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The Clear Connection Between Child Development & Economic Development

When The Valley Child Development Center opened in January 2018, it was the culmination of years of work residents of the town had poured into their dream.

Their dream wasn’t and isn’t just about a quality child care center in their town, though. It’s about making Red Cloud a vibrant, viable community for generations to come – and quality, affordable child care was a key missing ingredient.

Starting from Scratch

In 2012, the Red Cloud Community Foundation Fund, with the support of the Nebraska Community Foundation, organized Community Action Planning. It was comprised of a series of meetings with all interested members of the community and the need for child care ended up being one of the top two priorities identified. At the time, just one licensed in-home child care was available within a 20-mile radius of the town.

A committee was formed, and it was decided that they would “dream big.” The city donated land, and funds started to be raised for a best-in-class child development center.

By June 2017, the building was being built and the director, Kerra Robinson, was hired. She had extensive experience in the education field – but had never run a business before. She hit the ground running: hiring staff, creating procedures, purchasing furniture and meeting with families.

“One of the first things I did after I was hired was enroll our program in Step Up to Quality,” she said.

The Importance of High-Quality

Kerra took the community’s dream of having a high-quality child care center and adopted it as her own – taking the vision to the next level. Aligning her program with Step Up to Quality principles and guidelines helped her establish the culture of high-quality from the very beginning.

“I am so impressed with the program and the fact that it’s free,” Kerra said. “There’s really no negative or downside to it at all.”

Kerra and her team have built the center into one that would be highly sought after in bigger towns. Even though she doesn’t have much competition to worry about, she sets the standard high, so the kids in her care have the best possible start in life.

The Valley Child Development Center is licensed for 80 children from ages six weeks to 12 years old. They haven’t even celebrated their first anniversary yet, and they have 70 kids enrolled – and have already expanded their center’s infant care offerings from one room to two.

Some other highlights from their first year include:

  • Starting an Edible Schoolyard program, the only official farm-based program in the state
  • Achieving better child-to-teacher ratios than the state requires, in every classroom
  • Teachers are certified or working toward their teacher certification and assistant teachers have or are working toward their associate degrees in early childhood
  • All staff are life-long learners
  • Hosting a robotics expert from Texas during their summer program

Quite literally, Kerra and her team are just getting started. One of her goals is to increase the center’s Step Up to Quality rating this upcoming year.

The Snowball Effect

The town of Red Cloud has already seen their investments in high-quality early childhood care and education pay off. They’re getting attention from across the state from other towns that want to replicate the results they’ve seen.

For example, the town’s only locally-owned grocery store was in danger of closing. Like child care, having a convenient place to buy groceries is key to retaining families in small towns. A woman who grew up in Red Cloud, but lived in Seward, always thought about moving her family back there. She and her husband happened to be in town for her ten-year high school reunion one summer, and she heard about the store’s plight. She also heard about the brand new child development center opening up – a perfect place to send their three young girls.

Fast forward to today, the grocery store is thriving under the new ownership, and so are their three girls who attend The Valley Child Development Center.

Kerra could go on and on about these sorts of stories.

There’s the single mom who can now attend nursing school because The Valley Child Development Center accepts child care subsidies (the only center to do so in the area).

There’s the high school student who volunteered at the center and is now taking education courses in college. She worked there over the summer and has a place of employment if she chooses to come back to her hometown after college.

“Mostly I think about the really young kids that we’re nurturing right now, and how we’re preparing them for kindergarten, and how they will be ready to learn,” she said.

Those children soon turn into high school students, who turn into people who might want to stay in the thriving town of Red Cloud.

“We’re lifting up the community, and everyone is excited,” Kerra said. “It’s been an amazing community effort.”

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.”

It’s OK to be a Child Care Snob

Jen Nelson has a message for parents looking for child care: it’s OK to be a snob. It’s OK to expect more out of your current provider, too.

As the sole proprietor of Nurture and Nature Family Child Care, Step Up to Quality’s first rated child care provider, and the first in-home program to make it to Step 5, Jen practices what she preaches. She expects more out of herself every day.

