This summer, the College of the Canyons Child Development Center in Valencia became the first college laboratory preschool in Los Angeles County to be accredited by the National Academy of Early Childhood Programs, based in Washington.
The preschool laboratory at California State University, Northridge has applied for accreditation.
And the directors of the nine child development centers in the Los Angeles Community College District met recently to consider whether to pursue accreditation.
Is accreditation by the academy the wave of the future for child-care centers? Will parents look favorably on centers that have measured up during the long, involved accreditation process?
Joan Waller, 48, director of the COC preschool lab, thinks so.
"I think it provides vital information, not only to people in the field, but particularly to parents," Waller said.
Child-care providers in California must be licensed by the state Department of Social Services, which addresses health and safety issues, ensures that directors and teachers have sufficient college child-development credits and checks the physical setting.
But the Washington-based NAECP goes beyond that to evaluate curriculum, administration and interaction among staff, children and parents.
'Diversity of Programs'
The academy, which has been evaluating preschools nationwide since 1985, is a division of the National Assn. for the Education of Young Children, reportedly the oldest and largest professional association of early-childhood educators in the United States.
Sue Bredekamp, director of the nonprofit NAECP, said her organization conducts the only national voluntary accreditation system for child-care and preschool programs.
"Ours is the only one that addresses the real diversity of programs, through after-school programs, on college campuses, 'mom-and-pop' operations, chains, church-run and United Way-funded programs," she said.
CSUN laboratory director Sandy Rifkin said the accreditation was sought so that, "when parents are out looking, we can say, 'These are the criteria.' "
The preschool centers in the Los Angeles Community College District have internal evaluating procedures, as do CSUN and COC. But San Fernando Valley preschool lab directors also see merit in a national standard and are requesting sample evaluation materials from the NAECP.
"We have certainly been promoting it. It's just a matter of having the funds," said Kathleen McCreary, director of the child development center at Los Angeles Valley College.
Alice Hernandez, director of the Los Angeles Mission College Child Development Center, was more cautious. Although noting that state licensing standards "are very minimal," she said the centers have their own higher standards, and was unsure whether the group of directors will pursue national standards.
Erika Rosemark, director of the Los Angeles Pierce College Child Development Center, agrees that the NAECP offers "a very good evaluation system." But, she said, "we are so broke that we don't have the money" for the accreditation fee, which ranges from $250 to $750.
Rosemark and Hernandez agree that the nine LACCD colleges' internal "Measures of Effectiveness" has been a reliable instrument.
But, in the face of increasing demands for high-quality day care, many educators believe that the time is ripe for additional standards.
Bredekamp thinks national accreditation for a preschool will someday be something parents will seek. She likens it to hospital accreditation, which "was not always available, but is something the profession comes to expect and the public comes to expect."
Receiving national accreditation is time-consuming. The three-step process of "self-study, validation and review" took COC 10 months.
The collaborative effort begins with judgments from staff and parents on curriculum and interaction with children. The next step is an on-site visit by an outside educator to validate the study. Finally, there is a review by a three-member national commission.
The accreditation is valid for three years. A school must file annual status reports and conduct periodic staff evaluations, and may reapply for accreditation at the end of the third year.
Bredekamp said about 13% of the child-care facilities applying for accreditation are at first denied. Most quickly rectify problems and pass she added. Common reasons for denial are allowing unsafe situations, using punitive discipline and requiring children to perform tasks that are not appropriate for their age group, "for example, teaching 4-year-olds as if they were first- or second-graders," Bredekamp said.
If a program is rejected, it may reapply at any point. "They are told what they need to do and asked if they want to correct these things," she said.
The academy sends trained educators to the applicant facilities and rates them using its "position statement," called "Developmentally Appropriate Practice," which defines behaviors appropriate for children at various ages, Bredekamp said. The academy received ideas from several hundred educators nationwide before developing this standard.
In her research, Bredekamp found that there are dual benefits to accreditation.
"Internal benefits come to the staff and directors from knowing they are doing a good job, and they have been reinforced for that by a professional body," she said.
External benefits derive from assurances parents get "that the program they've chosen is one where people are committed to providing quality."