A voluntary program to rate the quality of child-care centers was expanded statewide yesterday.
Step Up To Quality evaluates and grades child-care centers on a scale of zero to three "stars." Lucas County and eight other counties had participated in the state program's pilot phase.
The closer a center is to reaching or surpassing benchmarks in areas such as accreditation, child-to-staff ratios, and staff members' training and education, the more stars it is awarded by the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.
An expanded rating system is good news to Laura Willis, 26, a mother of three from West Toledo who has used day-care services.
"As parents, everyone is concerned about where we send our children," Ms. Willis said. "When you don't know anything about the child center, it makes you worry."
The department launched the initial phase of the program in 2005 in an effort aimed at im-proving the quality of child care and increasing the tools parents have when choosing programs.
Since then, 83 of the 202 licensed child-care centers in Lucas County have taken part, said Theresa Towner, director of YW Child Care Connections, a YWCA of Greater Toledo program that assists parents with child-care needs.
Yesterday's expansion also broadened the rating program's scope to grade child-care centers that serve school-age children. Before, the ratings were just offered to centers with pre-school children, typically 3 to 5 years of age, Ms. Towner said.
A central hope of the star system is that it will give child-care centers additional incentive to improve their staff training, curriculum, and other quality aspects to increase their stars - and stay attractive in the eyes of parents.
That's what happened at Smooka Bear Academy child-care center, 2855 Lagrange St. in North Toledo.
Its owner, Doris Penrose, said she recently hired an employee to lower the center's staff-to-child ratio and has expanded the curriculum. Those improvements helped the center achieve a one-star rating, which parents have mentioned, she said.
However, about two-thirds of participating Lucas County child-care centers did not receive any stars in the department's ratings, mostly due to minor licensing compliance issues that are being resolved.
Apple Tree Nursery School, situated on the University of Toledo campus, is one of the few Lucas County centers with a three-star rating.
The school's director, Sherry Roush, said she considers herself one of the rating program's biggest fans.
"It's very frustrating when parents don't have the tools to evaluate a child-care center," Ms. Roush said. "Now, all you have to do is walk in the door and ask, 'What's your star rating.'•"
Contact JC Reindl at: