Programs that Work
Children Ready for School
Children ages 0 to 5 exhibiting age-appropriate mental and physical development
Age of Child
Early Childhood (0-8)
Type of Setting
Child Care / Preschool
Community-Based Service Provider
Health Care Provider
Type of Service
Health Care Services
Type of Outcome Addressed
Cognitive Development / School Performance
Evidence Level (What does this mean?)
Smart Start is a comprehensive public-private community-based initiative to help all North Carolina children enter school ready to succeed. Created in 1993, the primary focus of Smart Start is to provide families with access to high-quality childcare. The program is predicated on the notions that (1) the first six years of life are the most critical; (2) better quality childcare programs can increase a child's ability at school entry; and (3) a child's ability at school entry can often predict later academic success. Currently, 81 local partnerships, encompassing all of North Carolina's 100 counties, have begun implementation of Smart Start to assure that children in their communities begin school healthy and ready to succeed.
Smart Start's approach allows communities to make decisions and plans that are specific to the needs of their young children and families. All Smart Start programs are based on three core areas: (1) child care and education; (2) health care and education; and (3) family support and education. The individual services provided by each site under these core areas are tailored to each community depending on its specific needs, goals, and priorities. As such, the full range of services is not likely to be available at all sites.
All children with geographic access to a Smart Start program are eligible to participate. Although not specifically aimed toward children of low income, the program does attempt to reach those who would not otherwise necessarily have access to high-quality services such as childcare. In two comprehensive evaluative studies of the Smart Start program (FPG-UNC Smart Start Evaluation Team, 1997, and Maxwell, Bryant, and Bernier, 1998a), 24 percent and 29 percent of the participants, respectively, were categorized as "poverty" level. These percentages are fairly consistent with the number of children under six years of age nationwide who were living in poverty in 1997, estimated at 22 percent by the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University, using data from the Current Population Survey.
Because of the multiple Smart Start-related services that may be embedded within the community, it is difficult to definitively or accurately categorize the Smart Start population in terms of characteristics, demographics, or numbers.
Two multi-site comprehensive evaluations of Smart Start were conducted by the University of North Carolina’s Frank Porter Graham Center (FPG-UNC) Smart Start Evaluation Team. In the first evaluation, conducted in 1997, Smart Start families who had children entering kindergarten were invited to be part of a pilot study measuring kindergarten "readiness". Two years of previous attendance at the Smart Start center was required for participation. The sample, drawn from a single county, was composed of 39 Smart Start children and a comparison group of 272 children. Both groups were assessed upon initial entry to kindergarten using the Kindergarten Teacher Checklist (KTC), which asks teachers to rate the child’s cognitive, language, social, and motor skills on a scale of 1 to 5 with a higher score indicating greater skill. Outcomes analysis compared Smart Start children to those who had attended some type of other childcare prior to kindergarten entry, and to those who had no previous child care experience.
A six-county study was conducted in 1998 that replicated the original single-county study with a larger, more geographically diverse population. The sample for this later study included 142 children in the Smart Start group and 294 children in the control group. This study (FPG-UNC Smart Start Evaluation Team, 1998) performed two levels of comparison, including: (1) an assessment of children who had attended a center that engaged in any Smart Start practices versus children who had attended non-Smart Start child care, and (2) a comparison of children who had attended Smart Start centers that engaged in specific activities related to improving childcare quality (such as enhanced subsidies for higher childcare quality, higher teacher education, license upgrades, on-site technical assistance, quality improvement, and facility grants) versus children who had attended non-Smart Start child care.
Key Evaluation Findings
The research studies (Maxwell, et al., 1998a; FPG-UNC Smart Start Evaluation Team, 1999) found the following:
- The Smart Start program has been effective at improving the quality of childcare at participating centers. This improvement is evidenced through a comparison of Smart Start programs to themselves (for example, increased accreditation by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, governmental licensing ratings, or increase in teacher credentials) and to non-Smart Start facilities. Programs that have increased their quality of childcare have produced more and a higher level of positive results than all other programs. This finding suggests that the improved quality of childcare has been an important contributor to positive outcomes.
- Children from low-income families who attended Smart Start programs were rated significantly higher in readiness for school than were children from low-income families who attended other centers.
- For non-poverty children, the mean KTC score was not significantly different for those who attended Smart Start compared with those who attended another childcare center.
- When compared with children who had not received previous childcare, children who had attended Smart Start scored significantly higher on the KTC, indicating an increased readiness for kindergarten.
- When compared with children who had attended non-Smart Start programs, children who attended Smart Start programs that focused specifically on childcare quality improvements performed significantly better on the KTC.
Agencies within the community who are able to collaborate, including preschools, health clinics, dental clinics, teacher education programs, parent education programs, family resource centers, and other such agencies.
