Early learning ensures kids get best start in education

About this story

Micki Chestnut is director of communications for the United Way of Douglas County, which provides occasional features spotlighting local volunteers and charities supported by the United Way.

It’s hard not to wish you were still a kid when you visit Becky Vickers’ home-based early learning center, Just Kidding, in Eudora.

The nine students in her care, who range from infants to preschoolers, can cozy up in the reading corner to develop early literacy skills, practice some engineering skills with the bins of colorful blocks or throw on some doctor’s togs and give the doll babies a physical in the dramatic play corner. In the fenced-in wonderland outside, they can get a lesson in biology by plucking a carrot from their garden for snack time or learning how worms regenerate in the mud and water discovery area.

Vickers’ learning center wasn’t always a kids’ paradise. When this accountant-turned-early-educator opened her center in 2007, she said, “I had no clue what I was doing. I was basically babysitting.”

That was before she connected with Child Care Aware of Eastern Kansas and began participating in the Kansas Quality Rating Improvement System (KQRIS). Through KQRIS, child care programs are assessed for quality and given the ongoing assistance they need to make strategic improvements. With the help of Jenny Eberth, a KQRIS quality improvement coach with Child Care Aware, Vickers has taken Just Kidding from a one-star rating, the very lowest, to almost five stars, the top rating.

With funding from the United Way of Douglas County and other sources, Child Care Aware provides support for 23 child care centers in Douglas County involved with KQRIS. The program is so popular there is a waiting list to get in.

“Research shows that providing a high quality education for children before they turn five yields significant long-term benefits,” said Erika Dvorske, president and CEO of the United Way of Douglas County, which funds Child Care Aware’s KQRIS program under its Education Community Impact Goal to ensure children have the resources they need to enter kindergarten ready to learn.

“United Way is working with our community partners to support efforts that provide long-term community results. One of the best places we can invest community funds is in quality early learning programs because they are laying the groundwork necessary for school success.”

“The formative years, between zero and five, is a teachable time, a time to take action,” Eberth agreed, underscoring why it’s essential for children to be in care settings that have proven systems in place that promote early literacy.

Providers who participate in the KQRIS program receive one-on-one coaching from a quality improvement coach to prepare for their first rating and then to make the ongoing improvements necessary to increase their rating. The coach helps providers write grants for learning materials such as books and educational toys. In addition, KQRIS offers providers networking opportunities, ongoing training programs and even college tuition. Vickers was able to receive her associate’s degree in applied science in early education with the help of the program.

Knowing all she does now, Vickers is not surprised her first rating with KQRIS was so low. At the time, she said, “I was shocked. I thought I was a good provider. But when I started, I was babysitting. Now I’m teaching. There is a huge difference. My confidence has gone from zero to one thousand.”

Now Vickers understands and embraces the vital role she plays in preparing young children to be successful in school: “The early childhood environment children are raised in, that is shaping their future. This is where it starts. If it’s great in the beginning, they are going to enjoy learning, enjoy exploration and continue to do it throughout their lives.”