Step by Step

Even though on paper it might sound like Jen breezed her way up the Step Up to Quality ladder, achieving all five steps in six months, it was a challenge.

“No one likes people telling them what they’re doing wrong or what they need to improve on. Honestly, you get a little angry about it,” she said. “But you quickly get over it and start making things better.”

At first Jen thought Step Up to Quality might be more geared toward child care centers and not in-home care. But she worked with her Step Up to Quality coach to personalize the journey to the Step 5 rating, including using the observation tool that is specific to family child care homes.

“When I set my mind to something, I find a way to get it,” Jen said.

Thousands of Moments

In the last few years, Jen has made lots of little changes. She started parent/teacher conferences. She has a monthly rotation schedule for her wall displays. She put up pictures of what vegetable or fruit will come out of the plants in their garden – and also has the name listed in English and Spanish.

These little changes have added up to a lot.

“I’ve noticed a difference in the way the kids talk. And I didn’t think about modeling the way I talk as much before,” she said. “The program changes kids, and it’s changed me.”

She makes the smallest of moments into tiny lessons. If the kids are having crackers for a snack, she might talk about the rectangular shape, or she might make it into a subtraction lesson as the kids eat.

“That’s what I’m most proud of, those little things. Especially when one of the kids says, ‘I’m sorry,’ or ‘do you need help.’ When one kid comforts another, it warms my heart. It makes me want to learn more and more,” she said.

Always Learning

Even after being a child care provider for 33 years, Jen still has the energy, the motivation and the thirst for knowledge to continually improve.

Because she is the only teacher at her in-home center, looking after as many as eight kids, she uses nap time (and some evenings) to study and network online with fellow child care providers to be better every day. After her Step Up to Quality work was finished, she decided to get her associate’s degree. She graduates this fall.

“I was able to do my practicums and observations here, and it ended up being great for the kids, too, to incorporate that into their lessons,” Jen said.

She tries to travel to conferences and meetings to learn from others all across the region and nation. She plans on diving into a bachelor’s degree program next year, too.

And she has no plans of stopping anytime soon. Jen and her husband have five children, and seven grandchildren, all of whom live in the Omaha area.

“I never thought to myself that after my kids were grown that I would quit, or anything like that,” Jen said. “I’ll keep doing this until my body gives out. I just love it.”

All Kids Deserve Quality Child Care

I’m a mom of two biological kids, but in my heart, I feel like I have hundreds.

Fellow child care teachers and facility owners can back me up. It’s not just a job to us. I would do anything for these kiddos, just like I would my own.

My center, Bright Beginnings, is open from 6 in the morning to 6 at night. Some of the kids are with me for ten or 11 hours a day. We are licensed for 41 kids, so since we opened in 2009, many families have come through our doors. It’s a privilege I don’t take lightly.

The Best Job I’ve Had

Just like being a mom, our job doesn’t stop in the evening after we’ve cleaned, sanitized and put everything away.

On a recent Sunday, I got a text from the mom of one of my toddlers. She sent a video of her two-year-old daughter counting from one to 15. She thanked me over and over and said, “It melts my heart what you have taught her!”

We have been working on counting with her daughter, and we love every minute of it. I texted her back and said she made my whole Sunday.

I wish parents knew how much of an impact their kids have on us. How their smiles make us smile. How their squeals delight us, and their hugs fill us up. How we live for seeing those light bulb moments of growth and hitting those milestones.

Another mom recently sent me a photo of her son hitting his first triple in a baseball game. He was the very first infant we cared for. My office walls are covered with photos of my kids, including him. They mean the world to me.

I was originally going to be the cook at Bright Beginnings when it opened, but I had a lot of experience with kids and I quickly became its director. Lisa, our curriculum director, and I have been leading the center ever since, and we often talk about how we want to raise the bar on child care, because we believe that our kiddos deserve the best.

