Maryland EXCELS—Defining Quality, One Care Program at a Time

In this age of online reviews, smartphone apps and instant feedback, researching everything from a new coffee maker to car to a vacation spot is simply a few clicks away. Wouldn’t it be nice if the same could be said for investigating child care? Thanks to Maryland EXCELS and both its online platform and mobile app, researching quality local early education is at your fingertips.

Maryland EXCELS

The Program
A collaboration between the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) and the Johns Hopkins University School of Education’s Center for Technology in Education (CTE), Maryland EXCELS is simultaneously a rating system, an invaluable informational resource for families, and a support and improvement system for child care in the state. Child care programs in Maryland that have chosen to go beyond state licensure and participate in the Maryland EXCELS system are rated on a scale of one to five (the highest rating) based on criteria established by the MSDE. According to an incredibly informative .pdf available on the Maryland EXCELS website, early education programs “demonstrate their competence in Staffing and Professional Development, Accreditation and Program Improvement, Developmentally Appropriate Practice, and Administrative Policies and Practices.” Additionally, in an effort to provide options to families with more specific needs or requirements, the system also identifies child care that has reached set standards in the areas of health and wellness, asthma-friendly child care, quality business practices, eco-friendly programming, and cultural and linguistic competency.

Collaboration for Quality
Lindi Mitchell Budd, chief of the Maryland EXCELS branch within MSDE’s Division of Early Childhood Development, says the system was in the making for nearly a decade. It blossomed once a federal grant was issued to CTE to orchestrate the technological side of Maryland EXCELS while the state was able to create and manage the policy arm. Deciding where to send a child for care can be an overwhelming process, Budd says, and the system was designed to make the search less daunting. “What Maryland EXCELS does is add another layer of quality on to Maryland’s already rigorous licensing standards,” Budd explains.

She says Maryland EXCEL’s online tool offers users the option to apply filters to search for a child care experience that falls within their specific parameters. Not only do the website and smartphone app allow families to vet quality local options, they also serve as educational resources for parents, says Jena Smith, Budd’s colleague at Maryland EXCELS. The site is a “great place for parents to learn what makes up quality child care,” she says.
Tonya Wright, early childhood project administrator for JHU’s Center for Technology in Education, explains Maryland EXCELS from the technological side, noting that participating care providers submit documents to create a portfolio of sorts, “our team reviews those documents and gives that provider a rating based upon what they’ve uploaded.” The information then goes to the MSDE, which reviews the proposed ratings.

ThinkstockPhotos 671260408wideBecause the system establishes ratings for a range of child care options (child care centers, public preschools, family child care, before- and after-school programs, and Head Start), families are introduced to a variety of options that might suit their needs. Wright says that while the data show that parents tend to select care based primarily on location and cost, Maryland EXCELS encourages them “to make quality an equal consideration when they are selecting programs for their child.”
“Research shows how much development happens in those first five years, so we really want to inform families of what quality is and what quality looks like in different program types,” says Wright. “Quality can look different in different places and in different environments and in different regions and in different program types, and that’s okay. We just want to make sure families are informed so they can make the decision that’s best for their individual family and their individual child,” Wright explains.

Going Above and Beyond
Cathy Ross of Cathy’s Care, a registered family child care provider in Glen Burnie, has been in business 25 years and jumped at the chance to get involved with Maryland EXCELS. Her program, which is both a Maryland Credentialed Child Care Provider and National Association for Family Child Care Accredited, is a level 5 within the system’s quality rating framework. Ross says she’s eager to participate in any system that encourages early education providers to grow and exceed standards. “It makes me a better person, it makes me a better provider, it makes my program better,” she says. “For me, it’s a great self-study tool. It gives me another chance to look back at my program from a different perspective.”
Ross is also glad that there exists a resource detailing a variety of regulated care options, as it seems some families are unaware they ought to be using regulated child care in the first place.
Amy Schroeder is the director of Mt. Hebron Nursery School in Ellicott City, a private, traditional school of 200 students that’s been operating in Howard County for more than 50 years. Schroeder says Mt. Hebron was one of the first schools to link up with Maryland EXCELS as part of the pilot program. She notes that the nursery school has worked hard to achieve and maintain its level 5 status, and she urges other child care programs to take part in the system regardless of their starting point or current rating. “It’s good just to participate,” she says. “Don’t not do it just because you can’t be a 5 right away.”

Schroeder and her team have even earned “extras” beyond a level 5 status, so it is possible to “improve on a good thing.” And, whether that good thing is a new family provider serving a handful of families or a long-established large public preschool, it’s nice to know that Maryland EXCELS provides child care throughout the state with the tools for self-improvement and local families with a resource to find quality care, one program at a time. To learn more about Maryland EXCELS, visit marylandexcels.org.

—Laura Boycourt