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Raising the Quality of Child Care in New Jersey

United In Care helps providers navigate the Grow New Jersey Kids quality improvement rating system


Recently, Michele McEnroe, a home-based family care provider who runs Michele’s Family Child Care in Warren County, N.J., was debating about getting her program re-rated by Grow NJ Kids, the state’s quality improvement rating system for child care. She wanted to improve upon her existing three-star rating but was dreading the process.


Once awarded, the rating score is valid for three years. The rating is important for child care providers like Michele, with clients who receive government funding that supports low-income families. A higher quality rating equates to a larger rate of reimbursement of government subsidy payment to the provider on a family’s behalf. So, there are clear financial incentives to providers for being quality rated, even though Grow NJ Kids is a voluntary program.

Michele McEnroe sports some of the new educational toys and furniture purchased by United In Care to help Michele's Family Child Care increase her Grow NJ Kids rating.

Initially, Michele was reluctant to re-enroll, knowing of the labor-intensive paperwork, extensive training and on-site preparation needed. But it was a requirement for a new program she joined—United In Care.


The program, created and led by United Way of Northern New Jersey, includes four networks in Warren, Morris, Gloucester, and Hudson counties, as part of a pilot project. These networks are comprised of an established child care center serving as a hub resource for a group of five to 10 home-based providers, also called Family Child Care providers (FCCs). This shared services model is designed to increase access to quality, affordable and flexible child care in New Jersey, with a focus on helping providers enhance their programs and gain greater stability.


Michele had a list of improvements and stringent requirements to meet, like installing hardwood floors to prevent dust allergies; and purchasing desks, shields and PPE to accommodate remote learning during the COVID pandemic.


But affording quality supplies and resources is a constant struggle for Michele and many other child care providers, many of whom can’t afford to cover their family’s basic expenses and often fall into the ALICE® (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) demographic. Even with a financial scholarship from Grow NJ Kids, Michele was having a hard time improving her program.


For providers like Michele, hitting the rating finish line was largely made possible with the team of experts and support offered by United In Care. Child Care Specialist Amanda DiScala, of United Way, helped Michele get through the paperwork and advised her on which furniture and supplies were needed to achieve a higher rating. And the network of other providers gave her additional guidance and the encouragement to keep pushing.

Michele McEnroe shows off her new crib, which has helped increase the quality of infant care Michele's Family Child Care provides.

An important feature of the United In Care test pilot is its capital improvement program, which allocates funds for providers to purchase needed items like educational toys, furniture, and other items to improve the quality of their program. United In Care provided more than $7,700 worth of supplies that Michele picked out herself to improve her program. She remembered Susan Cohen, United In Care’s special projects manager, saying, “Let us get that for you.”


The hard work and perseverance paid off. Michele’s Family Child Care is now recognized with a coveted, four-star rating. “It was all doable,” thanks to the support of United In Care, she said. Since joining the program, she’s become more confident in taking care of children and in her new-and-improved child care space.


This job is “more than a babysitting job…it’s to teach them and watch them grow,” said Michele, who still receives visits from kids she cared for over 20 years ago and are now adults with children of their own.


A LONG AND WINDING ROAD TO QUALITY

The road to achieve a Grow NJ Kids rating is slow and strenuous, taking around two years to complete. During that time, providers receive mentoring and training from three separate state-appointed agencies to set specific goals related to staff training and development, safe and healthy environments, and curriculum delivery.


This process culminates in a 3-hour-long in-person observation to assess the learning and development impacts of the program. A rating is then assigned based on this and a review of the required paperwork.


One of the initial barriers to enrolling in Grow NJ Kids is the amount of time needed to complete paperwork, attend labor-intensive training, and prepare their classrooms. Michele says that home-based childcare providers must meet very strict criteria, like storing toothbrushes with the brush end up and requiring specific lengths of brushing time for the children.


The process is the same for both FCCs and child care centers. It’s proven to be cumbersome for well-established centers with full-time staff. For home-based providers doing it alone, it seems almost impossible.

Joan Dillon, executive director of Glassboro Child Development Centers, United In Care's center hub in South Jersey.

Joan Dillon, executive director of Glassboro Child Development Centers, which operates as the hub for United In Care’s Gloucester County network, was one of the first in South Jersey to get a Grow NJ Kids rating.


She, too, initially resisted enrolling because of the time commitment. Her staff had to go through 24 hours of curriculum training and 12 additional hours of assessment training. They would then have to assess the “baseline development level” of each of their 250 children to track improvement. It was so time consuming that Joan had to pay staff members to complete training outside of business hours, using funds from the center’s last Grow NJ Kids scholarship.


Adding to the frustrations, sometimes the benefits of staff training were lost due to the high turnover rate for workers in the child care industry. Nonetheless, Joan continues to invest in her program with the support of United In Care, which helped her with much-needed capital improvements. Initially, Joan was discouraged by narrowly missing a four-star rating, but the center still celebrated its 3-star designation.


“It makes your staff feel more validated in the professional work that they're doing when you are part of a Grow NJ Kids-rated center,” Joan said.


A NETWORK FOR SUPPORT

With the complicated Grow NJ Kids process, compounded by siloed individuals and organizations along the way, Katie Styer, who operates Woods Edge Family Child Care in Blairstown, was initially resistant to enroll in Grow NJ Kids. Her program is nature- and outdoor-based and she had concerns about selecting a curriculum that will meet the rating criteria.

Katie Styer, owner of Woods Edge Family Child Care, sits outside her outdoor classroom, which includes educational items purchased by United In Care.

“Sometimes, our outdoor classroom is a trail,” Katie said. “So, it's definitely a little bit challenging for me, since I'm different, and Grow NJ Kids is not really designed for different.”


Yet because United in Care’s network has been incredibly valuable for growing her business and she wants to continue to participate, she agreed to enroll in Grow NJ Kids. The support she’s received from the United In Care team and her fellow providers has encouraged her to stick with it as she continues to work towards an official rating.


“It’s nice to have the feeling of camaraderie because you don't really talk to other providers, especially when you don't work in a center,” she said. “I didn't know I needed it.”


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