CINCINNATI -- Conique Larbie looked far and wide for the right daycare provider for her son, Oumar.
She found the right combination of compassion and expertise in a staff of one at Blessed Christian Daycare Center, Michelle Baggett's business run out of her home on a quiet street in Northside.
Through a lot of hard work that began in 2014, Baggett's daycare center is believed to be the first small home-based daycare in southwest Ohio to earn four stars on Ohio's Step Up to Quality scale.
That rating will enable families like the Larbies to receive a Cincinnati Preschool Promise subsidy at Blessed Christian when the program rolls out in fall 2017.
Adding more small providers like Baggett to the roll of high-quality providers will be key to filling a huge gap between the number of 3- and 4-year-olds who live within the Cincinnati Public Schools boundaries.
Beginning in fall 2017, the district and its partner, United Way of Greater Cincinnati, will begin paying for children to attend preschools that have a star rating of three or higher on the five-star scale. Children from families that make twice the federal poverty wages or less will be able to attend schools tuition-free with the help of state and federal assistance.
But the district is faced with a huge supply gap that it's racing to fill. A study conducted by Rand Corporation found that there were nearly 4,000 more preschool-aged children than quality preschool seats within the district.
Baggett will fill a few of those seats. She sometimes works 18-hour days to accommodate the working mothers whose shifts might not end until midnight.
Some of her clients receive subsidies from Hamilton County, and to continue serving those clients, she was required by the state to be licensed. In 2020, home providers will be required to participate in the Step Up to Quality rating process.
Baggett earned one star in 2014 and got to work building on that, instituting a comprehensive curriculum that aligned with state standards and undergoing formal and informal assessments and screenings.
In 2015, she earned her second star. Last month, she leapt to four stars.
Baggett has a bachelor's degree in criminal justice and earned a Child Development Associate credential in 2012 as part of her quest to earn a high rating.
"The training helped me to understand the current ways in day care," she said. "When I decided to be in day care, I wanted the children to learn."
And she's not finished. She's working on an administrator credential at University of Cincinnati that will earn her a fifth star in 2017 if all goes well.
A hand up
Baggett got lots of help to help others, including donations from Computers to Crayons: "The resources of paper, crayons, scissors, books, glue, tape, stickers and much more have helped our children meet and exceed their educational goals," she said.
Oumar Larbie is diagnosed on the autism spectrum and came to the center at 2 with delayed speech and not potty trained.
Now, he's a potty-trained, chatty, energetic 3-year-old interested in puzzles, blocks and drawing.
Baggett has loaded her home with books and toys to accommodate Oumar's interests and those of other children. She takes care of five ranging from infants to 5-year-olds. She's allowed to take care of six children, but prefers fewer to make sure they have the attention they need.
Going the extra mile
Larbie works as a caregiver for 11 disabled adults, giving her a sharp eye for fellow care providers who do a good job.
She changed jobs and moved into a Northside apartment that costs $500 a month instead of a cheaper place in Fay Apartments so that she could use free time to interact with Baggett and her son.
"It's the best investment I could have made. I did that so that I could also be a visible parent, being able to give my time to help with gardening, being here for zoo trips," Larbie said. "Miss Michelle does so much. I wouldn't have been able to do that living 10 miles away."
Blessed Christian navigated the quality rating and professional development process with a lot of help from 4C For Children, which trains caregivers in the Tri-State.
4C for Children
Josh Craig, Baggett's mentor from 4C, has worked with her for years, helping her demonstrate her experience from years of care-giving and offering assistance with challenges like filling out her profile for the state on a computer.
"Being one person, Michelle is doing a lot of work," Craig said. "It's a lot to attain a five-star for one person. It's an online system, so not necessarily red tape but it is a barrier depending on the operator's technological skills."
He said providers like Baggett are invaluable.
"Michelle talked about keeping her numbers low. She does that to provide the quality of care she wants to provide. Family child care providers go above and beyond," Craig said.
Other agencies will be working to get home providers rated high-quality, including Cincinnati-Hamilton County Action Agency. The Bond Hill-based social services agency's Head Start program will help mentor small, privately owned daycare providers, said Kevin Osborne, CAA spokesman.
"We look forward to being an active participant in Preschool Promise, and will assist with building quality capacity for children and families to meet this important need in our community,” he said.
Craig is confident that providers will eventually have the capacity needed to serve all the families that want high-quality preschool and daycare.
"It will take time for us to get there. We all have this goal in mind," he said. "I think there are enough providers to make sure we have enough seats."