Photo: Michele McDonald for Strategies for Children

Earlier this year, the Massachusetts Board of Early Education and Care took steps to align the state’s Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) grant program with the Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS) launched in January 2011. Now the Department of Early Education and Care (EEC) is offering $800,000 in open competitive UPK grants under the new guidelines, which went into effect with the start of fiscal year 2013. The grants are open to existing UPK programs and new applicants. Eligible center-based programs and family child care providers must apply by October 16.

The UPK grant program, created in fiscal year 2007 and incorporated into statute in 2008, is designed to help programs sustain and improve quality. QRIS, which defines elements of quality and establishes a tiered system for measuring quality, is designed to assess quality and help programs improve. In February, the EEC board voted to require UPK grantees to be at Level 3 on the four-level QRIS and grandfathered existing UPK grantees for one year.

EEC has established several priorities for the UPK grants, as detailed in its procurement information:

Eligible programs and providers must, among other criteria, enroll or be willing to accept low-income children, demonstrate that they serve “high-needs” children with multiple risk factors, self-assess at Level 3 or above on QRIS, and offer developmentally appropriate curriculum as outlined in the state’s preschool standards and guidelines.

The grants, according to EEC, will fund “quality improvement activities” that, among other things, increase staff compensation, lower staff/child ratios, enhance the program’s ability to interpret and use developmentally appropriate assessments, support staff studying for college degrees, enhance developmentally,appropriate practice, and/or promote family engagement.

Amy O’Leary testified about the aligning of UPK and QRIS in testimony before the board in February. “It maintains the UPK name within the broader QRIS which includes programs and providers for children from infancy to school-age. The proposal will allow more programs into the system, align quality standards, and increase access for a broader range of children. Both UPK and QRIS focus on quality, which research tells us is critical if we want to achieve positive outcomes for children,” O’Leary testified in February. “As we update the UPK grant, we must continue to support educators and programs by understanding the obstacles and challenges created by this change.”