Step Up to Quality Steps In

Once I heard about Step Up to Quality, we decided to go for it. I describe Step Up to Quality as a system that helps the best child care facilities become better. I almost think it should be mandatory. It’s worth it for our kids.

For Bright Beginnings, it was a no-brainer to decide to participate. It was a bit overwhelming at first, and it was a lot of work. We had a few bumps in the road but we took our time with it and worked at our pace.

Step Up to Quality helped us focus on the level of education we were offering, and it helped us improve our environment rating scale measurements (ITERS and ECERS). We had a great foundation to start from, and the key for us was our staff. My team is the absolute best and their commitment to our kids made it easy for us to improve on these items.

The Results

When you enroll in Step Up to Quality, you are almost automatically at a Step 2 (out of five) once you complete the paperwork, set up process and initial training. Where it gets real is the observation and visit from a Step Up to Quality staff member – that’s when you can graduate up to a Step 3.

You can imagine how emotional I was when after all our hard work, we actually moved up two steps to a four! It was incredible news, and even better things started happening for us.

We were profiled in the Fremont newspaper. We were featured in the Rooted in Relationships video for the Fremont Family Coalition. I started getting more calls from new parents about our program. We have a waiting list of families. And, much better candidates for jobs were coming in to interview.

Most importantly, I believe our kiddos know the depth of our love for them. We will never stop improving for them. We are already preparing for our Step 5 rating, I’ve been going back to school, and we are constantly taking classes and reading new methods on early childhood education. We want to show our kids that even big people are always learning, and hopefully that inspires them to be lifelong learners, too.

The Busy First-Time Mom’s Guide to Finding Quality Child Care in Nebraska

When I found out I was going to have a child, I immediately began creating “to do” lists in my head around the kind of pregnancy experience I wanted to have: researching midwives and pediatricians, interviewing friends who were already parents, attending pre-natal yoga classes, and staying on top of work responsibilities while planning for maternity leave…

Searching for childcare on top of all of this was overwhelming. The thought of leaving my baby with strangers when I returned to work after twelve weeks post-partum made me break into a sweat.

If you’re an expecting parent and also feel worried about this last task, make a cup of tea and put your feet up. I have just the thing for you!

6 Easy Steps to Finding Child Care

1. Start early. Many places often have waiting lists for infants.

2. Make a list. (I love lists.) Spend a few minutes writing down what you want from child care. For example, some parents want a location near their home and others want something closer to work. Do you want a breastfeeding-friendly provider where you can feed your baby before leaving for work? Think about those “must haves” that are important to you. It’s different for everyone and that is OK.

3. Ask around. Get recommendations from your friends and co-workers who have gone through the search before. Consider posting on social media for referrals, too.

4. Research online. Read reviews on Google, Facebook and Yelp, and bookmark this page to check for the negative action reports that the Nebraska Department of Health & Human Services publishes on the state’s child care providers.

5. Set up tours. It’s one thing to read about a program on a website, but you won’t get a complete view of the facility, staff, philosophies and curriculum until you see everything in person. Notice how you feel during and after the tour. I had places where I felt immediately comfortable and other locations where I couldn’t picture my baby spending her time.

6. Check with Step Up to Quality. It’s a program from the Nebraska Department of Education that helps families find child care providers who go the extra mile in demonstrating their commitment to early childhood education.

The entire Step Up to Quality website is a great resource for parents on what to look for in a child care provider. It has a helpful resource section, but what was most important to me was the listing of child care providers that are going through the program.

I went through the exact steps I listed above, and found that the child care provider that I was leaning toward was in the program, and at a step three! Just being enrolled in the program would have been enough for me, but to find they were advancing through it was icing on the cake. It was incredibly validating and gave me (and still gives me) peace of mind.

I wanted to find a place where my baby would obviously be given the necessary basics, but I also want more for her. I want her to be in a place where she’s loved and cuddled, where she’s challenged to hit developmental milestones, and where I feel a partnership with the teachers, and Step Up to Quality helped me find that. My sweet Harper is my whole world, and knowing she’s safe and cared for and learning new things every day is priceless.