Working toward a Spark Rating and Putting Spark to Work For You
Corina Perez, a Preschool Promise Specialist in Malheur County, is excited about the many ways that Eastern Oregon Child Care Resources is supporting Early Educators with quality improvement and recognition and her recent meeting with Governor Kate Brown. We were delighted to have an opportunity to talk with Corina and learn more about the many promising developments happening in Eastern Oregon as well as one of the Preschool Promise programs she has been working with.
What was it like meeting with Kate Brown at the recent Reception for the Latinx Community?
Corina: I went to the reception and talked with a lot of different individuals – chamber of commerce people, a gentleman who works for homeland security, a lady from Clackamas community college – and every time I talked with them about early education, they were so appreciative of early educators and said that during the pandemic they were really impacted by not having child care. Everyone was so excited to talk with me because quality child care affects everybody. When I spoke with Kate Brown, it was exciting to talk about how early education plays a role with everything, influencing all the way up through college to create a workforce. We talked about how starting with quality practices in early education means that we can make sure that the workforce is ready for the future with strong social-emotional skills.
What is exciting about Spark in your region right now?
Corina: We are a new CCR&R, only going on our second year. Before working here, back when I was an early educator, I heard of Spark and I was kind of like “one more licensing thing.” It was a struggle then because we didn’t understand much about it. Now at our agency we are seeing more people being excited for it. It’s opening more doors for enhanced rates, for Preschool Promise, and for when (hopefully) Baby Promise comes to our region. When we do trainings, like for The Pyramid Model, early educators make connections to Spark and realize, “oh I’m doing these quality practices already because I learned them from Spark.”
Back when I worked at a child care center and I got my Spark rating, I felt like we did something. My teaching staff worked hard to create that quality. I think that when you have something like that it shows pride – I’m a professional. I do this and I do this well. I see it as something to be excited about. The last two years have been hard on early educators so Spark has been the last thing on their minds in some cases. I love that my job is to re-inspire and remind early educators about their why. Now is a great time to tune back into quality improvement and recognition practices. You can implement these things and maintain a quality program and we are here to support you!
How are you supporting child care providers who are working on their portfolios?
Corina: Many of the early educators I work with don’t have a Spark rating. They have gotten started by applying for Spark but haven’t submitted their full portfolio yet. I work with them on understanding what it means to have all these pieces of evidence. I want to make sure we are really implementing the quality practices and that we are looking at how we’re going to maintain those practices. We’re sitting down and working together one standard at a time. When we first started, it was tempting for some early educators to just want to spend a day or two and get things done, but now we understand that it takes longer than that to look at our quality practices and document them. For any early educators who are wanting to be part of Preschool Promise, I discuss with them what Spark is, what does quality look like for them and where they’re at with their program.
Corina connected us with one of the programs she has been supporting; Executive Director of Giggles & Grace Early Learning Center, Shawn Reynolds.
Shawn has been involved with Spark since it was just called QRIS. At the first Giggles & Grace site the teachers did the Spark portfolio there and taught him about it. When Giggles & Grace opened their second site in 2016 the prior director had started a portfolio. A few years after Shawn came on board, they finished and submitted their Spark portfolio with Corina assisting as an Education Coordinator. Giggles & Grace is currently working on a portfolio for their third site which opened a year ago. Giggles & Grace partners with Malheur ESD and is doing Preschool Promise and Early Head Start. They knew they needed to get their Spark rating in order to partner with them.
What have been some of the benefits of participating in Spark?
Shawn: It has been a metric. It’s great having a quality standard to strive for and achieve – At a minimum, all child care providers should obtain a 3 star rating. SPARK was enlightening in allowing us to see the areas where we really shine in addition to areas of growth or limitations where we needed new policies, procedures, or the framework to improve our services. For instance, in regards to inclusion and diversity, we were already demonstrating star rating practices but not on a regular basis. Prior to obtaining a SPARK star rating, we had a child in one of our programs who was Japanese and visited Japan frequently, and we had his family come in to present and share their culture. Spark helped to open our eyes about furthering such instances by adding to our dramatic play centers in our classrooms to be more supportive of a variety of cultures. That was just one of the many ways we were able to further what practices we had in place.
In terms of management and policies, Spark helped us to see that we needed a behavioral guidance strategy for adult/child interactions that is unified organizationally. This has actually been one of the most helpful things about doing Spark and I really recommend it to all early educators. It has helped us tremendously to have the same strategies across classrooms so that as children age up within our center there is continuity of care – all of the teachers are on the same page.
Spark also has financial benefits. We were able to get increased funding through ERDC which benefits our families.
