Four stars for kids

University Children’s Learning Center first to earn top marks in North Dakota quality assurance program 

UND Children's Center

The University Children’s Center is the first in North Dakota to complete all four steps of the Bright & Early North Dakota Quality Assurance rating program, achieving a four-star rating. The program helps parents and providers assess how well a child care program supports early learning and development. UND archival image.

Step by step, the University Children’s Learning Center is developing leaders in action. And earning four stars along the way.

The UND Center is the first in North Dakota to complete all four steps of the Bright & Early North Dakota Quality Assurance rating program, achieving a four-star rating.

Completing the program wasn’t easy, said Dawnita Nilles, director of the Center.

“Step 4 is extremely hard,” said Nilles, who said the work was worth it. “It’s a validation of the quality we offer, validation that we are growing ourselves, and validation that we are growing the profession.”

The achievement benefits children, parents, and UND education students who train and work at the Center.

Nilles also hopes their success in achieving the four-star rating will encourage other centers in the state to do the same. She’s already receiving calls from other centers, and a daycare director from Williston will stop by the Center next month for a visit.

Nilles is eager to mentor other providers and help them earn the rating, which she believes is well worth the work.

The Bright & Early rating program helps parents and providers assess how well a child care program supports early learning and development. Programs can earn up to four stars as they commit to, improve and maintain quality.

Developing leaders

At UND, that means training UND early childhood students in the College of Education & Human Development to create critical thinking skills in young children.

Dawnita Nilles

Dawnita Nilles

That’s important, said Nilles, because nearly 90 percent of a child’s brain is developed by age 5.

“We work with and feedback to children, asking how, why, when,” said Nilles. “We want kids excited about learning.”

For example, she said, when the children made ice cream last fall and the teacher used rock salt to make the ice colder, the kids were fascinated by how salt worked to lower the ice’s temperature. But rather than tell them about the process, the teacher asked where ice came from.

“Students thought the ice came from the freezer, the fridge, and from leaving a water bottle outside,” Nilles said. “From this hypothesis, we put water in each place, and the next day we discovered that ice comes from the freezer.” That scientific method of solving problems, Nilles added, is a hallmark of a four-star program like UND’s.

“The teacher provides tools and helps them find the answers,” she said, adding that the children stayed interested in ice for about 10 weeks.  They learned how to make ice into water, performed experiments, and even learned that if you drop ice, it breaks and melts faster.

The Center’s approach has not gone unnoticed. With a stellar reputation and a waiting list of 12-24 months for the preschool program, parents – many of them UND students, faculty and staff – brag about having their children enrolled at UND’s Center, which has space for 103 children from age 18 months to kindergarten. Staff include 12 full time teachers and 25 student employees.

Nilles and her staff aren’t resting on their laurels. They’re already thinking about the next step, and are working to earn full accreditation for the Center.

University Children's Learning Center

UND children’s center leaders hope their success in achieving the four-star rating will encourage other centers in the state to do the same. Director Dawnita Nilles is already receiving calls from other centers, and a daycare director from Williston will visit the Center this month.

Next-generation impact

It’s all about quality.

“I do this because I’m leading an amazing group of teachers who are passionate and dedicated, and we can impact the next generation of teachers and children,” she said.

“This is important. We are raising a generation of confident future leaders,” she continued. “These children will be in the workforce when I retire. I need to know the world is going to be in good hands.”