It Takes a District: DC's Strategy for Improving Child Care Quality

On any given weekday at Bell Teen Parent and Child Development Center in Washington, DC’s lively Columbia Heights neighborhood, infants are napping in their cribs, learning how to crawl, and exploring their environment. In the next room over, toddlers are playing dress up, reading books, and trying to share their toys. On the inside, Bell looks like your typical high-quality child care provider. Teachers are engaged and responsive to the children and the rooms are set up to provide youngsters with a safe, nurturing, and educational environment.

It’s what’s outside of the center that makes it unique. Bell Teen Parent and Child Development Center is located inside one of DC’s largest high schools, and since 1989 it has been providing infant and toddler care for the school’s teen parents. The many challenges that come with teenage parenthood make it difficult to finish high school-- child care being one of the largest barriers. Student-parents can drop their children off at the center before class and check in on them during the day. The center is open from 6:30 am to 4:30 pm.

Having free, high-quality child care on campus has been instrumental in helping teen parents earn their diplomas. The Bell Multicultural High School on the Columbia Heights Education Campus has rules in place that aim to help them stay in school. To utilize the center, parents must maintain a 2.5 GPA and cannot have any repeat pregnancies. The high school also provides weekly parenting classes for the students during lunch time. According to Ana Ayala, Bell's center director, "We also provide teen parents with extra support with diapers, wipes, and we encourage the students to stay after their school hours to finish their homework or projects since we close at 4:30 pm. As well, we provide them with information on different resources that are available in the community,  and we also are able to talk with their teachers and counselor in case there is any extra help or support needed." It’s a true two-generation model.

While the child development center originally only served student-parents, the decreasing rate of teen pregnancy in this high school and throughout the country has allowed the center to expand services to other members of the community. Only six of the 40 children enrolled in the center this year have parents attending the high school.

The student-parents and community members are fortunate to have a program like this in the neighborhood, especially now. Last year, Bell Teen Parent and Child Development Center became part of DC’s Quality Improvement Network, or QIN. This is an ambitious district initiative to improve the quality of child care for infants and toddlers.

The QIN was created through a five-year, $5 million, Early Head Start- Child Care Partnership (EHS-CC) grant that DC’s Office of the State Superintendent (OSSE) received two years ago from the federal government. The partnership initiative is part of the Obama administration’s efforts to increase access to high quality early education.

For over 20 years, Early Head Start has provided comprehensive early intervention services to low-income pregnant women, infants, and toddlers, but because of limited funding the program only reaches about four percent of eligible families. These programs are held to strict performance standards and higher expectations of quality than the average child care center. With the partnership grants, local child care programs partner with an Early Head Start program to improve the quality of child care.

As a member of the QIN, Bell Teen Parent and Child Development Center is one of five child care centers partnering with CentroNia, a well-established Early Head Start program that provides comprehensive services to low-income families in DC. In exchange for meeting Head Start quality standards, CentroNia provides Bell employees with job-embedded, ongoing professional development and coaching. CentroNia’s instructional coach, Indalee Clark, visits Bell three to four times per week to observe and work with teachers to implement activities to better serve children’s individual needs.

Many of Bell’s early childhood educators also attend optional professional development sessions on Saturdays to refresh their basic early childhood education knowledge, learn more about the curriculum, and familiarize themselves with assessments and tools that can improve their practice. What has perhaps made Bell’s work with CentroNia so successful is the center’s strong leadership. Ayala attends weekend trainings as well, aiming to set an example for her teachers. According to Indalee Clark, “The openness of the center director is key. Ana ensures that the teachers implement what I teach them.”

Ayala’s leadership, coupled with the supports from the federal EHS-CC grant, has also lead to stronger teacher retention. The unreasonably low pay for child care teachers is one of the most daunting challenges for the field. But early educators at Bell are fortunate to have sick leave, paid vacation, health care, and retirement benefits. At too many other centers, these benefits are rare. The extra funding has also been used to provide salary bonuses for teachers and help them with degree attainment. Ayala says all of the lead teachers at Bell have Child Development Associate certificates and are working towards their BA’s.  

This ambitious effort to redesign DC’s child care system has not come without its challenges. Some of the child care centers working with CentroNia or the other Early Head Start providers in the district are further behind than Bell in terms of meeting the quality standards. One challenge across the board was meeting the lower child-adult ratios required under Early Head Start, which can be financially burdensome to centers.

As part of the Quality Improvement Network in DC, government agencies and community organizations around the district are working together to truly rethink how they serve children and families. There are numerous entities in the district that touch on issues impacting young children and they too rarely come together. By strengthening relationships and coordinating their efforts, the QIN hopes to better serve the area’s most vulnerable families. There will be natural growing pains as the community figures out how to best do this work and sustain it, but OSSE is ensuring that the initiative is continually evaluated (here’s the initial evaluation) to help leaders understand what is working and what is not.

This fall OSSE applied for more EHS-CC partnership funding to expand the current efforts. Leaders hope to serve an additional 150 children and specifically expand access to family child care in Wards 7 and 8, where some of the district’s highest-need families reside. Grants have not been awarded yet, but New America will continue to follow this promising work happening right in our backyard.

Author:

Abbie Lieberman is a policy analyst with the Education Policy program at New America. She is a member of the Early & Elementary Education Policy team, where she provides research and analysis on policies that impact children from birth through third grade