As seen in the Worcester Telegram, Sunday, December 28, 2014, by Sara Schweiger
WORCESTER — In the middle of Room 1 of the Children's School at Quinsigamond Community College hangs a miniature solar system fashioned from string and Styrofoam balls.
The teachers labeled each "planet" based on input and observations from the young students.
"This is Neptune," read one colorful orb.
The display in the large, sunlit classroom is an example of what Children's School Director Nancy Knight describes as a curriculum based on children's interests. Some of the children in the class had asked questions about outer space, so the teachers used it as a learning opportunity.
That type of self-directed learning was one of many factors in the school's recently becoming the first in the state to earn a top rating through an assessment system known as QRIS.
Launched on a pilot basis in March 2010, the Massachusetts Quality Rating and Improvement System rates early childhood programs — home day cares, preschools and after-school programs — on a scale from 1 to 4, with Level 4 being the highest.
"High-quality early education and care opportunities provide children with a strong foundation for learning and academic achievement," Tom Weber, commissioner of the state Department of Early Childhood and Care, wrote in an email. "By supporting our programs in attaining high levels of quality, the Quality Rating and Improvement System is a key tool in preparing our young learners for a lifetime of success."
QRIS looks at five standards — curriculum and learning; safe, healthy indoor and outdoor environment; workforce quality and professional development; family and community engagement; and leadership, management and administration — and uses several tools, including the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale.
The rating process includes a self-assessment and an on-site review.
"It's very specific, very detailed," Ms. Knight said, noting that a program must show evidence that it's meeting every requirement within each standard.
"It's not like they say, 'You're doing really well with this and not that'; it's all in one."
Case in point: In the "supervision" section of Standard 5 (Leadership, Management and Administration), a program, to be at Level 4, must demonstrate, for example, that it provides "systematic opportunities for educators to engage in reflective teaching practices through the use of peer groups, demonstration of best practices and ongoing mentoring."
To that end, Ms. Knight lauded the support the Children's School receives from QCC faculty.
The Children's School, a licensed, accredited preschool founded in 1972, serves as a training site for QCC's early childhood education students.
"I think the team meetings we have with the faculty is definitely unique here," she said. "And that brings up the quality for everyone. It affects the college students as well because the educators down in the classroom have to be role modeling the best practices, because the students are watching and learning from them."
Charlene Mara, a professor and faculty coordinator of QCC's Early Childhood Education Program, said the rating is less about comparing early childhood programs and more about setting the Children's School as a sort of mentor to others.
"What it feels like to me is that it makes sense for us to be the first Level 4 QRIS school, because we're training teachers to go work out in all these centers. It isn't about 'program to program' for me; it's more about raising the whole quality of the field."
Back to the curriculum aspect, Ms. Knight said teachers have been working to integrate STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) into classrooms.
"It could be through planned activities, purposefully set up areas of the classroom," she said. "We do a lot with hands-on materials. Teachers ask open-ended questions. The teachers prompt them to investigate more."
Ms. Mara said children had gone outside on a recent snowy morning with sheets of black paper and magnifying glasses.
"They were able to see how each snowflake was different, how long it took before it melted."
Of course, the examination of snowflakes is not new for children, but it's the intentionality of such activities that has changed.
"It's really laying the foundation for scientific and mathematical thinking," Ms. Mara said. "Inquiry-based, problem solving. Where it starts is with young children. We really lay the foundation here to love learning and to know how to get the answers to their questions. It starts in early childhood. Not a lot of people know that. They think you get to public school and that's when you start learning."
Ms. Mara emphasized that the levels under QRIS are the reverse as those for public schools. While Level 4 for an elementary or secondary school indicates "underperforming," Level 4 in early childhood is exemplary.
The Department of Early Education and Care plans to develop a fifth level that links high-quality education and care with positive developmental and educational outcomes for children.
Eventually, QRIS ratings will be available in a public database for parents and caregivers.
Contact Sara Schweiger at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter