward of $1,500 over the course of the process. But the biggest cost to get accredited is in paying for a more credentialed staff and smaller staff-child ratios.”

Through Keystone STARS, Pennsylvania is subsidizing those costs and improving the quality of child care at centers throughout the state in the process.

Tom Livingston is executive editor of MetroKids.