Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome has made expanding high-quality early childhood education in East Baton Rouge Parish a key goal for her administration, but a new rating system established by the state suggests the early childhood centers the city-parish oversees need some improvement. 

The city-parish government's Head Start program operates 10 federally funded centers that serve about 1,600 young children. Its initial ratings were a mixed bag. Five of the centers were rated “proficient,” the state’s minimum goal, while the other five were rated “approaching proficient.” The ratings for most of the centers declined compared with the year before when the state did a test run of the ratings system.

“We certainly recognize that we can improve. That’s what that information shows us,” Broome said. “I am not one who believes in making excuses. I’m one who believes in looking squarely at the data so that we are not just ‘approaching proficient’ but that we are ‘proficient’ and above.”

By contrast, in the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, which serves about 2,000 4-year-olds, 38 of its 44 prekindergarten centers were “proficient,” with two schools, Woodlawn Elementary and Westdale Heights Academic Magnet, rated “excellent.” Only four schools were rated “approaching proficient” and none earned the worst label, “unsatisfactory.”

While both pre-Ks and Head Start centers rate well at providing nurturing environments for their young charges, they both come up short on what's called "instructional support," or the area that experts believe shows how well children are being prepared to later do well in school. Compared with the public school system, Head Starts particularly struggled in this area.  

New rating system

Performance scores and labels, long a fixture of Louisiana public education, are being applied to the state’s vast, decentralized archipelago of early childhood centers that receive public funding.

These centers range from small private day cares to large preschools and Head Start centers educating hundreds of children. What they have in common is they educate at least some children from low-income families at public expense. On Nov. 7, Louisiana gave 1,508 centers their first state report cards, known as performance profiles.

Another 480 licensed centers with tens of thousands of children in their care don’t receive public funding, such as day care subsidies for low-income families, and consequently are not rated.

The new rating system is meant to help parents sort out which ones are most likely to prepare their children for kindergarten and life beyond.

These “performance profiles” are not as hard-edged as the much better known school report cards. They eschew blunt letter grades and terms like “failing schools” in favor of four broad performance categories: excellent, proficient, approaching proficient and unsatisfactory.

While the language is softer, the consequences are just as real. Sites rated “unsatisfactory” for two school years in a three-year period could lose their public funding or have their licenses revoked.

In a pattern evident both locally and statewide, trained observers rated local school-based, pre-K classes notably higher than Head Starts. And even further behind were privately run early childhood centers, though there are exceptions.

Thirty of the top 40 child care centers in East Baton Rouge Parish were school pre-Ks, while the other 10 were private day care centers. None were Head Starts.

Pay struggles

Head Start began in 1965 as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty, serving children ages 3 to 5. Early Head Start began in 1994 and serves children from birth until they turn 3.

Melanie Bronfin, executive director of the Louisiana Policy Institute for Children, said that because Louisiana’s pre-K programs are part of local public school districts, they have inherent advantages over Head Start and the private centers in attracting the best teachers available.

“You’ve got certified teachers with B.A.s by definition. You have low ratios, good curriculum,” Bronfin said. “You‘ve got the whole infrastructure in place to support teachers. And they receive good benefits.”

Last year, 93 percent of teachers at school pre-Ks statewide were certified compared with just 61 percent for Head Start. About two-thirds of Head Start teachers have at least a bachelor's degree, but at Head Starts, fewer than half the teachers have bachelor's degrees. Five percent of Head Starts reported that none of their teachers had any degrees or credentials whatsoever.

And then there’s the Head Start salaries, which are relatively low.

“We have to do something about our salaries for the people who work at Head Start,” Broome said. “It’s not the key, but it is a key.”

A December 2016 report by New Brunswick, New Jersey-based National Institute for Early Education Research reinforces that point. The research institute found that the Head Start teachers in Louisiana who have a bachelor’s degree make about $29,000 year on average, about $19,000 less the average pay of their counterparts working as public schoolteachers.

W. Steven Barnett, co-founder of the institute and a professor at Rutgers University, said given the size of that pay gap, it’s too much to expect that Head Start teachers will stay if they have the option of working as a higher paid public schoolteacher.

The pay gap is even worse when it comes the private centers.

“It’s very hard to keep staff,” said Denise Curwick, director of Southside Child Development Center, the second highest rated private child care center in Baton Rouge. “This is an industry where you’re not getting paid a lot.”

