RALEIGH, N.C. — In September, a
2-year-old girl died
after being left all day in a church day care van near Youngsville.
That same week,
two three-year-old boys scaled a fence
at a three-star day-care center in Raleigh. The boys crossed a four-lane road before they were discovered missing.
What does three-star mean? A rating system created by the state aims to give parents information about the centers they choose for their children.
Like a five-star restaurant or hotel, five-star child care in North Carolina does not come cheap. It is expensive to run a five-star center and it is expensive to send a child there.
"For us, there's not really a value we can put on our children. We're basically making a second house payment every month at the day-care center," parent Jennifer Trapani said.
Trapani sends her twin 15-month-olds, Mallory and Andy, to Primrose School at the Park, one of the first schools in the state to get a five-star license. The twins previously went to a lower-rated center.
"The biggest difference I noticed is the quality of the staff, the education level, the maturity level. The professionalism of the staff is uncomparable," Trapani said.
When parents first visit a center they tend to focus on safety. For example, they might want to know if doors are locked and the types of toys offered. The state's Star-Rated License System focuses on who the teachers are and what kind of experience and education they have.
"Typically, teachers have been with us more than three years -- frequently four, five, and six years. That's really the key to the quality," said Kathy Miller, a day-care center owner.
The state started issuing licenses on a scale of one to five stars in 1999. Centers meeting basic requirements are awarded three stars. Four- and five-star centers must employ staff with advanced education and experience.
According to the North Carolina Division of Child Development, as of Nov. 12, 310 child care providers across the state have a five-star license; 797 are rated with a four-star license;1,375 have a three-star license and 935 centers have one or two stars.
All new centers start with one star for the first six months. After that time they can apply for more stars.
"Now we have 60 percent of licensed centers that have a three- to five- star license. That is substantial quality," said Peggy Ball of the N.C. Division of Child Development.
The Children's Discovery Center in Raleigh has a three-star license. Owner Anne Caspar said she is not as concerned about her star rating as she is about offering quality care at a price families can afford.
"This is a very bad time in the economy. Parents need to know that somebody is out there trying to help them in the situation that we're in," Caspar said.
Parents can get information about each center's license online at the Division of Child Development Web site.
"I think it's a good benchmark, it's a great place to start. I would start at the top and work my way down," parent Juliet Rosenbaum said.
Star ratings can change as a center makes changes. Little Treasures in Cary went from a four-star to a five-star license.
"The point is to have happy children in a place that you can trust -- that you're 100 percent certain they're taking care of your child and that your child is healthy and safe," parent Joyce Pope said.
Parents said when shopping for child care, it makes sense to shoot for the most stars.
The church day-care center where the 2-year-old died was licensed, but had no star rating. Church day cares do not have to follow the same requirements as other centers in the state.
In the case of the boys who wandered from their day-care center, the N.C. Division of Child Development said the incident was being investigated as a child neglect case.
The state's Web site provides star ratings, basic information about the centers, complaints and how the complaints were resolved.