How Preschool Works in Nebraska

Takeaway: Nebraska has well-defined, comprehensive learning standards for early childhood programs. It has created quality ratings for a number of large providers and will broaden their application in the near future. It seeks to ensure high-quality learning experiences for young children that integrate with school-aged standards. Access to publicly-funded pre-K seats remains a challenge for many families, although the state has made some changes to increase availability. Finding programs can be difficult, however, as the state lacks an online search tool.

Overview

Nebraska has several types of early childhood learning programs, ranging from unlicensed care to publicly-funded Head Start, community day care centers, and district pre-K programs. The state has struggled in recent years to provide enough high-quality, public pre-K spots to students who want access. As with many states, though, there is increasing awareness of the importance of early learning experiences to helping young children develop cognitively, socially, and emotionally. Accordingly, Nebraska has created learning standards, increased funding for early education, expanded eligibility criteria to enable more families to qualify for public programs, and established a statewide evaluation system to track outcomes on early childhood centers.

The state has also implemented mandatory quality ratings, known as Step Up to Quality, for the ten largest public day care providers. These required ratings will expand to include additional providers in the coming two years, along with voluntary participation by smaller centers, home-care providers, and other programs like Head Start. Families and the public will be able to review the ratings online in 2017, but centers that meet some or all of the benchmarks in the meantime will receive certificates they can share with parents to establish their quality.

The Nebraska Department of Education has published a helpful brochure describing its goals and standards for early childhood education, and its Office of Early Childhood provides guidance and support to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services (NDHHS), which oversees many of the state’s licensed early childhood programs.

Unfortunately, the state does not provide an online search tool for early childhood programs; instead, it merely publishes a list of child care providers organized by zip code. This contains contact information, child capacity, age range, and scheduling details for each facility. The Nebraska Department of Education, likewise, provides a directory of Head Start programs throughout the state.

In 2014, the state met six out of ten national benchmarks for pre-K programs, and ranked sixth and 16th, respectively, for 3- and 4-year-old access to these learning opportunities.

Center-Based Care

In recent years, Nebraska has worked to move away from siloed funding sources for center-based programs, preferring instead to integrate offerings among community partners. Districts and educational service unit (ESUs) — which are agencies that help to manage costs and coordinate programs across the state — are encouraged to collaborate with various community stakeholders to provide high-quality learning experiences and care to children from birth to kindergarten-ready age, in particular for those youngsters who are at-risk or underserved. A stated goal is to design programs in an integrated manner so that learning outcomes prepare young children for their next educational step.

Nebraska’s comprehensive learning standards include benchmarks for growth in social-emotional development, language and literacy, math, science and problem-solving, the arts, health, nutrition, and physical development. The state also makes clear its commitment to inclusive programming — that is, classrooms that integrate children with special needs, English-language learners, and those from other risk categories together with general education learners. State guidelines also support strong family involvement; planning for access to nutrition, health, and social services; and evaluation efforts aimed at ongoing program improvement.

Licensed centers may provide full- or half-day care, year-round or for the traditional school year. No children younger than 6 weeks may be enrolled in licensed day care centers. The state sets caregiver-to-child ratios and maximum group enrollment figures according to the following limits: infants to 18 months, 1:3 or 1:4 (depending on the type of center; the former applies to the grant-funded Sixpence program), with a maximum group total of 8 children; 18 months to 3 years, 1:4 or 1:6 (again, depending on the type of center), with a maximum group total of eight or 12 children; 3 years to entering kindergarten, 1:10, with a maximum group total of 20 children.

In addition to day care centers, NDHHS supervises preschools, which are defined as education-focused part-day programswhose participants do not receive a meal or nap and are between 3 and 6 years old. It sets staffing ratios at one teacher to every ten children for 3-year-olds, and one teacher per 12 children for 4-, 5-, and 6-year-olds. There are no limits on the overall number of children who may be enrolled in a preschool, and preschool program offerings may be available in a provider’s home or in another setting.

Nebraska has age, educational, credentialing, and professional development requirements for directors and staff at licensed centers. For example, directors must be over the age of 19, hold a high school diploma, and have completed six college credits in a child-related area of coursework; while teachers must meet the same age requirement and must also hold a bachelor’s degree plus Nebraska Teaching Certificate with an endorsement in an early childhood education. Staff must undergo background checks and take part in annual professional development. While children are present, centers must have onsite one staff member who has received training in CPR and first aid. Nebraska prohibits corporal punishment in early childhood programs.

Home-Based Care

Most home-based care is also subject to licensing regulations and oversight by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. Providers fall into two principal categories: those who care for three to ten children in the caregiver’s home, known as Family Child Care Home I, and those who enroll between four and 12 children in the provider’s home or another location (Family Child Care Home II).

Providers of either option must undergo CPR, first aid, and other safety training, as well as clear a criminal background check. They must meet age requirements and complete an education program in Nebraska’s Early Childhood Learning Guidelines geared toward the ages of the children in their care. In addition, caregivers must engage in 12 hours of professional development each year and comply with discipline guidelines. Facilities are inspected when first licensed.

NDHHS establishes caregiver-to-child ratios according to the following limits for providers with up to ten children in their care: 1:4 for infants ages 6 weeks to 18 months; and up to 1:10 for mixed age groupings, with no more than three infants in a group. For larger providers, these ratios must be 1:4 for infants only, or 1:3 if there are nine to 12 infants enrolled; 1:10 in mixed-age groupings, with no more than two infants and at least two school-aged children; and 1:12 for school-aged-only groups.

Unlicensed Care

Additionally, there are early childhood caregivers who are not required to be licensed, but who may volunteer for licensing. License-exempt programs include uncompensated care, care in a child’s home for fewer than three children, infrequent or irregular care, as well as programs that fall under federal guidelines exclusively or those located in Native American jursidictions.

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