Walk into Iowa City’s Little Angel’s Learning Center in Iowa City and you’ll see many rooms with colorful toys. On Tuesday morning, a little girl in a pumpkin costume was playing with orange Play-Doh, and a group of children were making Halloween decorations at a table with their teacher, laughing and helping one another.
The center is upgrading its security, and it works to adhere to as many national guidelines as possible, even though it isn’t nationally accredited just yet, said Cathy Stange, director of the center.
The center is working on obtaining a level-three rating in the state’s voluntary quality rating system — but that doesn’t mean it isn’t already a quality center.
With almost 200 child care facilities to choose from in Johnson and Linn County, selecting the ideal center can be a daunting task. But the Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS) officials and center leaders say what makes a good day care is typically based on a case-by-case basis of what’s best for a child and his or her family.
With eight different types of child care from which to choose — ranging from a licensed center to an unregistered facility that can only serve five children — finding the right place for your child is difficult. The more centers a parent visits often can lead to more questions.
One tool is Iowa’s Quality Rating System (QRS), which was launched by DHS in 2006 to improve the quality of child care in the state.
Iowa’s Quality Rating System awards points to registered child development homes, licensed child care centers and child care programs that are operated by school districts. The points are based on the center’s licensing status, education, experience of staff, health, safety, training, whether they are accredited and a self-assessment.
Different achievements carry different point values.
According to DHS, a level-one facility has met Iowa’s registration or licensing standards. Level two indicates a facility has gone through additional training which includes mandatory reporting of child abuse, universal precautions and infectious disease control, CPR and first aid.
A level two center also has taken steps toward improving quality by having all staff go through an orientation process before, and having center employees conduct assessments of themselves, their co-workers and the center.
Levels three through five indicate a center has taken steps to enhance its quality further.
To obtain higher levels, child care facilities are required to get more points by doing things such as getting national accreditation or improving the education and training of the director and staff, completing a health, safety and nutrition class, having a child care nurse review records and check the center to prevent injuries, enhancing their child-to-teacher ratio, holding annual conferences with parents and evaluating staff on a yearly basis.
Centers with a high QRS rating vary in price, and a higher QRS rating does not necessarily mean a parent will be asked to pay a higher price. Eleven centers in Johnson County and 22 centers in Linn County have some level of a QRS rating.
Marina Miller, who sends two of her children to Five Seasons Learning Center at Viola Gibson Elementary, which recently acquired a level five QRS rating, said she chose the center because she had heard it had good reviews, which gave her peace of mind. Her second child was on a waiting list and has been enrolled since August
“It’s just a safe place to be,” Miller said, as she dressed her younger daughter Vanessa for a dance class. “Because there’s nothing better for a mom knowing that your child is happy and safe.”
Worth the work
Miranda Niemi, assistant coordinator at Five Season’s Learning Centers – which runs four centers with a level five QRS rating through the Cedar Rapids school district – said achieving high ratings can be time consuming because it requires a lot of documentation. But, she added, it is worth the time.
“It’s becoming a very competitive business, we try to do the best we can to just show we care about our programs and show we have that quality because it’s something parents are looking for,” Niemi said.
Five Seasons Learning Centers runs six centers total, the remaining two hold level four and level three QRS ratings.
Some of the requirements – such as training staff and purchasing new toys and materials – also can get costly.
“It’s a lot of work, but it’s very well worth it because it really takes you to best practices, and that’s my philosophy,” said Stange, who runs a center in Iowa City. “If I’m going to be in this business I better be offering best practices and not just minimum standards, and that’s what we try to do.”
Sarah Scott, who also teaches at Viola Gibson, has two kids in the Five Seasons Learning Center program. She said the center’s high rating gives her confidence her children are engaged throughout the day.
“I think it means this is meaningful time and it’s not warehousing or herding cats,” Scott said. “It’s not just putting kids in babysitting it’s actually well thought out time where they’re intentional with the activities they pick.”
Parents also have the ability to view a center’s most recent licensing report.
But when going through these reports, it’s difficult to find a center with zero violations. DHS officials and day care providers say that’s because DHS’s licensing consultants work with the centers to help them get better.
“When you look at a care center report, you’re almost always going to see violations, and that’s because violations are seen as an opportunity for improvement and are not a direct path to negative action,” said Amy McCoy, spokeswoman for Iowa DHS.
With a binder full of DHS requirements to stay on top of, Stange said she’s grateful to have that positive relationship.
“I don’t feel like it’s a punitive relationship. In fact, it’s a good one,” Stange said. “If I’m doing anything wrong, I know I’ll get plenty of warning and help to get things fixed.”
Centers typically are inspected once a year. If a complaint on the center is filed, a DHS inspector will go to the center to investigate that complaint.
In the past year, McCoy said six day care centers in Johnson County and three day care centers in Linn County have had a change in licensing or a license revoked.
Removing some legwork
To aid the child care-finding process further, Iowa Child Care Resource & Referral (ICCR&R) provides support to both providers and parents. ICCR&R helps centers meet requirements and improve through consultations, while also offering a referral service to parents to remove some of the legwork in finding the right facility.
McCoy said an informed decision on child care is often made by starting early, working with ICCR&R — which collaborates with DHS to help parents find child care and receives some DHS funding — visiting numerous programs and staying involved with the center after making a decision.
Cyndi Malik, a parent specialist for ICCR&R’s fifth region, which includes Linn and Johnson County, said the process begins by confidentially collecting a family’s needs and expectations, location, the hours and days they need care for their children and the ages of their children.
Then, officials with ICCR&R provide parents with referrals and briefs parents on what they should look for in a quality program.
When considering a day care center, Malik said ICCR&R recommends parents monitor a facility’s health and safety, provider education and turnover, program, environment, family involvement and whether the center has a written agreement establishing what is expected of the provider, and what the provider expects of parents.
Parents also should make sure the center has an open-door policy, allowing parents access to their children at all times.