Emmet Johnson sits at a table coloring blue over a sheet of paper. That’s light blue, his favorite color. But Emmet, who is almost 4, also likes all the glitter crayon colors in the basket. And macaroni and cheese; well that’s his favorite food.

A paper cutout of Emmet, and one for each of his eight classmates, is taped to the hallway outside the Willard Community Center preschool program room.

Each child lies down on the paper while a teacher traces his or her outline, as part of that week’s theme – “All About Me.” Emmet and his friends talk about their families, and he holds up four fingers for the number of people in his family.

The weekly themes are not new, but the center’s staff members have taken classes and made other changes to the classroom and curriculum as part of an effort to improve quality and gain state recognition under the state’s Step Up To Quality program.

Some of the changes include rearranging the classroom to create centers for specific play and learning activities.

There is an art center with an easel; a block center with large blocks and small Lincoln logs; a science center with a plastic scale and a real magnifying glass, where the children sometimes watch a caterpillar turn into a butterfly; a dramatic play area with a doctor kit; a camera; a stove and food; and a cozy corner for some alone time with a stuffed animal friend.

“Our staff is really great at interacting with the kids,” says Tabitha Love, assistant program manager at the center. “But now the classroom is set up as a better learning environment.”

The center previously had most of the toys and equipment, but it wasn’t organized in as thoughtful of a way, says Love.

The United Way of Lincoln and Lancaster County helped the center, which serves a lower-income area of the city, improve its program and get ready for the state accreditation program.

United Way provided a $15,000 Early Care Quality Initiative grant, which included coaching, curriculum and some new classroom material.

The staff has taken classes over the past six months to brush up on basic issues like social and emotional development, language and literacy, math, even nutrition as part of the state’s Step Up to Quality accreditation program.

This initial work means center staff members have finished the first two steps of the state’s rating system for the Step Up to Quality program.

Over the next few months, the Willard Center’s preschool and pre-kindergarten programs will work with the state’s Department of Education staff to earn a 3, 4 or 5 on that rating system.

Earning at least a 3 rating not only gives the center bragging rights about its quality, but also increases the state subsidy for children from low-income families.

Parents use the state Step Up to Quality program rating system when they seek child care. “They can ask, ‘Are you rated, and what step are you at?’” said Tracy Gordon, co-executive director for the Nebraska Association for the Education of Young Children.

A 3-star rating is good. A 5-star rating would be considered very high quality, she said. This rating is nationally recognized as one of the premier tools to assess program quality, she said.

The process looks at the center from a child’s perspective: What the children are experiencing, knowing that those experiences will have a direct effect on cognitive, physical and social development, Gordon said.

For a list of child care programs involved in Step Up to Quality and their ratings, see

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