JAMESTOWN, N.D. — Only 12% of state-licensed child care providers in North Dakota participate in the quality rating and improvement system, according to a North Dakota KIDS COUNT report.

Bright & Early North Dakota is the state’s quality rating and improvement system that helps identify high-quality child care and early educational programs that prepare children for school and life, according to Bright & Early’s website. The quality rating and improvement system is a systematic approach to assess, improve and communicate the level of quality in early and school-age care and education programs, the website states.

Bright & Early North Dakota has been available statewide for five years and is a program of the North Dakota Department of Human Services’ Early Childhood Division.

“It was designed to showcase and support programs committed to going above and beyond to improve their quality of care,” said Tara Wateland, quality administrator for the Early Childhood Division.

Child care providers that voluntarily participate in Bright & Early North Dakota, which has four standards or steps, must show, demonstrate and pass the requirements to advance to the next step.

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“The higher you are, the more evidence you have shown to provide high quality care,” said Xanna Burg, North Dakota KIDS COUNT coordinator. “We are talking about facilities that are going above and beyond just the basics of having health and safety standards.”

The North Dakota KIDS COUNT report, called “A modern economy depends on child care. North Dakota can make it affordable and accessible,” outlines how North Dakota can build a better child care system and looks at the access, quality and affordability of child care.

Wateland said programs participating in Bright & Early receive benefits such as coaching support, free or low-cost training opportunities, marketing materials and access to quality improvement grants. Programs that receive a Bright & Early quality rating of step two, step three or step four are eligible for a tiered quality improvement grant to better support their investment and quality.

The report recommends identifying and removing barriers for participating in the quality rating and improvement system.

A majority of child care providers in North Dakota do not participate in Bright & Early because it is voluntary, Burg said.

“(It) doesn’t mean that 88% are low quality,” she said. “It just means they are not participating in a standardized way to track their quality. The parents are having to do all of that assessment themselves. What are the barriers to providers participating in the Bright & Early program, because barriers must exist if the majority of providers aren’t participating.”

A total of 151 state-licensed child care providers in North Dakota participate in Bright & Early North Dakota with 15 quality-rated programs reaching step four. There are 69 quality-rated programs at step one, 43 at step two and 24 at step three.

North Dakota had 1,184 state-licensed early childhood programs in 2020, according to data from Child Care Aware of North Dakota. Licensed program types include family, 216; group in a facility, 145; center, 201; and group in a home, 622.

Michelle Klabo, owner of ABC Learn-N-Play, an in-home child care business in Jamestown that is a step-four provider, said she participated in Bright & Early because she could get financial incentives to improve her program.

“Once you became a step-two provider you were paid so much per child — money to use toward your program,” Klabo said. “I was able to get more materials. … When I got my step four, which is the highest, I used a big down payment to put a new play structure, a Rainbow Play Systems, in my backyard. "

It is also beneficial to parents seeking child care to see a provider on Bright & Early North Dakota’s website that participates in the program, Burg said. She said another benefit is children are receiving documented high quality care.

Klabo said another incentive of participating in Bright & Early is that her child care business is on top of a list of other providers on the Child Care Aware website because it is a step-four provider instead of being listed in alphabetical order.

“That was definitely an encouragement to be like we took the extra step to make our program a better quality program,” she said. “We go through all these steps to prove that. Then you might get more referrals or parents coming to the program.”

Klabo said going through each step wasn’t difficult but it was time consuming. The report states it takes about nine months to move through one step.

Wateland said it takes on average about nine months for providers to advance to the next step but the process can go faster.

“It kind of depends on what they need and the support services that they receive,” she said.

Child care providers who have achieved any quality rating renew their quality rating every three years, Wateland said.

“They still have their quality rating and all the stuff that they received to get it and achieve it and then they renew it every three years,” she said.

If a provider with a quality rating chooses not to voluntarily participate in Bright & Early again, the provider's quality rating would expire, Wateland said. She said it can take up to nine months to go through each step in the renewal process but it depends on how much support a provider wants and how quickly a provider wants to move through the process.

Klabo said a barrier for other child care providers to participate in the quality rating and improvement system might be having someone observe the provider and judge the program.

She said in step two someone comes in for three hours, observes the provider and documents it.

“That could be intimidating,” she said. “And then it also happens in your step four where somebody comes in and observes how you interact with children and the communication you are doing. People just don’t want somebody coming in and saying what they could be doing wrong. Then there are also positives. It is also what they are doing right too.”

Klabo said Bright & Early is a good program and would like to see more child care providers participating in it.

“Each step challenges you to do better in your program and improve your program and make it a more of a higher-quality program,” she said.

For more information on Bright & Early North Dakota, visit www.brightnd.org. For more information about available grants for child care providers, visit https://bit.ly/3i0PS9d.

Bright & Early North Dakota steps

  • Step one is about health and safety and meeting and maintaining child care licensing regulations that are designed to protect and promote child safety and well-being in all types of settings, according to Bright & Early North Dakota’s website. Licensed programs are required to maintain minimum standards related physical space, safety, cleanliness, staff qualifications and staff-to-child ratios.
  • Step two programs continue to meet the requirements of step one and provide a safe, responsive and engaging environment.
  • Step three programs continue to meet the requirements of steps one and two and provide meaningful activities and experiences that build upon children’s strengths and development. Providers use a curriculum to plan activities and guide teaching practices that align to the North Dakota Early Learning Standards. Providers implement an observation-based assessment system to ensure children are making progress toward the goals outlined in their curriculum.
  • Step four programs continue to meet the requirements of steps one through three and foster relationships that support and emphasize children’s interests, motivations and points of view.

Information is from Bright & Early North Dakota’s website.