In a state with relatively low standards to operate a licensed preschool, it's no surprise that many of them are doing little to prepare children for kindergarten.

But one statewide organization, First Things First, is working to ensure that kids start school ready to succeed.

First Things First's signature program, Quality First, provides intensive coaching, program assessment and resources, as well as scholarships for children to attend high-quality preschools.

The commitment to quality is one that Bill and Debbie Berk, owners of the north-side preschool Outer Limits, are willing to make. From the feel of the classroom, to the way teachers communicate with children, to requiring that staff have a degree or certificate or work to get one, the Berks are pushing to give children what they deserve.

"I really believe we have to keep up with what quality research talks about," Bill Berk says. "We know we can put kids in a room and make sure they don't get injured, but we're not really helping them prepare for kindergarten. That's the difference between minimum standards that licensing requires and higher standards that will actually make a difference for kids."

Outer Limits, at 3472 E. Fort Lowell Road, is one of 183 licensed centers, certified homes and school-based preschools participating in Quality First in Pima County. Five dozen more are on a waiting list.

Sara Van Slyke co-founded Desert Spring Children's Center 26 years ago - and has spent the last three on the waiting list.

Van Slyke says she would like to take advantage of the mentoring services but primarily hopes to gain access to scholarships for children.

Despite her efforts to keep her school affordable, Van Slyke says families in poverty cannot afford to enroll unless they have a child-care subsidy.

"I have to make that budget work," says Van Slyke, whose center charges $575 per month for full days for 3- to 5-year-olds.

First Things First has invested nearly $10 million in Pima County's Quality First program this year and hopes to serve more centers in the future. Participants will eventually be evaluated and get quality ratings based on a five-star scale.

While the Berks are shooting for a high rating, they are most pleased about the opportunities that have been afforded to them.

"I think the best part about Quality First is there's a quality improvement process that comes along with that, and there's coaching and resources and scholarships for children to go to school," Bill Berk says. "They look at the education levels of teachers, directors and administrators. I think it's great that is incorporated into the ratings."

know what questions to ask

Selecting the right child-care or preschool provider can be daunting. To view a checklist of questions to ask when visiting or calling providers, go to