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.”

Enter to win

Denver organization to launch national prize for early childhood innovation

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

A Denver-based investment group will soon launch a national contest meant to help scale up great ideas in the early childhood field — specifically efforts focused on children birth to 3 years old.

Gary Community Investments announced its Early Childhood Innovation Prize on Wednesday morning at a conference in San Francisco. It’s sort of like the television show “Shark Tank,” but without the TV cameras, celebrity judges and nail-biting live pitch.

The contest will divvy up $1 million in prize money to at least three winners, one at the beginning stages of concept development, one at a mid-level stage and one at an advanced stage. Gary officials say there could be more than one winner in each category.

The contest will officially launch Oct. 25, with submissions due Feb. 15 and winners announced in May. (Gary Community Investments, through the Piton Foundation, is a Chalkbeat funder.)

Officials at Gary Community Investments, founded by oilman Sam Gary, say the contest will help the organization focus on finding solutions that address trouble spots in the early childhood arena.

The birth-to-3 zone is one such spot. While it’s an especially critical time for children because of the amount of brain development that occurs during that time, it’s often overshadowed by efforts targeting 4- or 5-year-olds.

Steffanie Clothier, Gary’s child development investment director, said leaders there decided on a monetary challenge after talking with a number of other organizations that offer prizes for innovative ideas or projects.

One foundation they consulted described lackluster responses to routine grant programs, but lots of enthusiasm for contests with financial stakes, she said.

“There’s some galvanizing opportunity to a prize,” she said.

But Gary’s new prize isn’t solely about giving away money to create or expand promising programs. It will also include an online networking platform meant to connect applicants with mentors, partners or investors.

“We’re trying to figure out how to make it not just about the winners,” Clothier said.

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Public investment

This Colorado ski town had an early childhood education crisis. Here’s what local leaders did about it.

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

Greta Shackelford moved to Breckenridge 13 years ago on a whim. She was young and single at the time — a Virginia native enjoying life in a Colorado ski town.

Today, Shackelford is married with two young children and heads a local child care center called Little Red Schoolhouse. She’s also one beneficiary of Breckenridge’s decision a decade ago to pump hundreds of thousands of dollars annually into the town’s child care industry.

Back in 2007, she got a substantial raise when town officials boosted salaries for local child care teachers by 30 percent and today, she and her husband, a general contractor, get help covering preschool costs for their 3-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter. In addition, because the town helped pay off some centers’ mortgages, there’s a financial cushion in case the boiler breaks or the roof leaks at Little Red Schoolhouse.

The effort in Breckenridge is among a growing number of initiatives across the state that use public money — usually gleaned from local property tax or sales tax — to improve child care and preschool options. Beyond helping prepare young children for school, these initiatives can be a vital cog in the local economy, keeping parents in the workforce and businesses adequately staffed.

And more could be coming soon. Leaders in San Miguel County, where Telluride is the county seat, are gearing up for a November ballot initiative that would help expand child care facilities and boost teacher pay. In Estes Park, advocates are just beginning a process to determine the town’s child care needs and explore funding options.

“It’s because some child care deserts are seemingly insurmountable and entrenched that local leaders in early childhood are looking at all possibilities,” said Liz Houston, executive director of the Early Childhood Council Leadership Alliance.

Experts say local efforts can be a heavy lift for community leaders charged with galvanizing support for tax hikes or other publicly funded proposals. But when successful, they provide much-needed stability to an industry plagued by low pay, high turnover, a shortage of slots and wide variations in quality.

Leaders in Breckenridge say child care is just as critical as plowing snow.

“Just like we need to plow our roads so people can get to our ski area, … this is just as important,” said Jennifer McAtamney, the town’s child care program administrator. “If we lose our workforce, it’s a huge problem.”

Some early childhood leaders hope these locally-funded projects can serve as a stepping stone to more ambitious statewide efforts in the future. (The state already runs programs that provide half-day preschool to at-risk children and child care subsidies for low-income families, but demand far outstrips supply.)

“Support for early childhood education is probably going to be built community by community by community until there is enough of a groundswell for it to be something that is statewide or nationwide,” said Jennifer Landrum, president and CEO of the Denver Preschool Program.

Like in Breckenridge, government funded early childhood initiatives have existed for years in Denver, Aspen, Boulder County and Summit County. A couple others — in Dolores and Elbert counties — have launched more recently, according to a list maintained by the business group Executives Partnering to Invest in Children, or EPIC.

One of the factors that unites communities that have taken on locally funded early childhood initiatives is a sense that things were at or near a crisis point. In Colorado’s resort towns, where many describe the cost of housing and other basics as astronomical, this is especially true.

Early childhood advocates in these communities can rattle off numbers that illustrate just how hard it is to find quality child care: waitlists that run into the hundreds, towns with few or no licensed slots for babies, centers that can’t find child care workers to staff their classrooms.

Shackelford, the director of Little Red Schoolhouse in Breckenridge, said the town’s effort, which includes another cash infusion to boost salaries in 2018, has reduced employee churn. Her own experience is a case in point.

Without the town’s financial help — with both child care and housing — “we would never have been able to afford to stay in Breckenridge,” she said. “It makes it, not cheap, but manageable.”

Gloria Higgins, president of EPIC, expects the number of municipalities that take on locally funded early childhood efforts to go up over the next decade.

By then, she said, “those communities in the most distress will probably have something and those are the mountain resort communities … They’re going to lead.”

But she also expects cities like Pueblo and some in the Denver suburbs to hop on board, too.

Higgins is an enthusiastic evangelist for such efforts. They fit well with Colorado’s local control ethos and can be tailored to each community’s needs. Still, she cautions those interested that it takes about four years of planning to get the job done.

“It’s a big deal to get the taxpayer to say yes,” she said.

While voters are often called on to approve dedicated sales tax or property tax hikes, some communities have earmarked public money for early childhood in other ways.

In Breckenridge, for example, the town council initially allocated money for its early childhood program from the general fund, a move that didn’t require voter approval. Six years in, the town did ask voters for a property tax increase to support the program, but the measure failed.

The council subsequently decided to continue funding the effort as before.

In Elbert County, a partnership between early childhood leaders and county human services officials led to a special grant program that pays for preschool scholarships for low-income children stuck on the waitlist for state-funded slots.

Cathryn Reiber, coordinator of the Elbert County Early Childhood Council, said that in an ultra-conservative community where new tax increases would never pass, the county partnership has been a great solution.

Landrum, who heads the Denver Preschool Program, said it’s also important to win backing from the business community. After two defeats at the ballot box in the early 2000s, business leaders helped shape and endorse sales tax measures to fund the program in 2006 and in 2014.

In addition to providing preschool tuition assistance for the city’s 4-year-olds, the Denver Preschool Program provides training, coaching and materials for child care providers.

In some communities, funding for early childhood services is one piece of a broader package. In 2010 when the Great Recession was in full swing, Boulder County officials asked voters to approve a five-year property tax hike billed as a temporary safety net measure that would help families afford food, shelter and child care.

Voters said yes, and when officials came back to them in 2014 for a similar 15-year measure, they said yes again. The second time around, the campaign was called “Neighbors Helping Neighbors,” drawing on the community camaraderie that developed after the 2013 floods, said Bobbie Watson, executive director of the Early Childhood Council of Boulder County.

“You have to frame it so your community will bite,” she said.