Smart Start is funded by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services and by private donations. An extensive list of the private donors can be found on the Smart Start Web page at http://www.smartstart-nc.org/overview/donors.htm.
Smart Start funds are administered at the local level through local nonprofit organizations. The North Carolina Partnership for Children is the statewide nonprofit organization that provides oversight and technical assistance for the 82 local partnerships established throughout the state. Services at the local level range depending on local needs. In 2004, funding for Smart Start was approximately $192 million in state funds. Since 1995, Smart Start has also raised more than $200 million in donations from businesses, foundations, and individuals.
At each site the programs are designed and tailored to meet the needs of the specific communities. Smart Start's approach requires local communities to plan how best to meet their needs. Individual sites may offer a wide range of services including childcare, health screening, parent education, and family support services. All sites must adhere to the Smart Start goal of working to improve the quality of early childhood education and center-based care. Not all services are available at all sites.
The Smart Start project does not have a prescribed or "set" curriculum.
Staffing decisions are made by each site and depend on the communities’ specific needs as far as education, childcare, training and technical assistance, and health care access.
Issues to Consider
This program received a "promising" rating. Although two multi-site evaluations were done, one with a large sample size, the studies had some methodological weaknesses. There were some problems with the way in which participants were categorized into the two observation groups. The length of time students in the test group had participated in Smart Start varied greatly, from 8 to 60 months. No analysis or consideration is given to the impact of this time range on findings or the possible influence that students with varying experiences may exert on each other.
In addition, the researchers acknowledge that they had no way of being certain that children included in the control group had not attended child care centers that had benefited from some Smart Start services. Also, the utilization and impact of family support services offered by the Smart Start program, such as health screening and parent education, have not been evaluated in any way.
The Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center at the University of North Carolina is engaged in ongoing research and evaluation of the Smart Start program. As further reports presenting additional findings and measuring longitudinal outcomes become available they will be reviewed and incorporated, and the PPN program rating will be revised as appropriate.
In addition to identified benchmarks, research on Smart Start indicates that participation in the program may impact on several other outcomes. The program impacts student success in school, as shown through evaluations indicating that children who have benefited from the program perform at a higher level in kindergarten than children who have not had prior child care.
Research indicates that programs offering a more diverse range of services are not necessarily more successful. This suggests that new Smart Start programs may wish to focus on implementing services such as improving the quality of childcare, which have been demonstrated to yield positive outcomes.
The complete list can be found at http://www.ncsmartstart.org/services/main.htm.
The NC Partnership for Children
1100 Wake Forest Road
Raleigh, NC 27604
Tel (919) 821-7999
Fax (919) 821-8050
Smart Start Evaluation Team
Marie Butts, Administrative Assistant
Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center
105 Smith Level Road
UNC Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-8180
Tel (919) 966-4295
Smart Start resources are available on the program home page: http://www.smartstart-nc.org/index.htm. Available resources include, for example, an annual report, detailed program descriptions in both written and video format, a parent resource guide (in English and in Spanish), a toolkit to inform decisions on establishing high quality programs, and brochures regarding effective practices for early childhood educators and parents.
In 2001, a National Technical Assistance Center (NATC) was established to assist other states with the development of an early education initiative (http://www.smartstart-nc.org/national/main.htm). NATC services include the provision of speakers on a variety of subjects related to Smart Start, site visits to state and local Smart Start partnerships, intensive technical assistance, and a one-year mentoring relationship with a Smart Start local partnership. In addition, NATC established National Smart.Net as a membership-based service to allow individuals and organizations to access resources such as information that is targeted to other states, more details regarding key components of Smart Start, and help in utilizing Smart Start materials. Through funding from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, a technical assistance grant is available to up to ten communities and states to fund participation in the intensive technical assistance program.
FPG-UNC Smart Start Evaluation Team,
North Carolina’s Smart Start Initiative: 1994-1995 Annual Evaluation Report,
Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1995.
FPG-UNC Smart Start Evaluation Team, North Carolina’s Smart Start Initiative: 1996-1997 Annual Evaluation Report, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1997.
FPG-UNC Smart Start Evaluation Team, A Six-County Study of the Effects of Smart Start Child Care on Kindergarten Entry Skills, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1999.
Maxwell, Kelly, Donna Bryant, and Kathleen Bernier, Child Care in the Pioneer Partnerships: 1994 and 1996, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1997.
Maxwell, Kelly, Donna Bryant, and Kathleen Bernier, The Effects of Smart Start Child Care on Kindergarten Entry Skills, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1998a.
Maxwell, Kelly, Donna Bryant, and Kathleen Bernier, Smart Start Client Information System Feasibility Study, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1998b.