Walk into the preschool on the Grossmont College campus and you might see toddlers gamboling around a cushy couch, playing hide-and-seek and shrieking. You might nearly stumble over the pigtailed girl in a blue cape piecing together a puzzle on the carpet. And you might smile when assistant teacher Christina Risch kneels down on the floor with the caped girl to sing a song about pizza.
But when Kathryn Ingrum walks into a preschool like this one, she sees things you might have missed. She calculates the ratio of building blocks to toddlers. She scrutinizes whether the teacher asks provoking questions. She checks whether children wash their hands long enough and often enough. She even checks whether there are enough books in Spanish or about children with disabilities.
Ingrum heads up a team of evaluators who are judging preschools on a dizzying list of criteria. It isn’t just an exercise: Her ratings decide how much money each preschool in a small experiment run by the San Diego County Office of Education gets from a California tobacco tax. Proponents hope the cash can persuade less-than-stellar preschools to change their ways and help good ones get even better.
More than two dozen local preschools from Vista to San Ysidro have been put through the wringer over the past four years. It’s a pilot program meant to test whether preschools can be rated, much like public health departments rate restaurants. A middling classroom gets $3,650 per child; an excellent one gets $4,400. Teachers can also get up to $3,500 annually extra for having a college degree and running a class well.
Advocates say it’s working: 80 percent of preschool classes improved their rating last school year, according to the County Office of Education and First 5 San Diego, a local group funded by a tobacco tax that California voters approved to help school readiness. More than 200 teachers also sought a college degree or extra training in early childhood education with the extra money as a carrot.
Preschool ratings are proliferating across the country as states try to find a way to hold preschools to a higher standard and ensure kids are prepared for kindergarten. Twenty states now have some kind of preschool rating system and more are in the works, including one for California.