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PHOENIX - Calling the choice of a child care provider or preschool an overwhelming but vital decision, First Things First has launched a website guiding Arizona parents toward the right option for them.

Quality First lists providers committed to preparing kids according to standards considered important by First Things First, the state's early-childhood education program.

"We wanted to give parents information about what quality is and what it looks like so that they feel empowered in making childhood choices," said Liz Barker Alvarez, the group's senior director of communications.

First Things First designed Quality First to work with child care providers to develop programs that will help children thrive socially, emotionally and academically, she said.

"Quality child care and preschool settings prepare children for what they will face in kindergarten, if they are of high quality," Alvarez said. "The quality of the child's interactions with the adults in their lives, from parents to child care providers and preschool providers, really form the foundation for their success throughout their lives."

First Things First, created by voters in 2006 and funded by a tax on cigarettes, contributes to early-childhood education services around Arizona.

While Quality First is a new tool to aid parents, the Arizona Department of Education has had Early Learning Standards in effect since 2003 to promote quality early-childhood education.

"No matter where your child goes, we need to make sure they are experiencing quality interaction and quality engagement," said Amy Corriveau, deputy associate superintendent for early childhood education and Head Start state collaboration director.

Wendy Oakes, an assistant professor at Arizona State University's Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, said via email that parents are the experts on their children and "their most important teachers."

"Even when children are in care outside of their homes by an early childhood educator or caretaker, parents should be partners with their care providers," Oakes said. "Many families do need to rely on out of home care and trust caregivers to keep their child safe and nurture the child's development, and so the relationship between the parent and care provider is essential."

Barbara Swaby, an education professor at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, said providers of early-childhood education offer an academic base and socialization opportunity for children as well as a guide for parents.

"The relationship between the parent and the educator should be a coming together, working together for the best academic good of the child," she said.

Alvarez said parents with questions that aren't addressed by the Quality First website or provider checklist are able to call First Things First for help.

"We wanted to provide tools for families, and we wanted to provide them with resources," she said.

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