Nebraska day cares and early childhood education programs are able to prove they are quality programs while receiving support thanks to a statewide program.

Step Up to Quality is a joint effort between the Nebraska Department of Education and the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services that aims to help day cares and early childhood education programs excel and improve to offer the highest quality programs to children.

Lauri Cimino, Step Up to Quality director, said the program is Nebraska’s quality rating and improvement system. Currently, she said, there are more than 350 programs that have been rated since its implementation in 2014. There are approximately 650 programs that have begun the Step Up to Quality process to be rated.

In Hall County, there are three day cares/early childhood programs that are rated at a 3 or above, which makes them “high-quality.” Those three are Grand Island Public School’s Early Learning Center, St. Mary’s Cathedral Daycare and Head Start. Little Miracles in Doniphan, and YWCA and Noah’s Ark Childcare and Preschool in Grand Island have a 2 rating.

Cherry Park Creative Corner and Kids Come First Daycare and Learning Center in Grand Island both have a 1 rating.

“One thing that we were really cognizant about when our program was created was that we didn’t want to send this message that programs who had not gone through the on-sight observation and rating for steps three, four and five were of lower quality. It just means they are beginning their process,” Cimino said.

Cimino said day cares and early childhood education programs must do things to maintain their Step Up to Quality rating.

The first thing a program needs to do to start the first step of the Step Up to Quality process, Cimino said, is create a profile at the Nebraska Early Childhood Professional Record System and attend an orientation. The Early Childhood Professional Record System was established by the Office of Early Childhood to collect data about Nebraska’s early childhood programs and determine their standing in the Step Up to Quality process.

“Programs that obtain a step two are those programs that have completed all of the licensed-required training,” she said. “That process is accelerated because they completed all of that training. At that point, they are eligible to have a free early childhood coach work with their program to help them improve their practices and work with their teachers.”

Once a day care or early childhood education program has been working with a Step Up to Quality coach, Cimino said there are five areas in which programs can earn points. These areas include as meeting regularly with parents, doing parent-teacher conferences and assessing children on a regular basis.

“The programs really are the drivers. The program makes the decision of when they are ready to have a Step Up to Quality observer come out and do an observation,” Cimino said. “A rater will also come out and look at the evidence they have collected and put together to see if the program is meeting the quality standards.”

Cimino said the coach works with program administrators and teachers to come up with an action plan for the program. She added the action plan can “look very different” based on the specific program, what their interest is and the level of quality they are providing.

GIPS Associate Superintendent Robin Dexter said the district has been involved with the NDE for 13 years. She added GIPS and the Early Learning Center receives its accreditation through Rule 15, while community day cares get theirs through Step Up to Quality. Rule 15 centers around students with limited English proficiency.

While GIPS’ rating is different than that of day cares, Dexter said the district has met all the requirements to achieve a 3 rating from Step Up to Quality.

Dexter said Step Up to Quality aligns with goal one of GIPS’ strategic plan, which is to increase the percentage of incoming kindergartners having participated in a high-quality early childhood education experience.

“GIPS, at this point, cannot provide early childhood education to every student, so we see this as an opportunity to work with our community early childhood care centers on the same curriculum and strategies,” she said. “We all have a purpose on social and emotional learning and helping regulate their (students’) behaviors. We are wanting to develop that common language across all providers in Grand Island. Step Up to Quality gives you that common language.”

Saffron Buettner of Grand Island has been a Step Up to Quality coach for five years. She said she serves the areas in and between the Tri-Cities and visits a program weekly to every three weeks.

“I tell people I’m a cheerleader,” Buettner said. “I do a lot of advocating for early childhood through my position of coaching to help people see what quality looks like, why quality early childhood care is so important and help them understand how to achieve that. I work with administration on helping them move through the process to achieve their steps in the Step Up to Quality program. I also work with classroom teachers to help them achieve quality.”

She added she will typically stay with a program for two to five years. Buettner said her job is to help achieve it achieve its first Step Up to Quality rating of 3 or higher and stays until its second rating process is completed.

Cimino said day cares and early childhood education programs must maintain their Step Up to Quality rating.

“Because sustainability is so important, once a program is rating a step 3 or 4, in order to maintain that rating, they need to go through the process again in two years. If a program is rated a step 5, then they hang onto that and maintain it for five years.”

Dexter said GIPS and the Early Learning Center get resources and training from Step Up to Quality.

“One of the resources is the pyramid of interventions, which is the social and emotional learning piece,” she said. “There is also a parent newsletter that gives parents activities to do with their children. There is also the Nebraska Early Childhood Exchange where providers can work through the exchange to get a discount on resources, class materials, supplies and food services. It is a really good resource for all day cares to be able to access.”

Buettner said in her time as a Step Up to Quality coach, she has seen day cares and early childhood education programs grow not only in size, but quality as well.

“The hot-button item in Nebraska is looking at the early childhood workforce and seeing the amount of turnover the workforce has,” she said. “Programs that I have worked with that have started achieving a higher level of quality have actually seen a decrease in their turnover rate of their full-time employees. I really like seeing how providers grow through this process. They blossom and they learn so much about their profession.”

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