Prioritizing Early Childhood Education In Nebraska

A childcare worker helps kids learn ABCs at Kids First Childcare in Lincoln. (Photo by Brandon McDermott)
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November 7, 2019 - 6:45am

Childcare in Nebraska costs more annually than the average college tuition – so choosing the right childcare provider is one of the most important decisions a parent faces. They have many things to consider: the cost, environment and the development of their children.


At Kids First Childcare in Lincoln, toddlers are enjoying playtime. The kids crawl through a collapsible toy tunnel and slide down a red slide.

A map showing the providers who take part in the Step Up To Quality program. (Courtesy Step up To Quality).

Kids First has 88 children ranging from ages 18 months to 5 years. The center is part of a statewide program called “Step Up To Quality,” from Nebraska’s Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services.

It started in 2014 after the Nebraska Legislature passed a bill the previous year concentrating on early childhood education and offering parents a way to evaluate the quality of prospective childcare programs. The director at Step Up to Quality, Lauri Cimino, said the program allows providers a way to improve what they are already doing.

“Programs are able to have coaching,” Cimino said. “Have an early childhood professional spend time in the classrooms, with the teachers as well as directors.”

Step Up is a free service, which works with statewide childcare providers, both at home facilities and childcare centers at no cost to participating programs. However, programs do receive tax incentives for reaching benchmarks in the program. There are currently 700 childcare providers and 25,000 children across the state in the program.

That’s up from just 84 providers the first year. Some childcare providers are required to participate in Step Up because of the amount of state subsidies they receive. However, it’s open to any childcare provider in the state. Cimino said Step Up is worth the effort.

“They really are the driver of the ship,” Cimino said. “They are making the decisions about where they want to put their time and energy and we don't come unless we're invited.”

The program is fairly straight forward. Childcare centers apply for help, learn about the program, attend orientation, and then go through nearly 100 hours of training. There’s also an online tool for providers to analyze their program and learn what to improve.

Finally, centers set goals and meet with coaches who help them attain those goals. One of those coaches at Step Up is Erica Timperley. She said when starting the coaching she focuses on good things happening at childcare centers and give them:

The growth of providers taking part in the Step Up To Quality program since it started in 2014. (Courtesy of Step Up To Quality)

“More of a chance to reflect on what you're already doing and make your own goals and just have support and meeting those goals,” Temperley said.

Temperley said it takes some time for coaches to gain the trust of childcare workers.

“Or I'll start working with a teacher and it feels like there's a wall up and to build that trust and know that I'm not going in there and judging them or telling them what to do. But just working together as a team, I see that a lot,” Temperley said.

She said the program is designed to maximize the skills of workers.

“So it's not me coming in saying here's the goals we're going to do, but asking the program and working together to figure out what the next steps we want to take are going to be,” Temperley said.

Back at Kids First childcare, kids are shooting plastic balls into a basket.

Temperley was the coach at Kids First and the director, Sarah Voss, says she was a huge help.

“They loved having her come to our classroom,” Temperley said. “It's nice to have someone other than the director supervising them and giving them recommendations. It was really nice just to have an extra support system for us.”

Voss said Temperley gave the workers there added confidence to know they are professionals which helped them take their jobs more seriously.

"She gave us resources, anything we needed," Voss said. "She was there to kind of walk us through the program.”

Voss said the center has focused curriculum on early math skills, logic and reasoning, as well as language. For example, many kids learn the alphabet by reciting or singing the ABCs. But Step Up recommended a more interactive and effective approach.

The breakdown of the types of childcare providers taking part in the Step Up To Quality program in Nebraska. (Courtesy Step Up To Quality)

A teacher sits on the floor with three kids. As they progress through the alphabet, the kids identify a magnet letter that comes next and place it in the right order.

“There were areas that we knew we couldn't do it because of the limitations with our building and what was nice is we got to pick and choose the areas we wanted to focus on,” Voss said.

Carrie Murphy’s daughter comes to Kids First. While looking for childcare, Murphy used the Step Up to Quality online ratings system, which shows parents centers that are part of the program.

“I'm an anxious mom and I've never been anxious about dropping her off and that feels really good,” Murphy said. “And just having them be a part of this Step Up quality program really reassures me that I made the right decision.”

Murphy said she wants to know her daughter’s first few years of development are in a place where she’s growing and learning. She said that type of structure is what she’s getting at Kids First.

“She started talking about yoga randomly one day. Her teachers were teaching her some yoga stretches and I thought that was totally random and that she was talking about yogurt and she's like, ‘No mom, yoga!’” Murphy said.

Quality childcare is important for parents like Murphy because many children spend a lot of their day with childcare workers.

Murphy said at Kids First, she’s confident her daughter is getting quality early childhood education and still enjoying plenty of playtime.

Nebraska state senator Kate Bolz, a co-sponsor of the bill in 2013, said "these are important provisions that are good for kids' education and brain development as well as parents' choices," But she said they're good for taxpayers too.  "Taxpayers can have confidence knowing this program is a service that really helps Nebraska’s kids thrive," Bolz said.

Kathy Campbell, a former state senator and co-sponsor of the original legislative bill which started Step Up to Quality in 2013, says the program has exceeded where senators thought it would go. "Step Up ensures Nebraska children will get good childcare for years to come," Campbell said.

Danielle Conrad, another former state senator who co-sponsored this bill in 2013, said there a lot of stories about partisan dysfunction in 2019, but "this is one of many examples of how government can work and does work in Nebraska, Conrad said. "Both for the public interest and the common good. Step Up To Quality helps families identity the care and support they need to get high quality options."

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