Wayne County Great Start Collaborative Tests QRIS

By Brenda Brissette-Mata

DETROIT -- In 2007, a group of Michigan early childhood leaders developed recommendations for a statewide “quality rating and improvement system” (QRIS) they hope will one day soon improve the delivery of child care across Michigan.

The group’s recommendations haven’t yet been implemented, owing to the dismal state economy.

But some communities are testing their ideas, including Wayne County, according to Toni Hartke, director of the Wayne County Great Start Collaborative.

“I’m extremely passionate about what we’re committed to do with QRIS,” Hartke says. “This meets one of our Early Childhood Action Agenda goals that Wayne County has accessible, high quality early care and education services.”

QRIS is, in essence, a rating, assessment and improvement system for child care centers and providers.

If an early childhood center receives a rating that indicates improvement is necessary, the system provides access to programs or support to help boost the rating.

“It’s not just a rating system, like a hotel that gets three or four stars,” said Kristen McDonald of the Skillman Foundation, primary funder of the QRIS trial in Wayne County.

“If (centers or providers) receive a rating that says they have a quality issue, there are incentives and we can keep providers moving along the path to a higher rating. It’s not just finding where the best high quality is, it’s about enrolling those on the way and helping them to get the quality support they need.”

The strategies of the QRIS made sense to the foundation, which focuses exclusively on children’s issues in Detroit, McDonald said.

“We were looking at ways that we could move the needle on early childhood. Funding the QRIS was a way to define quality child care, to make sure that parents have information to be the very best shoppers for their children.”

The Skillman Foundation gave $128,000 to fund the program in the first year, but the Wayne GSC had to come up with
the rest in matching money. The United Way then provided additional support to assist with project costs.

The Wayne GSC’s version of QRIS went into effect in January of 2009 in three of the Skillman Foundation’s six “Good
Neighborhoods.”

Good Neighborhoods is a 10-year, $100 million program that encourages the creation of safe, healthy and vibrant
neighborhoods where, with the support of caring adults, children, programs and experiences, can develop fully.

The first year, QRIS was implemented in three of the most recognizable neighborhoods in Detroit - Vernor (now called
Southwest), Chadsey-Condon and Brightmoor, according to Hartke.

The second year, the program was expanded to include the other three neighborhoods - Central (now called North End), Osbourn and Cody-Rouge.

According to Hartke, the idea was to put the QRIS plan into action in Wayne County in order to eventually become one of the pilots for the state.

The program is voluntary. When a child care center is enrolled, the center is assigned a mentor. The mentor does an evaluation using Program Quality Assessments (PQAs).

Together the mentor and provider discuss the program’s strengths and potential areas for improvement. The system then puts the provider together with other programs that can assist in the areas that need help. Then together, mentor and provider help write an improvement plan.

“The improvement plan will say ‘here’s what we need to put in place to strengthen this area,’ and then we link them with training,” Hartke said.

Child care sites that enroll in the QRIS get $150 for supplies from one of the area teacher stores.

“Also, they have the opportunity to (apply) for mini-grants for equipment, or just about anything under $1, 000,” Hartke said. “Part of the licensing process is to have playgrounds inspected annually and that seems to be an area where a lot of people need help. It’s also one area where, with the Skillman money, we have an advantage. It would be a problem at the state level to institute it this way.”

Alice Norris, owner of My Granny’s Place in Detroit, has been a licensed child care provider for eight years. She learned about the QRIS program while taking child development classes.

Norris said working with the mentor was enlightening and the supplies she received for volunteering for QRIS were much needed.

“Child care providers are limited as to how much you can purchase,” Norris said. “But when you have an organization like this behind you, helping you, introducing you to programs that can help you and the children you are trying to help, well, it’s hard to express how much it means.”

She has recommended the program to others she knows in child care service.

For McDonald and the Skillman Foundation, QRIS offers an opportunity to serve an underserved population.

“In our education work, our primary objective is to graduate kids from high school prepared for adulthood and some sort of secondary experience,” McDonald said.

“But what we know that is true of poor children, particularly poor children of color, is that they already start behind. If we’re going to impact high school graduation rates we have to start early. Children have to have quality learning experiences. We believe that the QRIS is the biggest primary building block to high quality early education programs in the city.”