The windowless concrete building is not much to look at, but to the families who have made their way there, Baton Rouge Christian Academy is a find, offering a rare commodity: affordable, high-quality child care.
Candis McClelland’s daughter Addison has spent much of her short six months on earth at the day care. Her mother is happy so far. It’s close to her job with a state agency, open until 5:30 p.m. and costs $92.50 a week.
“She’s learning how to roll around and sit up, pretty much beginning milestones,” McClelland said.
McClelland relied on word of mouth as she was looking for a daytime home for her newborn. But she also wanted one that rated high in Louisiana’s 8-year-old rating system. It does. Baton Rouge Christian Academy has earned four out of five stars, a level only a small number of day cares have achieved.
That rating system, however, is changing. Instead of stars, day cares soon will earn letter grades. They are following the lead of public schools, which adopted a letter grade system in 2010.
The letter grades are one small part of a larger shift aimed at improving the quality of early childhood care across Louisiana. As envisioned by the state Department of Education, public programs like Head Start and school district prekindergarten classes will be judged by common academic standards, as will many of the private day cares that families rely on to care for children before they can go to school.
It’s a sea change for day cares, which are being pushed to function more and more like schools. While any day care can opt into the system, those that accept students through the Child Care Assistance Program, a federal subsidy aimed at helping low-income families, will be required to participate starting this summer.
As part of the change, participating facilities are being inspected at least twice a year for the quality of their instruction. And, starting in 2019, their teachers will all need a Child Development Associates credential.
“We’re shifting from a world where child care was perceived as baby-sitting to one where every activity is an opportunity to help a child learn and grow,” said Jenna Conway, assistant superintendent for early childhood at the Louisiana Department of Education.
Starting with the passage of Act 3 in 2012, state leaders began shifting to a unified system of early childhood education. They justified the change by pointing that almost half of Louisiana schoolchildren enter kindergarten with low literacy levels, low enough that educators consider them unprepared.
Every public school system in the state has opted into the unified system. Each one is developing a coordinated enrollment process that will allow parents to consider private day cares at the same time that they look at public options. “Parents deserve an easier process,” Conway said. “There should be shared information about all of the programs.”
More than 1,000 private facilities across Louisiana — about 60 percent of licensed facilities — accept families relying on subsidies. For each of them, the system will come with new rules, and they will have to teach to new academic standards supposed to form a stepladder to successful ascension to kindergarten.
Melanie Bronfin, executive director of the Policy Institute for Children in New Orleans, said day cares start at a financial disadvantage in the new system.
“You are getting public funding at pre-K that is twice as much as the funding coming through the Child Care Assistance Program, but you are grading all of them the same,” Bronfin said. In Louisiana, Child Care Assistance pays day cares an average of about $1,800 a year per child.
Bronfin, however, said the state Department of Education is considering rule changes that will pay top-graded day cares at near the level of funding that now goes to prekindergartens.
Baton Rouge Christian Academy owners Rose Grimes and Carol Legaux are taking the plunge. They are part of a “community network” of 36 day cares in Baton Rouge that are road-testing the new system ahead of its statewide launch this fall. At least 30 percent of the students in each of these day cares rely on subsidies.
Bobbie Robertson, director of prekindergarten for the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, has spent her career in public education and said she had little contact with the private early childhood world. But since starting the pilot program, she’s gained a greater appreciation of what they do.
Grimes and Legaux are both retired. Grimes worked in public middle schools, while Legaux worked at the Louisiana Department of Revenue. At the day care, they don’t take salaries, allowing them to keep down the price tag for the 71 children they take care of every day.
Longtime friends and members of the same north Baton Rouge Baptist church, Grimes and Legaux in 2001 bought a rundown bar near the corner of Plank and Choctaw roads. The bar, which operated under several names through the years, was known in the neighborhood for drug deals, shooting and police tape.
The women transformed the drab building. The elevated bar area is now part-kitchen, part-office and looks down on five classroom areas, one for every age up to the 4-year-olds.
The owners point with pride to their handiwork.
“We will always do more than we have to,” Grimes said. “If they say have three of something, we’ll have five of something.”
One must is for every inch of wall space to be covered. These days, the wall decorations are dominated by famous African-Americans, as part of Black History Month.
“Like me, my kids are very verbal,” said Carla Richardson, who teaches the 4-year-olds and is nearly as energetic as her young charges. “I want them to ask questions.”
She launches into rapid-fire quiz, asking them who’s who on the wall.
Pointing at the profile of a dignified man with a salt-and-pepper beard, Richardson offers a clue: “He’s an abolitionist, and he wrote a book.”
“Frederick Douglass,” shouted back several children.
Several parents said both word of mouth and the academy’s high ranking on the star system brought them to the day care, but the atmosphere inside sealed the deal.
“From the first day, he was comfortable with it,” said Georgann Smith about her grandson Jordan, now 4. “He hadn’t been to day care before. He went right to all the different activity stations. He was raring to go.”
Parents see the attitude of the place at the front door. A sign proclaims: “No Cell Phone Zone.”
That rule was in response to parents walking in lost on their cellphones and not paying attention to their children.
“This place is about kisses and hugs,” Legaux said.
Since joining the state’s pilot program, teachers at Baton Rouge Christian Academy have all undergone training in the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, or CLASS. It’s a tool, already used in Head Start, used by evaluators to scrutinize how teachers interact with children and their potential for boosting learning. They received free iPads to document in words and pictures what’s happening in their classrooms. And they get regular visits from the school system to check up on them.
Grimes said the process has been partly an affirmation of the practices they were already employing but also exposure to new ways.
“We were always doing these things, though we may not have had all the materials they required,” she said. “It’s opened our eyes to things we needed to know.”
What’s less clear is how many day cares will be willing to follow their example, given the added costs and paperwork and uncertain benefits of the new system.
Alan Young, owner of a large day care in Shreveport and former president of the Child Care Association of Louisiana, is on the optimistic side. He said the Education Department is working well with the day cares and is bringing a fresh approach to regulating an industry where some facilities shine but others are subpar.
“They’ve done a very good job on a very monumental task,” he said.
The state’s ugly financial position, however, limits prospects for progress.
“There is just absolutely no money,” he said.
Bronfin worries that new letter grades for day cares could come strictly from the CLASS assessment. She said CLASS is a good tool for improving instruction but worries that only the centers that can afford the lowest teacher-to-child ratios will rate well. She suggests supplementing CLASS with other measures of success.
“If you don’t have a system that is fair and operated with integrity, these centers are going to walk away,” Bronfin said. “They don’t have to do it.”
Erica Lee, assistant director of Mother’s Choice Daycare, one of the 36 participating day cares in Baton Rouge, has doubts about how many day cares will stick with the changes. Mother’s Choice has a four-star rating now. Lee said her facility is happy to prove its quality but said word of mouth, not ratings or letter grades, drive her business.
Editor’s note: This story was changed March 1, 2015 to show that the Policy Institute for Children at Tulane University in New Orleans is no longer affiliated with Tulane, rather it now operates as an independent nonprofit organization.