At Crystal Born's child care center in Mankato, "day care" doesn't mean "baby sitter." The 10 preschoolers comb their classroom for objects starting with different letters of the alphabet, and she practices yoga with the children over age 2. This week, with spring as the theme, she made a sensory station where the tots can learn to count using plastic eggs and little toy chicks.

That high-octane curriculum earned Born a top rating from Parent Aware, Minnesota's child-care rating system, and a visit Thursday from two members of Gov. Mark Dayton's cabinet to highlight the importance of early-childhood education to the state's future.

Minnesota has become a hotbed for preschool innovation, with more than $44 million in federal grants and several closely-watched pilot projects. Preliminary evaluations of Parent Aware's four pilot sites show that highly rated day cares and preschools can improve children's language, social and pre-math skills — and that the gains are even larger for children from low-income families.

But a new report covering Parent Aware's rollout since 2012 shows that most parents still don't use it and most child care providers still haven't volunteered to be rated. Of Minnesota's roughly 12,000 licensed child-care centers and homes, just 1,900 have been rated by the four-star system.

Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson, who visited Born's center Thursday, said she is not discouraged.

"I feel like we've made good progress — we only had these four [pilot] programs before we started a statewide rollout," Jesson said in an interview. "I just see that we have more steps to go, we have work to do."

Her agency expects the number of rated day cares to rise to 2,500 by the end of the year.

Dayton's budget

Parent Aware is just one element of a larger state effort to improve the quality of preschool education by providing parents a tool to identify the best providers and rewarding high-quality providers with extra state subsidies.

The 2013 Legislature invested nearly $20 million in improving child care providers, and Dayton's proposed 2016-2017 budget includes another $3.5 million to sustain Parent Aware and more than $100 million in new child-care subsidies for families.

But Parent Aware is more than a rating system, said Art Rolnick, who sits on the program's board and became a national authority on early-childhood education while a vice president at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. In addition to rating providers on factors like class size and teacher qualification, Parent Aware also provides mentors who help providers improve their curriculum using research-backed methods, Rolnick said.

"This is not just about checking a box," he said.

Jan Reindl, director of an ambitious Grand Rapids-based project known as Invest Early, agreed. Participating in Parent Aware, she said, "means that, frankly, you're dedicated to what you're doing."

Still, the documentation and qualifications required for Parent Aware certification can be difficult for small family care providers, who often operate with just one or two staff, said Sandy Pursley, interim executive director of Minnesota Licensed Family Child Care Association, which represents about 9,700 licensed providers.

"Unlike center care … family care providers rarely — if almost never — are able to cut into their direct care hours," to fill out paperwork or get added training, she said.

And if parents don't know that the tool is at their fingertips, as many child care providers attest, some wonder if it's worth the effort.

Long-term investment

Luciana Carballo-Pierre, who runs Nuestro Mundo Bilingual Daycare in northeast Minneapolis, agreed that earning the Parent Aware rating was a lot of work — but said it was worth it. She said it guided the development of her business from watching over nieces, nephews and neighbor kids to caring for — and teaching Spanish to — six children.

The weekend workshops and mentorship helped her find her footing, she said, but she knows other Spanish-speaking providers who say they can't find time outside of long and hectic days to overcome the language barrier of completing Parent Aware's paperwork in English.

"I think it becomes overwhelming," she said. "They've shied away from it."

Others say anything that assures parents that their child is safe and well cared for merits long-term investment run. "[With] what we know about brain development and how important these early years are, I don't want to fill it for children with screen time," Reindl said. "It's about … exposing children to all the learning that can happen in early childhood."

And although quality child care is expensive, Rolnick said, research shows that investment in quality early education yields an 18 percent annual long-run return because children perform better later down the road.

"What kind of return are you getting on your money at the bank? It's 1 percent, 2 percent," he said. "If you look at what we invest in as a public, you can't do better."

Marion Renault •

Renault is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.