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Originally published August 22, 2012 at 3:43 PM | Page modified August 22, 2012 at 4:27 PM

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Op-ed: Improve early learning with a child-care rating system

The state has launched a rating system for child care as a way to improve early learning. Child-care programs should voluntarily enroll.

Special to The Times

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ABOUT 170,000 children in our state age birth through 12 are enrolled in licensed child care -- and many of them spend the majority of their waking hours there.

For years, the focus has been on whether child-care programs are safe and healthy. Enhancing quality in child care is essential for our children, our families and our state. In July, Washington state began implementing a quality rating and improvement system for child-care programs called Early Achievers.

The Early Achievers program will support children's learning and development while in care by:

* Giving child-care providers the tools and incentives they need to offer high-quality care that focuses on school readiness; and

* Making publicly available a rating that reflects participating programs' current level of quality, so that families have more information when choosing child care.

I encourage child-care programs to enroll in this program, which is voluntary and always will be. Parents will be able to access the ratings starting later this year through Child Care Check at www.del.wa.gov/check.

Nearly 30 states now have a quality rating and improvement system, or are in the process of designing one. The concept has gained traction because it offers a systematic way to improve child care.

In Washington state, we piloted our system for two years to make sure we had a clear definition of what high-quality care looks like, and understood exactly what support child-care providers would need.

The bulk of the $60 million federal Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge grant that we won in December is going to support expansion of Early Achievers.

But the Race to the Top grant lasts only four years. That is a short time to help families understand why they should demand high-quality care for their children, and why our state should invest in quality beyond the life of the grant.

Programs that participate get a coach who helps them assess their strengths and areas for improvement. It may be that a child-care provider offers a well-designed classroom with lots of engaging books, art supplies and activities, but needs help developing a meaningful program to engage parents. Or a provider might do a wonderful job making sure staff have ongoing training, but doesn't give them dedicated time to plan high-quality activities. Whatever the opportunities for growth are, the coach and the provider work together to identify them and make them happen.

In return for this hard work, participants get access to scholarships for continuing their education and training, and financial awards as they move through the ratings levels. And, child-care providers will get the long-overdue credit they deserve as professionals who help prepare children for success in school and life.

As director of the Department of Early Learning, I have visited many licensed child-care programs around our state. While the classrooms look different and the child-care providers have their own program philosophies and approaches, the one thing all providers I've met have in common is their sincere desire to help children reach their full potential. Early Achievers will finally give them the needed support to do so.

I fully expect Early Achievers to spark a statewide conversation about and demand for high-quality child care. Thanks to years of national research, planning and testing, we know what makes for a high-quality early learning experience: well-trained and well-supported staff; meaningful family engagement; sound business practices; and an environment filled with opportunities for children to use their growing bodies and minds, learn how to navigate their world and interact with others.

Now that we know what it takes, Early Achievers is our opportunity to make it happen for our children.

Bette Hyde is director of the Washington State Department of Early Learning.

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