The state reached its goal of having 4,400 child care providers attain a one-star quality rating by Sept. 1. Next up: a three-star minimum in 2025.

When you dine at a five-star restaurant, do you know what that rating means, or just that it’s a marker of a quality establishment? As a parent, do you feel that same way about the rating of your child care center?

That’s the analogy Action for Children CEO Eric Karolak uses when describing the Step Up To Quality star rating system put in place by the Ohio Department of Education and the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. The program rates child care centers and in-home providers based on their curriculum, health and safety standards, professional development and more.

“Step Up To Quality creates a framework for providers to do their planning and to grow and develop their planning. It gives them a pathway to follow to achieve better results for young children,” Karolak says. Action for Children is a Central Ohio child care research and referral agency, and the nonprofit helps individuals and programs seeking to attain or improve their rating. “We help parents know what some of those components are and what having a rating means.”

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It’s up to providers where they land in the rating system based on how many stars they want to earn, says Kara Wente, system director for JFS Health and Human Services. In 2012, the state established a mandate that child care centers and larger home-based programs had to achieve at least one star—the lowest Step Up To Quality rating—by July 2020 to continue qualifying for state reimbursement for students who receive publicly funded child care.

Once COVID-19 hit, the deadline was extended to Sept. 1. And although most child care centers had to shut down temporarily in the spring unless they had a special pandemic license, the state benchmark still was met by all 4,400 providers that receive public funding.

“COVID could have really thrown us for a loop. At the beginning of 2019, we were around the 40 percent range [of centers achieving one star], and now we hit 100 percent on Sept. 1,” Wente says. “We did a lot of work with the providers one-on-one. We invested in curriculums and assessments. We did after-hours modules for providers. We could help them with each section of their paperwork.”

Christole Harris, owner and director of Lorine’s Little Learners Child Care and Learning Center in Dublin, achieved her one-star rating in September 2019. The center serves 30 children and employs seven teachers. “I had started around March 2019 trying to do it on my own,” Harris says. “Some of the things that had to be done I never had any experience with. I called Action for Children, and they sent someone out. They walked me through the whole thing, like paperwork and licensing, which made it a lot easier.”

Staff education is an important component of the ratings. Harris says her goal is to get as much training for her teachers as she can to get them to the Careers Pathway Level needed for the center to achieve a three-star rating.

Gladden Community House Preschool, a four-star rated program in Franklinton, was the first preschool in Franklin County to earn a three-star rating, which it received in 2007. Tanya Rose, Gladden’s director, has a unique perspective on the ratings system, having started as a classroom teacher at Gladden and becoming the director in 2019.

“Being inside the classroom and helping maintain those stars and then being the director is two different mindsets,” Rose says. “As a teacher, I was making sure my lesson plans met the standards and were following the curriculum. I was making sure the minor details were in order, shelves were labeled. Now as a director, it’s more paperwork. I’m ensuring forms are filled out properly and signatures are on file. I check we maintain those community partnerships, and keep communicating with the parents.”

Knowing providers are holding themselves to the standards and providing the appropriate curriculum is reassuring to many parents as they choose a child care center. Ryan Lemmon of Westerville and his wife, Megan, send their daughter Harper, 3, to JCC New Albany Preschool, a one-star center.

“The rating makes me feel good, especially where Harper is with her development,” Lemmon says. “She is really at that point where all of her learning is geared toward that next step of starting her school career. Knowing the curriculum her school has in place meets those standards makes me feel more confident in our choice to give her the best advantage for school as possible.”

Now that 100 percent of the state’s child care centers and providers receiving public funding have met the one-star goal, they are setting their sights on the next one. By June 30, 2025, all of those child care centers and Type A in-home providers serving seven to 12 children must be three-, four- or five-star rated to qualify for state funding.

“We believe the real work starts with making sure our providers can maintain,” JFS’ Wente says. “There’s a commitment of early childhood professionals … 92 percent of programs [in Ohio] have reopened post-COVID. Not as many states have fared that well.”