Step Up To Quality Stories

Meet the Step Up to Quality Team: Lauri Cimino

The Step Up to Quality team is an incredible resource for child care providers going through any of the five Steps — and they can also connect providers with other early childhood education resources. As a part of the State of Nebraska Department of Education’s Office of Early Childhood, the Step Up to Quality team works closely with its colleagues within the government and with partner agencies across the state.

To help providers get to know the people behind Step Up to Quality better, we’re featuring each of the team members and their role. Now that we’ve featured the whole team, it’s time we highlight Step Up to Quality’s Director, Lauri Cimino!

Collaborative Leadership

Lauri has been a part of Step Up to Quality since the launch of the program. She built a team of professionals with a variety of experiences, including many early childhood education specialties. Most of her team has been with Step Up to Quality since nearly the beginning, including back when the State of Nebraska conducted research on Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS) from across the nation. Lauri leads with an inclusive and collaborative style – she and her team continue to help shape Step Up to Quality’s processes and structure.

She joined the Step Up to Quality endeavor because she’s seen the difference high-quality early childhood education makes from nearly every perspective: a mother, grandmother, teacher and child care center director and administrator. And now, for the seven years Step Up to Quality has been in existence in Nebraska, she’s seen the impact on a state-wide level.

“We are very close to celebrating the 600th provider who is participating in Step Up to Quality, a truly impressive achievement that will belong to everyone,” Lauri said.

Lauri’s team works with colleagues at the Department of Early Childhood, and with others in the overall Departments of Education and Health and Human Services, to ensure Step Up to Quality operates seamlessly within the State of Nebraska’s systems. And the team often collaborates with other state-wide initiatives and regional programs to ensure early childhood educators are given the best tools and resources possible to provide the highest quality care for Nebraska’s children.

“Step Up to Quality is part of a big movement to not only raise awareness about the importance of high-quality early childhood education in our state, but also give providers a pathway to continuously improve the quality of their care,” Lauri said.

Proving the Point

Lauri started her career in early childhood education as a teacher and special educator. She’s seen firsthand that high-quality child care sets the stage for a person’s life, from the children she taught to the experiences her own children had.

“Choosing a child care provider is one of the most important decisions parents will make,” she said.

Over the years, Lauri moved her way up to being a child care center director and then a regional manager for a national child care company, but she also has a soft spot for family child care homes, having done that work herself when her children were small.

“My daughter’s children have all gone to the same family child care provider, and she has become like family to us all,” Lauri said.

To Lauri and her team, every child matters. Every child deserves the best care possible.

“I’m so proud that since 2014, more than 33,000 children have been cared for by providers participating in Step Up to Quality. Our entire state benefits by giving children the best start in life,” she said.

The first several years of a person’s life are the most formative in terms of brain development. By providing young children with an optimum environment to grow and learn, research has proven that they’ll be more prepared for elementary school and have better emotional intelligence, among many other benefits.

Looking to the Future

After Step Up to Quality’s fifth anniversary, the team began to analyze their processes and requirements. They conducted thorough research including surveys, meetings with stakeholders and conversations with providers. Over the last two years, the team has been preparing to evolve the program in some strategic ways, based on all the feedback and industry best practices.

“Our guiding principle is ‘continuous quality improvement,’ and that applies to us as a team, too. We want to ensure Step Up to Quality is the best it can be for the providers who participate,” Lauri said.

Another factor impacting Step Up to Quality and child care providers continues to be the pandemic. More people than ever before are recognizing the importance of high-quality child care as a necessity, not a luxury.

“This has been a tough time for child care providers. It’s the most difficult set of circumstances that I’ve seen in my career,” she said. “We want them to know that we are here for them, and we support them as they continue to go above and beyond for the children in their care.”