Perspectives differ on website that ranks child care providers
For more information about the state's YoungStar program, or to see ratings for individual providers, go to dcf.wisconsin.gov/youngstar/.
JANESVILLE Since its inception two years ago, a state-sponsored website has drawn mixed reviews for its usefulness to parents seeking information on the quality of child care providers.
Day care providers around the state have suggested the rating system has little to do with quality of care and more to do with resources—staff education and business practices—that small providers have difficulty providing.
The state's YoungStar program rates providers based on education, learning environment, business practices and the health and well being of children.
Providers are evaluated annually and given a rating from one to five stars, with five being the top rating.
While parents enjoy a one-stop site where they see can easily see stars, providers grumble that the rating system unfairly portrays those at the lower end as incompetent.
YoungStar's primary goals are to:
-- Evaluate and rate the quality of care given by child care providers.
-- Support providers with tools and training to deliver better care.
-- Set a consistent standard for child care quality.
-- Help parents choose the best child care for their kids.
-- Ensure responsible use of public funds, primarily those dispersed through the Wisconsin Shares child care program.
Of the 141 licensed day care providers in Rock County, 108 are participating and are YoungStar-rated. The remaining 33 either are not participating or are participating but not yet rated.
Of the 108 in the program, 11 have four or five stars.
Thirty-nine have three stars, and 58—more than half—have two stars, a rating the program defines as "meets health and safety standards."
There are no one-star providers in the county.
In Rock County, 10 of the 11 four- and five-star performers are licensed group facilities, which means they are set up with more staff and a larger facility to care for nine or more children. Twenty-six of the 39 three-star performers are licensed group operations.
The vast majority—74 percent—of Rock County providers awarded two stars are small facilities licensed or certified to care for a maximum of eight children.
"The lower stars are driven by money," said Theresa Marshall, executive director of Janesville Community Day Care Center and Little Tree House in Janesville. "They just can't buy the resources to get more stars."
Marshall directs two of the five operations in Rock County that have received five stars. In the case of her two operations, the five-star ratings are the result of accreditations from the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
"We bypass YoungStar and go right to five stars because we've done all of that legwork," she said.
Kelli Behm owns Precious Angels Child Care, a licensed family operation for up to eight kids in Janesville.
Behm participates in the YoungStar program reluctantly. She decided the two-star rating she received was better than not being on the state's list at all.
For the most part, she's Precious Angels' sole employee, caring for six children over a 60-hour schedule that starts at 5 a.m. Monday and ends at 5 p.m. Friday.
"It gets to the point where how much time do I have to spend on all of the state requirements for YoungStar and how much does it take me away from my kids?" she said.
She's taken shaken-baby and CPR classes so many times that she no longer refers to them as refresher courses, she said.
Behm has resigned herself that Precious Angels will likely progress no farther up the YoungStar ladder than two stars. As the only employee, Behm said she just doesn't have enough hours in a week or dollars in the bank.
Judy Norman-Nunnery understands the predicament for Behm and other two-star providers.
"There's always an issue in balancing work, education, parenting and families, and we've all experienced it," said Norman-Nunnery, the administrator of the state division that runs the YoungStar program.
She said the program is evolving. Efforts such as online classes, tuition scholarships, travel stipends and mentoring programs are designed to help providers improve their ratings.
"We have a mentoring program where three-star centers are working with the two-stars to show them what they can do to move up," she said. "Most are seeing that what seems quite onerous at first isn't really that hard when they make the effort.
"Quality and child care have been talked about for a number of years, and this is an effort to improve. The program is young, it's a work in progress and we're starting to see some benefits."
Website is just one tool in assessing quality of care
While a state website that rates child care providers might be a first stop for parents, it should not be the last word on quality of care, according to two local providers and the woman who runs the state program.
The state's YoungStar program assigns providers from one to five stars based on education, learning environment, business practices and the health and well being of children.
Five stars is the top rating.
"You can't just go by certifications or licensing, two stars or five stars," said Kelli Behm, who runs Precious Angels Child Care in Janesville. "I've seen some licensed, high-rated places that I wouldn't take a dead dog to."
Behm's operation is rated two stars, primarily, she said, because it is a small operation without the staff or resources to chase more stars in the state's YoungStar program.
Behm and others said parents need to take their search for the perfect day care away from the Internet and into the field.
"Parents need to get out and talk to people, visit the centers, ask for references and then check them out," Behm said. "Spend the time talking to the providers and see what's important to them."
Theresa Marshall agrees. She's the executive director of Janesville Community Day Care Center and Little Tree House in Janesville. Combined, the two facilities are licensed to care for up to 128 kids each weekday.
"Parents are becoming more savvy," Marshall said. "They are looking at YoungStar, and they are calling us because we have five stars.
"We often have waiting lists, and I tell the parents they really need to go out and check the programs out."
Marshall has no qualms recommending local programs that have received two or three stars from the YoungStar program.
"I've never really liked so-called ratings systems," she said. "I know some programs that put on a show, get high ratings and then their practices go out the window."
Marshall believes the YoungStar program puts too much emphasis on educational degrees and having teachers licensed by the state Department of Public Instruction.
"I have people with bachelor's degrees and associate's degrees on our staff, and some of those individuals with associate degrees shine way above those with bachelor's degrees," Marshall said. "Many of these smaller programs just don't have the resources, and if you can't hire people to that level, you're stuck at two stars or three stars."
Judy Norman-Nunnery, the administrator of the state division that runs the YoungStar program, said the YoungStar website is a valuable reference, but it's just one tool for parents.
"Parents need to go beyond the website and get first-hand, personal information," she said. "To find a center that best meets the needs of their individual child, parents need to visit and tour the center, talk to the staff and get a good sense of how it works.
"Getting an up close and personal experience—kicking the tires—has never failed."