As the Clyde Malone Community Center’s early childhood program receives their first Step Up to Quality rating this spring – they are ready to

Karla Brown, director of Youth Programs at Clyde Malone Community Center reads to children.

shine. On May 14, they learned they received the highest rating possible, Step 5, defined as “far exceeding quality standards.”

“Quality childcare ratings validate our program, our teachers,” explains

Karla Brown, director of Youth Programs for the Malone Community Center. “And these ratings also speak to our families, assuring them that this is a high-quality program, that their kids are truly going to be ready for kindergarten.”

The Step Up to Quality (SUTQ) program is Nebraska’s early childhood quality rating and improvement system – focused on helping childcare providers and educators recognize and improve quality, and supporting parents in their search for excellence in childcare.

Brown said she started hearing about the SUTQ program immediately after she arrived in the childcare scene in this community. “I knew my first step was pursuing this commitment to provide high quality childcare education to kids.”

The second step, she said, was to contact Lincoln Littles. “I needed to learn the business of childcare and I was feeling a little intimated – a little overwhelmed – but Lincoln Littles not only provided support, they encouraged and pushed me to do more.”

Suzanne Schneider, associate director of Lincoln Littles, stressed that SUTQ ratings are essential to families and centers. “They are a validation for all the work early childcare providers have done,” she said. “And they also serve as a guide for people choosing childcare.”

The Malone Center has long provided quality care, Schneider explained, but they struggled to find stability. “It wasn’t easy for them. But then came Karla Brown, and she put her heart and soul into this work.”

Brown didn’t have extensive background in early childcare, Schneider continued, “But she did the research and asked all the right questions. ‘What  should be happening here, what could be happening here to make sure we give our children the best start in early education?’”

Schneider described Brown as a self-study who met regularly with Lincoln Littles for guidance and support.

“She looked deeply into the center’s practices and asked herself how she could raise the bar, raise the quality,” Schneider said. “Whenever we met, she would have a list of all the things she needed to know, things she wanted to do better. We provided the coaching, but mostly this was all about Karla and her staff.”

As a result, Brown has made substantive changes. She ensured the staff was getting appropriate training needed to do their best, and she worked to provide support for positive interactions between families, kids and staff.

Brown said it’s been a tough but worthwhile journey. When she started at Malone, the childcare industry was recovering from COVID. Then the Malone preschool program had to temporarily move to City Impact while the Malone Community Center was under extensive renovation.

Yet tackling the SUTQ ratings was part of her plan from the very beginning.  “I started that process as soon as possible. I kept a gigantic notebook with everything I needed to do. I took a business class, encouraged my teachers to take classes, to work as a team. And in the development of our curriculum, we partnered with classroom teachers at Educare Lincoln.”

Brown said she is grateful to Lincoln Littles and particularly Schneider. “She was one of the first people I called,” Brown said. “She’s been a mentor throughout this process, led me to the resources I needed.”

Schneider said she is not surprised at Malone’s recent quality rating.  “Their practice baseline scores were off the charts, one of the highest scores I’ve ever seen.”

She said she’s proud of Brown and what they’re doing at Malone.

SUTQ ratings come with a financial attachment as families receive higher reimbursements at highly rated childcare facilities, Schneider said. “But the work at Malone was not about the money. This was not just a box to check off, this was confirmation they want to do great things for children. They took it step by step, never tried to go too fast.  They took the time to do the work and make the changes.”

These days Brown is already starting to imagine a long-term vision and opening more preschool classrooms.

Meantime, does she have any advice for others facing the SUTQ ratings?

“Don’t be intimated by the process and don’t be afraid to ask for help,” she said.

And love what you do.

“When you’re working with young children, when you see the look on their face when they get it, when they learn, you fall in love with the job all over again.”

** Fiscally sponsored by Lincoln Community Foundation, Lincoln Littles is an organization of passionate advocates focused on ensuring access to quality early childhood care and education in Lincoln.**