Understanding North Carolina’s Day Care Rating System

When The Goddard School in Matthews got their 5-star rating earlier this year, they announced it to everyone with a big sign in the front of the property. “We use it in all of our corporate-sponsored ads and our yellow page ads, and when people come for a tour we make sure to mention we’re a 5-star school,” said Allison Frye, director.

This isn’t the first time the school achieved the 5-star rating, but their scores were higher than before, something Frye is proud of. “We were bought by a new owner last year and had to go through the process again to renew our stars. We practiced with mock assessments and the teachers read the scale books to see what the officials would be looking for, but it’s really a matter of our teachers just doing a great job every day, which they do.”

While Frye makes going through the assessment sound easy, the process is actually pretty intense, as well as being a big factor 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 5-star schools,” Frye said. And that’s just one reason why having a 5-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.

The rating system is extremely important for day-care providers, but it’s also an important tool for parents. If you’ve ever searched for child care for your kids, or are considering 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 Beginning of the Stars
In 2000, 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 child-care options available. When it 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 taken off. “They took this requirement off to make the ratings more weighted on staff education and program standards,” said Stephanie Rietschel, the 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. They 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 said.
Since the revision, the two components give equal weight to staff education and program standards. For staff education, centers can earn more credit if their employees have gone above and 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, what materials are 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 shouldn’t be your only focus. “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,” said Erin Reiter, the director of family support for the Child Care Services Association in Raleigh.
So what else should a parent consider when choosing a child-care center?

First of all, be sure to visit each center you’re thinking about in person. “Make an unannounced visit and ask for a tour,” Rietschel said. “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, the 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’s an older building, check that current safety precautions have been met.”

Staying up to code is also important. “When visiting a center, make sure they have a handbook for you and their license displayed,” Anderson said. “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
Fortunately, there are plenty of resources in our state to help parents make informed decisions. These days, most parents will start their search online, and the North Carolina Division of Child Development has a Child Care Facility Search. You can look by ZIP code, type of center and age of child, and the results will tell you what the rating of that facility is, the services they provide and link to a Web site if available.

It’s also a good idea to visit your local Child Care Resource and Referral Agency (CCRRA), which is supported by the Child Care Services Association. This is a nationally recognized nonprofit agency working to ensure affordable, accessible, high-quality child care to all families. “We want parents to come to us when looking for child care,” Reiter said. “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 CCRRA 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,” said Kim Raper of Durham. “The biggest factors influencing my decision [were] 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 said. “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.” Make a visit, walk through the school, pay attention to how you feel about the place and be sure to talk with the teachers. If you feel comfortable, your child will feel comfortable.

Karen Alley is a freelance writer and editor living in Elkin.