Quality quest

How Colorado is trying to boost access to quality child care for poor kids

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum

When Colorado changed the way it paid child care providers for educating little kids from low-income families — paying high quality providers more than lower-quality ones — there was both elation and frustration.

Deb Hartman, program director at a highly rated center in Las Animas County in southern Colorado, called the new approach “life-changing.” The extra money, she said, helped save infant and toddler classrooms that otherwise would have closed. She was able to give her teachers raises and even buy a coffee-maker for the teacher’s lounge.

But 300 miles north in Larimer County, officials who administer the state’s child care subsidy program for residents weren’t so happy. The new reimbursement rates meant a growing price tag for the program and today, nearly 370 kids on the wait list.

The dichotomy illustrates the growing pains that have come with state efforts to get low-income youngsters into high-quality child care — a key factor in making sure kids are ready for kindergarten and reading well in third grade.

While Colorado policy-makers have made an array of changes to the complicated $86 million subsidy program in recent years — several focused on promoting child care quality— there’s a long way to go to ensure poor kids get the same level of care available to upper-income kids.

Not only are there too few high-quality providers across the state, but many don’t accept subsidies, which is often the only way low-income families can gain access to top-notch child care.

Thousands of providers — about 84 percent — are still on the lowest rungs of the state’s two-year-old quality rating system, Colorado Shines. The lowest rating is Level 1, which means a provider is licensed and has met basic health and safety requirements. Level 2 is a step up and means a provider has started to climb the quality ladder, but has not yet achieved what is considered the mark of high quality — a Level 3, 4 or 5 rating.

Of about 680 high-quality providers across Colorado, about 37 percent accept subsidies. Sometimes it’s because they can easily fill their rosters with children whose parents pay full freight. In other cases directors balk at accepting subsidies because the program, officially called the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program, has a reputation for red tape and out-of-date technology.

“It’s not very 21st century at all,” said Terri Albohn, who helps administer the subsidy program for Boulder County.

State officials say they’re in the process of streamlining and modernizing the program, which helps low-income parents afford child care if they’re working, in school or looking for jobs.

State officials aim to increase the number of providers that have ratings above Level 1 and to improve the distribution of high-quality programs that accept subsidies so communities outside the Front Range have better access.

“The idea is to try to break out of that I-25 corridor in particular,” said Erin Mewhinney, director of early care and learning for the state Department of Human Services.

When kids lack access to high-quality care, it can mean less-than-ideal child care arrangements — sitting in front of the TV or staying home with grandparents or older siblings.

One state initiative in the works will award grants to providers rated Level 2-5 that accept or plan to accept child care subsidies. Mewhinney said the state’s goal is to ensure that 33 percent of Colorado communities have at least one high-quality provider that takes subsidies. Right now, that number stands at 26 percent.

One person on the front lines of efforts to get more providers to accept subsidies is Jennifer Sanchez McDonald, coordinator of the Huerfano and Las Animas Counties Early Childhood Advisory Council.

She likes to tell providers that the program is “going to empower your site, not decrease your opportunities.”

In one recent example, she visited a licensed provider who cares for children in her home, discussing the subsidy program over a conversation at the kitchen table. The woman was worried about shrinking enrollment because some of her families were struggling to pay. Shortly after that conversation, the provider began taking the subsidies.

Sanchez McDonald hopes to get up to eight more of the 16 licensed providers in the two-county area to accept state subsidies. Currently, four take the subsidies — only two that have high ratings.

Besides getting centers to take subsidies, there’s also the challenge of getting parents to apply for them. Although area poverty rates are high and children often lag academically, many parents keep their kids at home until kindergarten, Sanchez McDonald said.

In Boulder County, officials launched a campaign called “Just One More” urging high-quality child care providers to set aside one new slot for a subsidized child. In some cases, the centers are accepting subsidies for the first time.

The campaign, begun 18 months ago, hinges on personal outreach to providers by county workers who describe the impact quality care can have on a low-income child and check in frequently during the early weeks of enrollment.

Elizabeth Groneberg, outreach coordinator for Boulder County’s subsidy program, said she tells providers, “You let me know when you get your first (subsidized) family. We’ll be in touch every day.”

At one high-quality private preschool, she said, the director agreed to begin accepting the subsidies so the child of one the center’s teachers could attend. Today, the center has two children in subsidized slots.

