CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- An in-depth, continuing evaluation of Smart Start, the state program designed to ensure that all North Carolina children arrive at school healthy and ready to learn, has found that child care has improved in the 18 counties where the program began.
The independent University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill research involved visiting 180 child-care centers in 1994 and 187 in 1996, according to study director Dr. Donna Bryant, a researcher at UNC-CH's Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center. It also involved interviews with families, focus groups and other fact-finding efforts.
Visitors trained in evaluating quality of care -- from the number of children in each classroom and their activities to interactions between children and caregivers -- rated each center. Overall, researchers found that evaluation scores rose about 7 percent over the two years. Eleven percent more centers met or exceeded a score considered good.
Our results show that child-care quality is better in 1996 than in 1994 and that the level of quality is related to Smart Start efforts, Bryant said. The fact that we have seen changes of this magnitude in the early formative years of Smart Start when programs were just getting off the ground is really quite positive.
Imagine the changes that might occur when child-care quality improvement programs become more focused and training opportunities and incentives become more widespread. We still have much room for improvement.
Scores for day-care quality in pioneer counties rose as a group from 4.25 to 4.52 on a 7 point scale, she said. Experts consider 5 to be good, and state officials and others hope that all centers eventually will receive a 5 or higher.
We are very excited about these findings, said Stephanie Fanjul, director of the N.C. Department of Human Resources' Division of Child Development. All across the state we have been hearing from parents, providers and other community members that child care in Smart Start counties has improved. Now we have proof that what we heard was true. The children in these communities clearly are getting better care because of Smart Start.
One lingering concern expressed in focus groups and interviews was how much autonomy local leaders will have in deciding how to spend state Smart Start dollars, Bryant said. Another continuing challenge is how to get business people, agency directors, educators and parents of young children, for example, to collaborate productively when they usually come from such different backgrounds and experiences.
Still, the partnership teams are working very hard, and the partnership executive directors are amazing people, she said. I admire them greatly.
Forty-eight percent of Smart Start money has been given to child-care subsidies or child-care improvements during the 1996-97 fiscal year. Spending on day care in the early years of Smart Start ranged from 20 percent to 80 percent with the rest of the funds going to health care, home visiting, reading, family assistance and other programs.
Other findings were that:
* In 1994, only 14 percent of classes were rated as good. By 1996, 25 percent were rated good.
* Among the 91 centers visited during both reviews, the second evaluation showed a significant jump in the number rated AA, a higher licensing level.
* Almost a fourth of families interviewed said they needed parent education programs.
* Families from a wide range of incomes are being served by Smart Start, and the majority are employed (63 percent of low-income families and 90 percent of middle income families.)
* While most children were fully immunized by kindergarten as required by law, only 53 percent of kindergartners had been immunized on time. Seven percent had visual impairment, 2 percent hearing difficulties and 25 percent some form of health problem.
* Kindergartners who had attended child care had better language, social and thinking skills than those who had not.
Other leaders of the evaluation team, all at UNC-CH, are Drs. Kelly Maxwell, investigator at FPG and project director; Peg Burchinal, director of the design and statistics computing unit at FPG; Virginia Buysse, assistant director of the center; Jonathan Kotch, professor and chair of maternal and child health at the School of Public Health; Peter Neenan, School of Social Work researcher; Dennis Orthner, professor and director of the Human Services Research and Design Laboratory in social work; Ellen S. Peisner-Feinberg, investigator at FPG; George Noblit, professor of education; and Joseph Telfair, former assistant professor of maternal and child health.
Counties originally included in Smart Start were Burke, Caldwell, Cherokee, Clay, Cleveland, Cumberland, Davidson, Graham, Halifax, Haywood, Hertford, Jackson, Jones, Macon, Mecklenburg, Orange, Stanly and Swain. Twenty-six other counties have since joined the program.