The new director of the Washington Department of Early Learning says he wants to improve the quality of more preschools and secure more funding from the Legislature.

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Washington state’s preschool program has received kudos for its efforts to improve quality, but it gets poor marks for the small number of kids benefiting from high-quality preschools.

The new director of the Washington Department of Early Learning says he wants to address that by improving the quality of more preschools and securing more funding from the Legislature.

As one of the state’s chief budget writers during his time in the Legislature, Ross Hunter once was part of the problem. The state could not enroll more low income 4-year-olds in preschool until the Legislature put more money into the early-learning budget, which it did last year in a budget Hunter helped write. That added 1,600 new low-income slots in Washington state.

The Washington Department of Early Learning estimates that 3,200 low-income 4-year-olds are still in need of a state-funded, high-quality preschool.

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Washington state ranks 33rd in the nation for access to state preschool for low-income 4-year-olds, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research, which conducts an annual review of preschool programs. The same organization consistently gives Washington high scores for quality.

Hunter thinks he can also increase the number of kids in quality preschools by getting quality information in the hands of parents and helping more child care centers improve their programs through the Early Achievers program. The program rates preschools on their quality, publishes those ratings online and helps schools improve their grades by providing educational opportunities, scholarships for college courses and personal coaches for preschool leaders. Just under half the state’s licensed preschools were enrolled in the program as of last July.

An estimated 76,000 kids are enrolled in preschools that are part of the Early Achievers program.

“We’re focusing our efforts first on centers and homes that provide care to low-income families,” Hunter said.

Grace Alams, who runs the Creative Kids Learning Center on the campus of Viewlands Elementary in North Seattle, was an early adopter of the Early Achievers program, before it became mandatory. But the experience hasn’t been as seamless and positive as she expected.

A few parents have noticed the yellow sun on her state listing that identifies her center as an Early Achiever, but Alams says word-of-mouth is a better marketing tool for the 20-year-old school that focuses on prekindergarten for 4- and 5-year-olds. A few dozen children were busily learning and playing in the bright, well-equipped center in a portable classroom on a recent morning.

Alams has enjoyed working with her quality coach but would like to see communication and training within the Early Achievers program improve so that the coaches have a better idea of what the inspectors will look for when rating the centers. She earned a good score but had expected a great one based on her coach’s comments.

“I know a lot of providers are not very happy,” Alams said, adding she would advise the department to work toward making the program more collaborative.