In Larimer County, where demand for subsidies far outstrips supply, officials say they’re not recruiting more providers to take subsidies because they couldn’t place children in those slots.

While about a dozen Colorado counties have wait lists for subsidies, Larimer has the largest, according to state officials.

“We want to pay for good quality care, but you have to have additional finances … to do it,” said Heather O’Hayre, deputy director of human services for Larimer County.

The real problem is that the state’s formula for distributing funds to counties isn’t working the way it should, O’Hayre said. She and her colleagues also lament that the committee that determines the formula is heavy on metro Denver representation and that members have no term limits. There are no voting members from Larimer County.

While state officials say they understand Larimer’s concerns about the long wait list, the fact that the problem is acute in just one county rather than several doesn’t necessarily indicate a problem with the allocation formula.

“I know they’re frustrated for sure,” Mewhinney said.

Correction: Due to incorrect information provided by Larimer County, an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that there were nearly 600 kids on subsidy wait list there. The actual number is 368. 

help wanted

It’s hard to find qualified early childhood teachers. Here’s what one Denver provider is doing about it.

Malanna Newell is a toddler teacher at the Mile High Early Learning center in Denver's Westwood neighborhood. She started as a teaching assistant before taking Mile High's Child Development Associate training last fall.

Scattered around a meeting room in groups of three or four, 13 women bent over laptop computers and smartphones, squinting at Colorado’s hundreds of child care regulations.

They were child care and preschool employees from all over Denver on a scavenger hunt of sorts, searching for answers to worksheet questions such as how quickly child care workers must be trained on child abuse reporting and which eight kinds of toys and equipment classrooms are required to have.

The exercise on a recent Tuesday night was part of a 120-hour course — the equivalent of two college classes — that leads to a nationally-recognized child care credential.

Leaders at Mile High Early Learning, which operates seven centers around Denver, decided last summer to launch the training program to help solve one of the organization’s — and the field’s — most intractable problems: A shortage of qualified teachers and assistant teachers.

“We were having difficulty finding staff so we thought, ‘How could we grow our own?’” said Pamela Harris, the organization’s president and CEO.

In a field known nationally for low pay and high turnover, Mile High’s staffing struggles are hardly unique. What’s more unusual is the organization’s decision to address the problem with a formal in-house training. It’s a move that illustrates the anxiety providers face in finding high-quality staff and the gaps that exist in the state’s early childhood worker pipeline.

Over the next three years, a new state early childhood workforce plan aims to fill some of those holes, in part through alternative pathways like the training offered by Mile High. But experts agree the task is formidable.

Three participants in a recent training at Mile High Early Learning look through child care regulations.

In Colorado, the dearth of well-trained child care and preschool teachers has worsened in recent years even as evidence mounts that quality caregivers play a critical role in setting kids up for long-term success.

Christi Chadwick, who heads the Transforming Colorado’s Early Childhood Workforce project at the nonprofit Early Milestones Colorado, said the state’s population growth, stagnant wages in the field and more demanding worker qualification have exacerbated the problem. It’s particularly acute for community child care providers, which can’t usually pay preschool teachers as much as school districts do.

“The compensation is a challenge,” Chadwick said. “If we’re going to ever professionalize the field, we have to think of how we have our teachers on par with those in elementary education.”

A winding road

Experts say many child care workers back into the profession — following a twisting path that may not include any formal training on how to work with little kids.

Some come in with only high school diplomas, some with associates degrees and some with bachelor’s degrees, though often in unrelated subjects.

Take Muna, a 24-year-old participant in the recent Mile High training. She holds a bachelor’s degree in international affairs from the University of Colorado Boulder and has held jobs working with adult refugees and teaching high school girls in Saudi Arabia.

Until eight months ago when she became a staff aide at Mile High’s center in the Lowry neighborhood, Muna had never worked with young children.

Staff aides are entry-level workers who make about $12 an hour. They allow Mile High to meet staff-child ratio requirements, but under state rules, can’t be left alone with children.

Muna, who asked that her last name not be used, is exactly the kind of person Harris wants to nudge up the career ladder with the new training program,

“We want to push them out of staff aide. We want them to be teacher assistants,” Harris said, noting that a pay bump comes with the promotion.

Mile High is among a variety of organizations that offer the training, which leads to a credential called the Child Development Associate. Mile High staff can take the course for free as long as they commit to stay for a year. Employees at other Denver area centers can participate for a fee. Harris said one of Mile High’s next steps will be to offer the training in Spanish.