What challenges have come up for your programs with Spark?
Shawn: The biggest challenge of Spark is timing. It can be really tough to do once the doors are opened or within a preschool year. If you are a new early education program, some of the components of Spark can be completed and met at 5 star rating when creating initial policies, procedures, or written practices before you open your door. Tasks like a Parent Handbook and the way that you set up your space can be done based on Spark standards before families ever arrive, which is more practical for the children, families, and organization.
Children are always going to have challenging behaviors, as can adults. Another huge benefit of doing Spark is that we started a parent concern and complaint policy. We use this as an indicator for how we are doing with families and it is a great feedback for how we can improve in various facets of early education. It helps us to make sure we can focus on common goals and expectations with families and facilitate good communication. Revamping our Parent Handbook for Spark was also super helpful. Our policies are more refined and transparent now and it has helped us to better provide our orientation and tours in a more effective manner. We know what to make sure we are clear about with families and we have more success in mediating with families in some areas like naptime now because everyone is clear about expectations and the Office of Child Care requirements. Some families don’t nap their children, but we now ensure they know it is part of what we must offer per Office of Child Care so they can make more informed decisions about whether we are the right fit for their family. It has really helped us to build positive open communication and family based relationships and minimize concerns they may have if unheard otherwise. We also realized that families don’t use our physical suggestion box as often since COVID so now we have a chat box on our web page and we get a lot more feedback that way – people can send an anonymous email that way and they actually use it.
Working with Malheur ESD, with Corina at the CCR&R has helped us strive to provide quality service in a very high-poverty rural area that has been really impacted by drug use and has a very high rate of foster care. In a rural community like this, raising the awareness of the importance of early education is paramount to obtaining support funds in Eastern Oregon. The positive relationships formed in quality child care can genuinely change a kid’s life. I think that people underestimate the valuable need of early education in rural communities. Spark helps us to grow grant funding and workforce opportunities by assisting child care providers in stabilizing programing via quality services that are recognized and needed to grow in supporting more working families. Rural areas can’t help themselves to go from struggling to thriving if they can’t attract young people at the beginning of their careers to the area and those folks have to say no to jobs if the community can’t provide child care for their kids. Again, Spark is such a great way to align yourself with potential grant opportunities in the future.
Schedules, Routines, and Transitions
A few of the Spark portfolio standards in the Learning and Development domain such as LD7 and LD8 request evidence that includes evidence of daily routines or a schedule. Schedules and routines influence children’s emotional, cognitive and social development. They can help children to engage in learning, know what is happening and what to expect next, and feel comfortable and safe. But what is the difference between a schedule and a routine? A schedule represents the whole day and includes the main activities. Routines break down the steps needed to complete each of those main activities.
It is important to develop and use a schedule that is visually displayed so that everyone can see it. It should be referred to and reviewed throughout the day. If something unexpected comes up during the day and there must be a change to the schedule, it is really helpful to make a visual change to the schedule as well and go over that with children. The schedule should keep whole group transitions from one activity to another to a minimum. There should be some activities that are directed by an adult, but that should be balanced out by opportunities for children to select their own activities as well. Some early educators prefer a visual schedule that goes from top to bottom and some prefer a schedule that goes from left to right at a child’s eye level.
Effective routines should be implemented consistently on a day to day basis. Educational activities can be embedded in those routines to make the most of the time you have with children. It is helpful to have a clear beginning, middle, and end to routines and activities. It is also helpful to use visual materials and engaging strategies for routines.
Transitions can be stressful for some children. Teaching transition routines can make a huge difference in successfully navigating from one activity to the next. Giving everyone a cue or warning when a transition will happen soon can help. Having children sing, do finger plays, games, or other activities (including children who are waiting for the next activity to start) can help to ease a transition. Giving specific positive feedback when children are transitioning appropriately can help to build that routine. Plan to provide support to children who have difficulty at transition times. Giving them a specific role or providing a basket with a few special books or toys in it to use at these times may help.
While consistency with a schedule is important, it does not have to be set in stone. In fact, when you recognize parts of the day that seem to be problematic, a few small changes with the schedule can have big positive effects! One Oregon early educator who realized she had a particularly energetic group of children one year rearranged her schedule so that outside play came first. She had always thought that starting the day off inside with a settling in time was just the way you do things, but experimenting with an opportunity for the kids to burn off some of that energy meant that when they did come in afterward they were ready to settle in and engage with the other activities she had planned. For other early educators, adjusting snack or nap times back a bit in the day can gain better cooperation from children when they are feeling more hungry or tired. You can adjust your schedule to make the day fit your particular group’s needs.