SHELL ROCK — As Mila Smith showed off her preschool and day care facility last week in the basement of Faith Lutheran Church, the children shyly looked on.
Smith showed the arts and crafts area, the cages where the children watch caterpillars transform into butterflies and the list of animals that lay eggs. Finally, as she pointed out the white carnations soaking up colored water to see which ones change colors, a small boy chimed in.
“We putted them in there,” he said proudly, before taking over Smith’s tour: “This is our grocery store.”
Besides the children, their parents and the staff, not many people are aware Faith Lutheran Preschool and Daycare exists, said Smith — not even many of the church’s parishioners.
“People say, ‘I didn’t even know,’ and they’ve been members here for years,” she said.
But over the past nine years, Smith has quietly transformed the program into a 50-child, 3-year-old-through-fourth-grade care center, one of the highest-rated in the state.
Various rooms separate — even by noise — the different activities. There’s no screen time, Smith said, and most activities are “hands on.”
“You very seldom see kids sitting around without interaction,” she said.
Faith Lutheran joins a somewhat exclusive club of day cares — both centers and home-based — to achieve the state’s highest rating.
Smith, who has a degree in elementary education, has twice led her staff to a Level 5 rating, which is good for two years. There’s a monetary incentive for the highest rating, but Smith also goes through the months-long process for its own sake.
“I want to do it well and be the best,” she said.
The Iowa Quality Rating System, or QRS, began in 2006. As of March, 112 of Iowa’s 695 rated day care centers were Level 5, about 16 percent, according to state data. Over half of centers — 357 — are a Level 4.
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The system is overseen by Department of Human Services-funded agencies like Childcare Resource and Referral of Northeast Iowa, which help centers prepare for the scrutiny involved in attaining a higher rating.
“It does become more challenging once they get to those higher levels,” said Mary Janssen, regional director of Childcare Resource and Referral, based in Waterloo. “Someone like Faith Lutheran renewing their Level 5 — it just shows their dedication, their work, that they want to provide quality care. They’re a program that always wants to go above and beyond.”
The lowest, Level 1, is the baseline qualification. Level 2 means a day care has been certified through an agency training. To attain Level 3 and above, day cares have to rack up “points” in categories like health and safety, environment, professional development and family and community partnerships.
Centers, as opposed to in-home day cares, also have to have points in “leadership and administration,” or evaluations of staff members.
When Janssen began at Childcare Resource and Referral, she was a QRS specialist. Now, she’s part of the statewide team completely revising the QRS, including renaming the system as Iowa Quality for Kids — a revision it hadn’t gone through since 2012.
The overhaul is designed so even Level 1 providers have “continuous improvement,” Janssen said.
“Sometimes, in our current system, there’s not enough to choose from for their points,” she said, noting they’ve held several focus groups and gotten feedback from providers. “This will build their quality in many ways.”
Only around 30 percent of day-care providers participate in the current QRS within the 19-county region of Northeast Iowa.
“In the end, child care is a tough field — we’re seeing more people leave,” Janssen said. “I think the new system will help build the quality and build participation.”
Smith said she wouldn’t want to do anything else.
“It’s one of those jobs — you get hugs all day long,” she said. “You’re with them year after year, you get really attached — and then some are now seniors or in college, they’re valedictorians, they have gotten special honors, they’re star athletes. Well, you know, maybe we had something to do with that.”