Inside a small room at Little Giants Spanish Immersion School in central Phoenix, a dozen toddlers scurry about, each grabbing a placemat and setting it on two pint-sized tables where they sit for lunch. Both hands on head, they sing in a chorus about scrumptious homemade meals as they wait for everyone to be served.
“¡Gracias!” the children shout in unison after a teacher’s cue – buen provecho – to enjoy their meal. For the next few minutes, the room turns quieter as the children munch on fruit, pasta and sandwiches.
It’s a routine that teachers have emphasized since preschool director Lupita Guerrero, who has extensive experience in early childhood education, founded the preschool in 2022 to provide the type of child care that nurtures the healthy development of children – including her two grandchildren, Santi and Noah. Based on the success of the first program, Guerrero founded a second Little Giants in 2023 in midtown Phoenix.
To ensure optimum services for children in her care, the preschools take part in Quality First. This voluntary program helps improve the quality of child care and preschool for children and families in Arizona. Quality First is funded through Arizona’s early childhood agency, First Things First (FTF).
Now, one of the preschools faces the impending loss of the program.
Child care providers slated to lose access to resources for staff and families
Little Giants in midtown Phoenix is one of about 400 child care providers scheduled to lose access to professional development coaching, scholarships for families and other benefits provided under Quality First. The federal pandemic relief funding that allowed FTF to expand the program and ease high demand for quality child care will run out June 30.
Currently, more than 1,300 programs participate in Quality First. While FTF devotes almost 20% of its annual budget to the program, budget constraints mean only about a third of the state’s eligible programs can participate. Federal funding helped clear the waitlist, but those funds run out at the end of June.
Losing enrollment in Quality First would be a detriment for families with small children, Guerrero said. From the beginning, the program was part of her vision for Little Giants as a safe environment that could provide children with a high-quality, positive early learning experience anchored in the Spanish language and its cultural connections.
Research shows that the younger children are, the easier it is for them to learn more than one language. At Little Giants, children from different backgrounds can be heard speaking Spanish or singing in Spanish during play time and lunch time.
Bilingual child care and preschool program committed to providing quality early learning
The bustling preschool, housed in a small building owned by an adjacent church, currently enrolls 39 children, from newborns to age 5. They and their families will no doubt be affected by the loss of Quality First, Guerrero said.
The First Things First strategy partners with regulated child care centers, home and preschool programs throughout Arizona to make quality improvements that help children birth to age 5 grow, learn and thrive.
Guerrero, a native Spanish speaker who has worked with families and children for more than two decades, was familiar with Quality First. She applied to participate in it soon after opening Little Giants in August 2022. She was elated when the preschool received 3 out of 5 stars in a rating system that measures progress.
A provider has met or exceeded the standards of the Quality First program at 3- to 5-stars, with 5 being the highest rating. Star ratings are based on what research shows are the key components of quality early care and education.
“It’s a foundation for better things,” she said of Quality First. “And I knew from the beginning the importance of having quality for the teachers, for the children.”
Quality First coaching provides invaluable encouragement and professional development
The program provides training for teachers who are at the center of children’s learning experience during the essential early years of their development. A Quality First coach worked with teachers in previous months, Guerrero said, and the staff is now setting goals with another coach for the coming months.
“Before Quality First I was already training the teachers, but now that we have Quality First, we have the benefit of having a nurse come in and train them on how to change diapers, the importance of hygiene – there are many topics that the program can help us with,” Guerrero said.
Teacher Nadia Ornelas said the positive feedback received from a coach who observed her and her co-workers interacting with children reinforced her desire to keep striving to provide the best care for youngsters.
“She would give us feedback and guide us and give us strategies to help our children in the areas of social and emotional cognitive development,” Ornelas said.
During one activity, the coach saw that the children were repeating words that Ornelas was using and encouraged her to continue.
“They were expanding their thinking,” Ornelas said. For example, she points to the social and emotional learning that takes place when toddlers are learning to share. “It was just taking turns with toys because at one year old, everything is ‘mine, mine, mine,’ right? It was good that we were able to do the activity and they were all focused,” she said.
In another activity, Ornelas put a large piece of paper on the floor and the children began drawing themselves, because they remembered that one of their lessons had their teacher pointing out which part was their head, their feet, their legs. They started doing the same.
“So they were doing that to each other,” Ornelas said. “Even though they were using smaller words, they were still mimicking.”
As the Quality First coach observed the activity, Ornelas said it made her feel more confident in her teaching.
“It’s rewarding when somebody recognizes, ‘Hey, you’re doing wonderful,’ and you might be thinking that you’re not doing that good because a couple of our kids need a little bit of support with their social and emotional areas. But according to her, we’re doing good. We’re helping them in the appropriate way. We’re guiding them. We’re redirecting positively. We’re staying focused. We explain to them according to their age what we’re doing.”
Quality First scholarships help making child care more affordable for some working families
In addition to the coaching and consultations, FTF provides Quality First Scholarships to eligible families who meet income limits to send their child to a Quality First participating program.
Guerrero said Quality First scholarships are crucial for working families that struggle to make ends meet and may not otherwise be able to afford child care.
Parent Meagan Marmon said the scholarship that her son and daughter received to attend Little Giants provided much-needed financial relief for her family. And knowing that her children, infant Santana and 3-year-old Mila, are getting high-quality care while she’s at work gives her peace of mind.
Marmon said her daughter’s development is noticeable and she’s quickly picking up Spanish.
“The teachers are amazing and the center really aligns with our values,” she said. “My husband is Hispanic, so it was really important that we brought in Spanish language to their everyday learning.”
Without the scholarships, Guerrero said, “families who need it most would not be able to receive these high-quality services.”
She holds out hope for a funding solution that could keep her midtown center off of the Quality First waitlist beyond June.
“We need external support so that we can improve services for the children,” Guerrero said. “It’s important for the benefit of the children because they are the future.”