Early Care & Learning: How Are Vermont’s Young Children & Families?
The Vermont Early Childhood Action Plan includes a goal that “all children and families have access to high-quality opportunities that meet their needs.” This chapter provides information on how Vermont is doing to meet that goal in the areas of early care and learning.
The need for high-quality early care and learning opportunities
In Vermont, 70.38% of children under 6 years old and 78.54% of children 6 to 17 years old have all available parents in the labor force. This means that many families in the state have to balance the needs of their children with parent or caregiver work schedules. For families with young children, particularly children not yet enrolled in school, this balancing act may mean that a family must rely on other family members, friends, neighbors, or a child care provider to provide a safe, nurturing, and positive environment for young children for part of the day. These early care and learning settings play an important role in the learning and development of Vermont’s young children.
Vermont’s early care and learning system
While many families balance child care needs and work using family, friends, and neighbors, some families in Vermont use regulated (licensed or registered) early care and learning programs. As of June 2016, Vermont had 1,436 regulated child care and early learning programs. These programs offer a range of care and learning programs ranging from daily child care, non-recurring care (such as child care at a ski resort), after-school care, and early education (such as preschool or prekindergarten [pre-K]). These programs can take place in a family child care home (sometimes known as home-based child care), a child care center (sometimes known as center-based care or early learning program), a Head Start/Early Head Start classroom, or a public school pre-K classroom.
Lack of access for infants and toddlers
At this time, Vermont does not track enrollment data for all regulated programs. However, in May 2016, a study released by Let’s Grow Kids and advised by the Department for Children and Families Child Development Division (CDD), Vermont Department of Health Maternal and Child Health Division, Vermont Birth to Five, and Building Bright Futures analyzed the supply of and demand for regulated early care and learning for infants and toddlers in Vermont. Using data from CDD and the Vermont Department of Health, the study found that nearly 47% of Vermont’s infants and toddlers likely to need child care do not have access to regulated child care programs. Further, 79% of infants and toddlers likely to need care do not have access to high-quality, regulated early care and learning programs. The findings of this report demonstrate that Vermont still has work to do to ensure that all Vermont families have access to high-quality early care and learning opportunities for infants and toddlers.
As of July 1, 2016, all 3- and 4-year-olds, and 5-year-olds not yet enrolled in kindergarten are eligible for publicly-funded pre-K for a minimum of 10 hours per week for 35 weeks a year. This is an important step forward to make high-quality early education available to all Vermont children. Vermont’s universal pre-K program recognizes the need for families to be able to select the best pre-K option for their children and gives families the option to enroll in a pre-K program operated by a public school in their community or region or to enroll in a pre-K program operated by a regulated child care or early learning provider who has been qualified by the state to participate in the universal pre-K program.
While all school districts in Vermont will participate in the state’s universal pre-K program in the 2016–2017 school year, some school districts were early adopters for the 2015–2016 school year. According to the Vermont Agency of Education, in the 2015–2016 school year, about 7,300 children were funded through public education dollars at a pre-K program that was part of Vermont’s universal pre-K system. This number is expected to increase in 2016–2017 with the full implementation of the program.
Supporting high-quality early care and learning opportunities
Why quality matters
It is important for families that use regulated care and learning opportunities to have access to child care providers who understand and nurture children’s learning and development through quality interactions, because the way children are treated by the adults in their lives shapes their development.
Quality early care and learning experiences help support the learning and social and emotional development of children and prepare them for success in kindergarten and beyond. Each fall since 2000, as new groups of children entered kindergarten, Vermont teachers have used a survey to better understand the developmental progress of each child in areas such as social and emotional development, communication, cognitive development, wellness, and learning. The survey is not a direct assessment of children; rather, it relies on the teacher’s accumulated observational knowledge of the child from the first few weeks of kindergarten.
In the fall of 2015, after extensive expert review, a new Ready for Kindergarten! Survey (R4K!S) was adopted. The survey consists of 34 new and revised questions across five domains:
- Physical Development and Health
- Social and Emotional Development
- Approaches to Learning (e.g., enthusiasm for learning, persistence, curiosity)
- Cognitive Development
Teachers rate each child’s skills as “beginning,” “practicing,” or “performing independently” on 28 questions and judge if challenges such as hunger, illness, or fatigue inhibit the child’s learning on the remaining six questions. Children are identified as ready if their total score places them within the “practicing” and “performing independently” range. In previous versions of the survey, a score of “beginning” on any single item disqualified a child from being identified as ready, without regard for the overall score.
These changes in readiness criteria resulted in a substantially greater percentage of students identified as ready in the 2015–2016 school year than in previous years. The difference in the number and percent of students identified as ready is due entirely to the new method used to determine and define readiness, not to changes in the population of kindergarten students. Because the new R4K!S tool is different from surveys used previously, the results cannot be compared between the 2015–2016 school year and past findings. The 2015–2016 report is a new benchmark for understanding kindergarten readiness assessment findings.
In addition to providing a safe, nurturing, and loving environment, quality providers also appreciate that an early care and learning program is just one part of a child’s daily life, and seek strategies that contribute to not only the healthy development of the child, but also to the nurturing and support of the child’s family. Therefore, sustaining and developing the quality of early care and learning programs is important not only for Vermont’s youngest children, but also their families.
Vermont is one of 39 states plus the District of Columbia with a quality rating and improvement system to support regulated early care and learning providers in sustaining and developing the quality of their programs. In Vermont this is the STep Ahead Recognition System (STARS). STARS is a voluntary program that recognizes regulated providers for going above and beyond the standard early care and learning regulations. Programs that participate in STARS receive a quality recognition designation beginning at 1 star and ranging up to 5 stars. Programs with 4 or 5 stars or programs that have received national accreditation through groups such as the National Association for the Education of Young Children or the National Association of Family Child Care are recognized by many systems as high-quality programs.
Since 2009, Vermont has seen an important increase in the number of regulated providers who choose to participate in STARS and the number of programs with increasing quality recognition designations in STARS. This is great news for Vermont’s youngest children and their families, and highlights the importance of supporting Vermont’s early care and learning providers in the incredibly important work they do to nurture children and families.
An important factor behind this increase is the work of many partner organizations that work directly with providers. Through close collaboration, often including mentoring, these partner organizations directly engage child care providers to improve program quality. These partners include Vermont Birth to Five, the Vermont Association for the Education of Young Children, the Vermont Community Loan Fund, and Vermont Child Care Providers Association.
These quality improvement initiatives have significantly impacted participation rates of programs in STARS.
All content is from BBF’s 2016 publication of How Are Vermont’s Young Children & Families.
Citations, figures, and tables can be viewed here.