For Muna, the course was mainly a way to learn the ropes of a profession she’s found both fulfilling and unfamiliar.

“I felt like I really didn’t know anything,” she said. “I didn’t want to be making mistakes or doing anything wrong.”

During the scavenger hunt activity, Muna and her two partners — both of whom work at centers outside the Mile High network — talked about the maze of rules that govern child care.

Muna recalled how jarring it was to learn that she had to don gloves first before tending to a crying youngster with a bloody nose.

Megan O’Connor, a former marketing officer and the mother of a teenage boy, laughed about the fact that there’s not only a specific technique for changing a baby’s diaper, but also for throwing the diaper away.

The changing pipeline

Starting in the 1980s, state law prohibited Colorado’s universities from offering bachelor’s degrees in early childhood education. When that changed a few years ago, it opened the way for a new crop of college graduates with specialized coursework focusing on young children.

But that spigot, while promising, is also very new.

A recent survey of about 5,000 early childhood workers across the state revealed that while just over half of lead teachers have a bachelor’s degree, only 25 percent have degrees in early childhood education or a closely related field. (The full results of the survey are due out in mid-August.)

Diane Price, president and CEO of Early Connections Learning Centers in Colorado Springs, was pleasantly surprised this summer to land three new teachers who’d recently graduated with bachelor’s degrees in early childhood. But with more than 40 percent of her staff turning over every year, recruitment is still a battle.

“I firmly believe that right now in early education you either grow your own or steal from someone else,” said Price, who was a member of the steering committee that helped developed the state’s new plan.

Early Connections doesn’t offer its own Child Development Associate training like Mile High does, but the course is available through local partners.

Both Harris and Price say the training is enjoying a resurgence at the moment. It provides a gentle way of introducing child care workers, who may find college intimidating or unaffordable, to the prospect of higher education.

“We don’t want this profession to be a dead end,” Price said. “We want them to see there is a pathway. You can become a teacher, you can be a lead teacher … You can be a director some day.”

(Very) early education

Helping expectant and new mothers can lead to health and education gains for children, new paper says

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
A toddler at Loveland's Teaching Tree Early Childhood Learning Center, draws on an outline of his foot.

A new paper released Monday identifies health and educational benefits for children whose mothers participated in a home visitation program that provides medical assistance and early childhood development.

The Nurse-Family Partnership program begins in prenatal stages and ends when the child turns 2. The program offers care to disadvantaged, first-time and single mothers. Registered nurses visit the women’s homes and assist both with medical needs and early education.

University of Chicago Professor James Heckman, in tandem with four other professors and researchers at major American universities, analyzed a Nurse-Family Partnership program in Memphis, Tennessee. The paper concludes, among other things, that Nurse-Family Partnership programs improve cognitive skills for babies of both genders by age 6, and specifically social and emotional skills for girls. At age 12, males whose mothers were involved in Nurse-Family Partnership program perform better academically.

It is very important to provide a strong start early in life,” said Maria Rosales-Rueda, a professor at the University of California, Irvine and one of the paper’s authors. “We have seen several research children arrive to school already with big gaps between low socioeconomic status and high socioeconomic status. Programs like Nurse-Family Partnership target low income very disadvantaged families, first-time mothers, sometimes teenagers, by helping them to invest in their children.”

Nurse-Family Partnership receives federal funding from the Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program. The funding expires Sept. 30. If Congress does not reauthorize the program, Nurse-Family Partnership and other early childhood programs could lose crucial federal dollars, said Fran Benton, a spokesman for the program’s national office.

Rosales-Rueda said she hopes the paper will help raise awareness about the effectiveness of Nurse-Family Partnership.

Currently, its programs are widely available in Colorado, according to Michelle Neal, director of the program at the Denver-based organization Invest in Kids. While federal funding makes up a smaller portion of Nurse-Family Partnership’s revenue, Neal said if the federal funding is not reauthorized, Colorado’s program could be in jeopardy.

“In Colorado at least we have great support for the program in that we’re available in all 64 counties,” she said. “A (paper) like this can have an impact on our advocacy to have the federal funding be reauthorized because that’s up in the air. We need that funding to continue flowing after October 1.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated when federal funding for the Nurse-Family Partnership expires.