Curwick, who founded Southside 26 years ago, said she participates in the state’s rating system as a way of showing the public that her center is a cut above. Although blessed with a stable staff, she worries that the increased requirements for her teachers will take a toll and increase turnover.

“Sometimes you have staff who get to the point of, ‘I’m not getting paid enough to do that,’ and they say, ‘I’m gone,'” Curwick said.

'We do a good job'

At Freeman-Matthews Head Start center in Baton Rouge, the new rating system is not making much of an impression. Supervisor Cathy Holden said no one yet has asked her about her center’s performance profile. The center serves 180 children; she said it could easily take in more if it had the space and funding.

“I have parents lined up to come here,” Holden said. “We do a good job.”

Louisiana this year rated Freeman-Matthews overall as “proficient,” meaning it meets state standards, though does not excel. Almost 67 percent of the centers in the state — and three-quarters of the Head Starts — were likewise rated proficient.

In a short video produced for parents, the Louisiana Department of Education explains that “proficient” centers “provide warm, caring environments, are well-organized and promote children’s development, although though not as consistently as excellent sites.”

The warm and caring part was unmistakable at Freeman-Matthews on a recent Friday afternoon before Christmas. The 14-year-old center, at 1383 Napoleon St. behind the Carver Branch Library, was suffused with holiday spirit.

Thanks to local Kiwanis members, Santa had stopped the day before to hand out gifts to the 3- and 4-year-olds. Classroom walls displayed hand-painted stockings and the children were painting ugly sweaters onto sugar cookies.

Michelle Wren’s kids were learning how to write their names; one girl handed her teacher some scribbles she said was a vampire. As part of an effort to get children moving and head off possible obesity, Claiborne Thomas turned on a dance song “Tooty Ta.” Her young charges immediately began bouncing like Slinky toys.

A few doors down, Jessie Wells held up a series of pictures of fruits and vegetables and offered helpful clues: “It’s long, it’s yellow, and monkeys love it.”

“Bananas,” the children shouted in unison.

CLASS Differences

The tool the state education department uses to evaluate the job educators are doing is called Classroom Assessment Scoring System. CLASS, created by the University of Virginia and adopted by the federal Head Start program in 2011, uses a six-point scale that ranges from 1 to 7.

The tool is divided into three parts, or “domains,” that trained observers examine: emotional support, classroom organization and instructional support. The scores for those three areas are then averaged to generate the overall score. In Louisiana, to be considered proficient educators need to score 4.5 or better. A score of 6 or more is considered “excellent,” while anything below 3 is considered “unsatisfactory.”

When it came to the areas of emotional support and classroom organization, Freeman-Matthews did well, earning “proficient” labels. That’s in line with Head Starts across the country as well as centers of all kinds across the state.

The center, though, had more trouble in the instructional support domain, earning the label “approaching proficient.” No city-parish-run Head Starts earned a higher label. Five did worse in their individual scores and four were judged "unsatisfactory.” Like Freeman-Matthews, these centers, though, were judged much better when it came to emotional support and classroom organization.

“We’re low in instructional support,” acknowledged Jennifer Thompson Webb, assistant program administrator for the city-parish Head Start program. “That tells us our teachers need to have more interaction with kids.”

In response to the new ratings, Webb said, local Head Starts have all hired coaches charged with improving instruction. But she cautioned that CLASS results are just one of many areas where Head Starts are judged and rated. Other areas include providing nutritious meals and transportation, closely monitoring who has access to buildings, complying with strict Head Start-only building codes and making sure that children and families are receiving medical care.

Instructional support is meant to gauge how well early childhood centers help children with their language and cognitive skills. It’s an area where early childhood centers routinely fall short. Indeed, 83 percent of the early childhood centers in Louisiana didn't reach proficient in this domain, and 31 percent were rated “unsatisfactory. 

Public school pre-Ks in Louisiana performed better when it came to instructional support, though they also have plenty of room for improvement.

For instance, 36 of the 44 pre-Ks run by the East Baton Rouge Parish school system rated better than all the city-parish Head Starts on this domain. As far as labels, 12 pre-K centers were rated “proficient” while three were rated “unsatisfactory.” The remaining 29 were “approaching proficient.”

The instructional gaps are an important area to improve because these scores have thus far shown the strongest relationship with future academic achievement in children, argued the Louisiana Policy Institute for Children in an April 2016 report.

Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.