With efforts to measure and improve child care quality in Colorado now ensconced in state government, the nonprofit organization that laid the groundwork for that system will close next month.
Leaders at Qualistar Colorado said the state’s recent progress in prioritizing quality in child care centers and preschools makes it the right time to end operations as a stand-alone entity.
“That’s always the best story you can have for a nonprofit, where it puts itself out of business,” said Kathryn Harris, Qualistar’s president and CEO.
One of Qualistar’s chief accomplishments over its 20-year history was pioneering a rating system for preschools and child care centers well before the state took on the task with federal dollars in 2014.
Unlike the mandatory state system, called Colorado Shines, Qualistar’s system wasn’t widely used among providers because it was voluntary and expensive. Still, it was a respected tool at a time when many states had no mechanism at all for letting parents, providers, or the public know whether children were in good hands at preschool or child care.
Most states now have quality rating systems, which evaluate everything from teacher credentials to classroom set-up and parent engagement efforts. High quality child care helps children develop skills they need to start school and over the long term is associated with better health, education, and economic outcomes.
Qualistar has 30 employees and a $3.7 million annual budget.
More than one early childhood advocate said Qualistar’s decision to close wasn’t a complete surprise, given the evolution of the rating system from a privately funded initiative to a statewide effort scaled up with government dollars.
Bill Jaeger, vice president for early childhood and policy initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign, said while Colorado hasn’t yet achieved universal quality in its child care centers and preschools, Qualistar has achieved a key part of its mission by elevating discussions about quality.
“What Qualistar set out to do is becoming the norm,” he said.
Anna Jo Haynes, co-chair of the state’s Early Childhood Leadership Commission, helped found Qualistar in 1999 following the release of a multi-state study that gave Colorado low marks for child care quality.
“Boy, did we say, ‘Enough of this,’” recalled Haynes, who sat on Qualistar’s board during its early years.
Qualistar, which was originally named Educare, drew substantial philanthropic support to create and advance its four-star rating system. Those efforts, Haynes said, along with constant advocacy at Colorado’s capitol, helped convince lawmakers that measuring and improving child care quality was important.
Now, that Qualistar’s era is ending, she said, “I think they can take a bow and say, ‘We did a good job.’”
After Qualistar closes, some projects will continue under the auspices of other local early childhood organizations or, in one case, a spin-off group.
Clayton Early Learning, which does research, training and runs a well-respected child care center in northeast Denver, will take over Qualistar’s state contract to conduct on-site assessments for the Colorado Shines system. Child care centers and preschools seeking one of the top three of Colorado Shines’ five ratings must have an on-site assessment.
State officials said Qualistar’s closing will not affect any providers’ current ratings and that they’re working to ensure there will be no delays in upcoming ratings as the hand-off to Clayton unfolds.
The Early Childhood Council Leadership Alliance, which works on behalf of Colorado’s 31 early childhood councils, will take over administering a scholarship program for early childhood providers pursuing college-level classes in the field.
One Qualistar initiative, Healthy Child Care Colorado, will spin off into its own nonprofit. It will continue to provide training and technical assistance to child care providers on health, wellness and safety topics. It will also continue making grants for playground and building improvements.
Harris said the groups taking over Qualistar initiatives will have authority over staffing, but she’s hopeful a number of Qualistar employees will land jobs with them.
Harris, who took the helm of Qualistar four years ago, said she’s not sure what she’ll do next, but it will be something related to education.
Contemplating Qualistar’s legacy, she said, “Colorado and the people who led this organization before me were trailblazers and I think that’s something to be very, very proud of.”