Cocopah Head Start recently reached a milestone and teacher assistant Alicia Mills couldn’t be more excited.
“Achieving a four-star rating means a lot,” she said. “All of our hard work paid off.”
The early childhood program participates in Quality First, which First Things First (FTF) created to help improve the quality of child care and preschool for children birth to age 5 and their families in Arizona. The FTF Cocopah Regional Council funds the voluntary program in its community.
To measure progress in quality improvement, each program participating in Quality First is assessed and given a Quality First Star Rating, ranging from 1 to 5 stars. 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.
A quality environment that promotes children’s well-being includes skilled teachers and learning environments that nurture language and cognitive development, as well as social-emotional skills and regular feedback to parents on the development of their child.
Cocopah’s achievement was one of teamwork, Mills said. And the winners are the program’s 20 children.
“The children have new toys and new ideas to explore,” she said.
The higher rating not only meant more funding support for age-appropriate books and other learning materials, but – for the benefit of children – it also consisted of intensive professional development for Cocopah’s staff members.
To help make the early childhood program reach its higher star rating, the staff had to attend about 120 hours of training sessions on the developmental needs – such as social emotional, physical and health – of young children.
“We learned what to expect and how we’re supposed to do things,” Mills said. “We have to really get on the children’s level, have that eye contact, and really work with them, showing them how to play, what to do in each area, and how to talk to them, how to interact. It was really nice.”
A Quality First coach was at the ready, helping staff members create goals and make adjustments in areas that needed improvement, she said. Later, when she and her co-workers learned that they had achieved a 4-star rating, Mills said they couldn’t help but burst out in tears.
“We just cried so much because we were so happy,” she said. “We were so excited about it.”