Take a tour of Children’s Village, a highly regarded child-care center in Philadelphia’s Chinatown neighborhood, and some of the elements that make it a high-quality program are immediately evident.
In Room 303, a group of 3- and 4-year-olds is absorbed in a variety of activities, playing with toys, listening to recorded music and stories, or engaged in drawing, making and building things.
The spacious room where they spend their day is divided into well-equipped stations filled with intriguing educational material. Each one – block-building, dance and gross motor skills, art, dramatic play, and science – has accompanying materials that encourage specific kinds of learning.
With the help of teachers Noelle Woytko and Kevin McClellan, the children had earlier created “play plans,” writing their names and drawing pictures of what they would do next. The plans encourage children to think ahead and to verbalize their ideas.
There is also a library, where the children can borrow books to take home. Even though most of the children have not yet learned to read, chairs are labeled with the children’s names, and many other objects are labeled as well.
But the strengths of the center go far beyond what impresses a visitor at first sight.
Foundations for quality care
“A place may seem to be clean and have lots of bright plastic toys, but that is not always an indication of quality,” cautioned Shawn Towey, the child-care policy coordinator for Public Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY), a Philadelphia-based child advocacy organization.
Research on pre-K programs that achieve long-term literacy gains has found several important factors: a well-structured, high-level curriculum, well-educated teachers who have taken early childhood education courses, small class sizes, and solid teacher-parent relationships.
Children’s Village has a Keystone Stars 4A rating, meeting the highest Pennsylvania child-care standard; the A stands for “accredited” with a national pre-K association.
The Keystone Stars ratings – ranging from one to four stars – provide a uniform set of standards that a child-care facility must meet in its educational environment, management, and community relations. The ratings make it easier for families to compare programs: The more stars, the higher the standards. A number of studies show a high correlation between these standards and the development of literacy skills in later years.
The Stars standards set a bar for everything from the teachers’ qualifications, to how effective the staff is in communicating with parents, whether teachers have continuing education and planning time, and what benefits employees receive to help reduce staff turnover.
In the highest-rated programs, at least half of the lead teachers have a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education, and all have at least an associate’s degree. (Publicly funded pre-K programs in Pennsylvania like the Children’s Village require that all lead teachers have bachelor’s degrees.)
All Keystone Star-3 and Star-4 pre-K programs are required to base their curriculum on a comprehensive 100-page set of state “Learning Standards for Early Childhood.” These standards include language arts, mathematical thinking, art and music, scientific thinking, and learning through play.
This document takes a broad view of educational growth: “Young children learn best when they are able to construct knowledge through meaningful play, active exploration of the environment, and thoughtfully planned activities,” it says. But it also emphasizes the need to support language and literacy development throughout the program.
A focus on communication