Colorado needs preschool teachers. Will these incentives work?

Three students look at children’s books spread out on a table during an evening class.
Students in an introductory course on early childhood education at Front Range Community College select children’s books for a class exercise. (Ann Schimke / Chalkbeat)

Joyful Rothe worked in a nursing home kitchen for 18 years before taking an entry-level job as an aide at a child care center. Shelby Wilson also wants a career working with young children, but for now handles the paperwork for her husband’s log-hauling business.

The two women spend an hour every Monday evening in a second-floor classroom at Front Range Community College in Fort Collins, cars whizzing by outside as they learn how to talk to children about feelings, plan learning activities, and handle meltdowns. They are among hundreds of students across Colorado taking advantage of a new state program that pays for two introductory early childhood courses — a stepping stone to teaching in the field. 

The initiative, funded with $4 million in federal COVID aid, is part of a state effort to mint more early childhood teachers before the state’s universal preschool launch in 2023, and help the industry recover from staff shortages exacerbated by the pandemic. In addition to the free college classes, the state is funding apprenticeships, scholarships, training opportunities, mentoring programs, and translation and other support for people from underrepresented groups seeking early childhood careers. 

The need for new preschool and child care teachers in Colorado is formidable. State officials estimate that more than 2,000 people — 10% of the workforce — left the field during the last two years. They hope to add back more than 1,000 workers by June.

Melanie Gilbertson, who teaches the Monday night class, believes the free coursework has been instrumental in helping students earn qualifications they might not otherwise have been able to afford.

“You don’t make a lot of money in this field,” she said. “And so to ask somebody to go spend $6,000 on a couple of college courses just doesn’t seem right when they’re going to turn around and only make $15 an hour.”

Rothe makes $13 an hour as a full-time aide working with toddlers. Once she finishes Gilbertson’s course, she anticipates a raise. She knows it won’t be a lot, but this is the career she wants.

“I love it,” she said. “I find that I enjoy going to work for the first time in my life.” 

But state officials know that low compensation hurts efforts to recruit and retain early childhood workers, many of whom make so little they qualify for public assistance. 

Mary Alice Cohen, director of the state’s office of early childhood, said the state is using some of its COVID stimulus money to boost wages and benefits for early childhood workers — though she acknowledged that some of those higher payments will last for only nine months. In addition, some of the COVID aid will allow workers to earn additional credentials that will move them higher on their employers’ pay scale, she said. 

“We have 20,000-plus early childhood professionals,” she said. “We really need to figure out how to move the needle on compensation across the board in a sustainable way. This is the start and we have a lot of work left to do.” 

Laura Killen-Wing, an Aims Community College instructor who teaches the two free early childhood classes, said more support is needed for early childhood educators. Her classes include high school students, retirees, single moms, career-changers, and those who already work in early childhood. Some students take the classes online during their lunch breaks while sitting in their cars or a storage closet at work. 

There are more than a half-dozen ways to become an early childhood teacher in Colorado. The two free classes, along with a certain amount of on-the-job experience, provide the minimum qualifications. 

The state’s universal preschool program, funded partly through a nicotine tax that took effect in 2021, will provide 10 hours a week of free preschool to 4-year-olds, with some students eligible for more. State leaders say they want to provide a living wage for early childhood workers, but it’s not clear how they’ll achieve that.

“Free preschool is amazing, but somewhere along the line those people need to be paid,” Killen-Wing said. 

Wilson, one of nine students in the Monday night class and one of about 240 taking the free classes through Front Range Community College this year, hopes to eventually work with preschool students. She became interested in the field for deeply personal reasons. 

“I actually started because I can’t have kids, she said. “So I was like, might as well work with kids.”

Wilson will wait until she completes Gilbertson’s class to apply for an early childhood job. In the meantime, she volunteers at her church’s weekend child care program, where she applies lessons from the course about helping children manage their emotions.

Autumn Kady, who recently moved to Colorado from Arizona, is another one of Gilbertson’s Monday night students. She’s paying for the course because of her out-of-state student status, but may be eligible for partial reimbursement from the state. 

Kady has a business degree and currently works procuring disposable items, such as gloves, masks, and takeout containers for Sprouts Farmers Market. But she wants a career change.

“I’ve gotten into the corporate ladder situation and I just don’t feel that’s where I belong,” she said. “I’m … willing to take a pay cut to get into an industry where I feel like I’ll fit better and will be able to make a bigger impact.” 

Since Kady is planning to start a family soon, it may be a few years until she actually enters the early childhood workforce. Even then, she’s not sure what age group she wants to work with. She’d long thought about teaching second grade, but now she’s not sure.

“My classes are really eye-opening in that there are different directions,” she said. Being a preschool director, Kady said, “might marry my business background with my passion for kids.”

Ann Schimke is a senior reporter at Chalkbeat, covering early childhood issues and early literacy. Contact Ann at

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