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Prioritizing Quality Early Childhood Education

When Adam Feser promotes policies affecting early childhood in Nebraska, he can reference countless research studies, stacks of data analysis and endless quotes from experts.

But maybe the most meaningful example of the power of quality early childhood education is his own family.

Adam works as a policy associate for First Five Nebraska, an organization focused on changing public policy and public opinion related to the importance of quality early childhood care. He and his wife Amanda are also the parents to three boys, ages 5, almost 3, and 4 months.

“I’m always reading up on early childhood education issues and trends, and it’s always like reading about my own family. It’s pretty cool to have my career and family life relate to each other that way,” he said.

Textbook Example

He especially saw the importance of quality child care play out in his oldest son, who is in kindergarten this year. Teddy attended UNL’s Children’s Center ever since he was 18 months old. Within a span of two weeks, Teddy graduated to kindergarten and his youngest brother Louis started at the center, joining middle brother Franklin.

“The transition for Teddy to kindergarten has been incredibly smooth,” Adam said. “He is excited to go to school and he is eager to learn.”

Leading up to the first day of school, Adam tried to teach him the importance of paying attention in class by doing the “ears listening, eyes watching, lips closed, hands still, feet quiet” exercise.

“He already knew it. He finished my sentence,” Adam said. “He was extremely prepared for kindergarten – we see it in him every day.”

The Best Foundation

When Adam and Amanda were choosing child care centers back when Teddy was a small toddler, they didn’t know about Step Up to Quality.

“It would have helped us tremendously, but luckily we found a great program anyway. Regardless, it’s validating that they’re in the program and at a Step 5,” Adam said.

Step Up to Quality is a collaborative program from the Nebraska Department of Education and Department of Health and Human Services for early childhood education centers and in-home child care providers to go above and beyond the basic licensing requirements and illustrate their commitment to quality education for the children in their care. Providers go through a 5-step process – but it’s not a ranking. All participating programs are committed to quality, regardless of the step they have achieved.

The Future of our State is at Stake

Nebraskans are known for being hard-working people, and the statistics back this up. In 2016, nearly 78 percent of children in our state had all available parents in the workforce. The national average is 61.9 percent.

This means a lot of kids in our state are enrolled in child care, both in centers and in homes. Quality early childhood education is paramount for the future of Nebraska.

“Science shows that much of the brain circuitry is formed by age 3,” Adam said. “Early childhood education is important because these kids are learning how to learn, which serves them for the rest of their lives.”

Teaching the Teachers

After Suzanne Schneider’s first son started attending child care, it dawned on her that she might like working there. She had a degree in education, and, it turned out, an undiscovered passion for teaching little ones. She quickly became the center’s director.

“Early childhood education is so important, and I have a real love for the age group,” she said. “This is where I’m meant to be.”

As she worked in the field longer, Suzanne discovered another passion: developing the teachers.

“Transforming and molding teachers, and helping them grow, ends up impacting the kids. I find that incredibly rewarding,” she said.

Prioritizing Staff Development

As the Director of Westminster Preschool in Lincoln since January 2010, Suzanne has used accreditation and rating programs like Step Up to Quality to not only improve the child development resources of the school but also to help the teachers grow professionally.

“We invest in quality initiatives, and it makes a big difference for everyone,” she said.

When Westminster Preschool initially enrolled in the Step Up to Quality program, they were rated a Step 3. Suzanne’s team worked through the process and made improvements, like updating their curriculum. They made it to the top, a Step 5, the first center to make it to that level in Nebraska.

“Our Step Up to Quality coach was great about understanding who I was and what our program needed. She helped us see areas where we could grow, and find really good staff trainings for us,” Suzanne said.

Step Up to Quality’s program taps into Nebraska’s Early Learning Connection, which is a system that supports the career and professional development of all who provide programs and services for young children, from birth through age eight. It includes:

  • Professional development for early childhood and school-age teachers
  • Support for implementation utilizing early childhood coaches
  • Program quality assessments — Environment Rating Scale (ERS) assessments for early learning
  • Strategic planning with higher education (2-yr and 4-yr) and other adult learning organizations
  • Community engagement and outreach

Strength Training

More than 8,500 people work in child care in Nebraska. And, the state has the highest concentration of child care workers per 1,000 people employed in the entire country.

Westminster Preschool devotes a lot of resources to teacher training and development, even though Suzanne is well aware of the high turnover rate in the industry (the average turnover rate at child care facilities is 30 percent).

“I’m good when they leave, because I see it as one more well-trained teacher out there,” she said. “We need more quality early childhood educators in our state.”

The Nebraska Department of Education’s main office will be closed to walk-in service on Wednesday October 17th from 1-3pm for an all staff meeting.