Under the guidance of Commissioner Holly Robinson, the independent governing board of the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning has slowly but steadily made the state’s day-care standards more rigorous in recent years.
The board has added health and safety rules ranging from additional hand washing to securing heavy furniture and appliances that could fall on children.
Despite opposition from the day-care industry, the board also increased the educational requirements for teachers and directors. It has expanded the range of penalties for day cares that violate state rules. And it has added new learning and curriculum requirements for the children in care that push Georgia toward the head of the pack regionally.
Among Bright from the Start’s 2010 goals, as stated on the agency’s Web site, is to lower health and safety violations in child-care settings by 15 percent by fiscal 2012.
Now, Bright from the Start is preparing to launch a new “quality improvement system” that will recognize high-performing day cares, Robinson says, although it will not look like the star rating systems used in states such as Tennessee and North Carolina.
Gov. Sonny Perdue and the Georgia General Assembly created Bright from the Start in 2004 in an effort to reorganize the state’s services to young children and their families under a single department. The agency was formed by merging the Office of School Readiness with units from the Department of Human Resources, the Department of Education, and the Georgia Child Care Council, according to the Bright from the Start Web site.
Luann Purcell of Warner Robins, chairwoman of the Department of Early Care and Learning board, said the consolidation improved the state’s ability to improve child-care quality, although funding continues to be a challenge.
“I don’t know anybody at the federal or state level that’s putting the kind of money you need into early education,” she said.
Today, Bright from the Start’s most prominent, and heavily funded, duty is to administer the state’s prekindergarten program, one of the most widely available public pre-k programs in the nation.
But it also oversees day cares and publicly funded food programs for children and adults; provides assistance and training to families and others who care for children with special needs; houses the Head Start State Collaboration Office; and funds regional resource and referral agencies that provide information and support to families and child-care providers at the local level.
Soraya Miller, director of the southwest Georgia regional Child Care Resource and Referral Agency, credits Bright from the Start for the many changes it has made to address health and safety issues at day cares. And she said it has made good use of stimulus funds to help compliant day cares achieve national accreditation.
Under Robinson, who was appointed by Perdue in 2007, the department has begun focusing more on gathering research and measuring results.
“The staff has done a great job of looking at other states and other studies,” Purcell said. “We’ve been working the last couple of years with raising the standards.”
Bright from the Start began partnering with the state Department of Education to implement a testing identification system for children participating in Georgia Pre-K so their progress could be tracked throughout their school career.
The state also commissioned an independent study of the quality of its early childhood care by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It found infant and toddler care poor, and care for 3- and 4-year-olds and public prekindergarten mediocre. Bright from the Start is using the study results as a platform to make improvements.
Purcell has said the study also validates many of the changes the board has already made.
Stacey Neuharth-Pritchett, president of the nonprofit advocacy and training organization Georgia Association on Young Children, said Bright from the Start is making incremental change.
“Quality is hard to move,” she said. “It takes a lot of time, effort, resources and support.”