intervening early

Life in a child care desert: What one Denver neighborhood can teach us about solving a national problem

PHOTO: Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Olga Montellano, an informal child care provider, says goodbye to Mateo Casillas, 2, after caring for him for the day.

Olga Montellano is kind, patient and doesn’t flinch when small children shout excitedly in her face.

On a recent afternoon, her calm demeanor was on display as she watched over her 3-year-old daughter and her next-door neighbor’s 3-year-old son as they frolicked on her front lawn in north Denver’s Elyria-Swansea neighborhood.

When the ponytailed mother of four heard what sounded like gunshots a street over, she ushered the children onto the porch, past a giant reading nook she’d crafted from cardboard, and into the house.

Montellano has been taking care of kids in her home for five years, ever since her next-door neighbor got a job at a factory and needed someone to watch her older child, now a kindergartener. In late November, Montellano added a 2-year-old boy to the mix, the son of a friend who’d just landed an office-cleaning job.

This kind of informal, mostly unregulated child care is a lifesaver in Elyria-Swansea, where train yards, Interstate 70 and large industrial plots share space with residential pockets that, as of now, are home to many poor and working-class families.

Licensed child care — particularly for children 3 and younger — is hard to come by here. The problem is so pronounced, the neighborhood has won an unwelcome designation: Child care desert. Put simply, it’s a place where the number of small children far exceeds the number of licensed child care slots.

But a slate of recent efforts could help Elyria-Swansea shed the label — and hold implications for other communities grappling with the problem.

The initiatives, which use both public and private money, include training for informal providers like Montellano, efforts to better match home-based child care slots with families and attempts to bring new child care centers to the area.

The idea is to ease the child care scramble that plagues many working parents in the largely Hispanic neighborhood and help set up young kids for future academic success. Currently, more than half of neighborhood children — many of them English learners — aren’t reading proficiently by the end of third grade.

Together, the projects represent an ambitious undertaking that could bring much-needed attention to a long-neglected neighborhood. But they’re also separate efforts with different leaders, missions and geographic reach — all unfolding as locals brace for big changes in the neighborhood.

On the horizon are a massive expansion of Interstate 70, which splits the neighborhood, and a billion-dollar overhaul of the National Western Stock Show complex. And as Denver’s breakneck growth continues, the neighborhood is showing signs of gentrification.

To those invested in transforming child care in this Denver neighborhood and similar urban areas across the country, all the changes raise an uncomfortable question: Will the families who need help still be around when the work is done?

“That’s a fear that we all have,” said Nicole Riehl, director of programs and development at Denver’s Early Childhood Council, one of many partners in an initiative called United Neighborhoods doing work in Elyria-Swansea.

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Olga Montellano gets a hug from Juan Pablo Ordoñez, 3, as she picks him and her daughter Milagros Santos, 3, left up from preschool.

Scope of the problem

Nine of Denver’s 78 neighborhoods, including Elyria-Swansea, are classified as child care deserts, according to data from a recent Center for American Progress report. Parts of more than a dozen other neighborhoods also earn that designation.

The report found that half of the people in the 22 states it examined live in a child care desert, which it defines as neighborhoods or small towns with either no child care options or so few that there are more than three children for every licensed child care slot.

In Elyria-Swansea, parents cope in various ways. Some rely on nearby relatives or neighbors to watch their children. Others, if they have cars, drive their kids to child care centers or preschool programs outside the neighborhood. Some, fearing child care will eat up their whole paycheck, leave the workforce altogether to stay home with their kids.

Martina Meléndez, a single mother of four who lives in the neighborhood, illustrates the extent to which families cobble together care when affordable, flexible options aren’t available.

She works at night so she can be home during the day to handle school and preschool pick-ups and drop-offs for her younger three children. When she heads to her office-cleaning job, she enlists her college-age son to watch his siblings. On the weekends, when she waitresses full-time and her oldest son goes to his part-time job, she pays a babysitter $200 to stay at her house with the kids.

Meléndez worries about the toll the arrangement takes on her eldest son.

“I would like to be able to take care of my kids myself so that he doesn’t have so much pressure,” she said. “I know he’s going to have to concentrate more on school.”

Meléndez’s experience isn’t unique, but it is a reminder that market forces alone don’t ensure an adequate supply of child care in many communities.

That’s why quality child care needs to be understood as a public good — one that requires the same kind of public investment that pays for roads, bridges and schools, said Rasheed Malik, co-author of the Center for American Progress report.

“There’s starting to be discussions with state legislators and people on (Capitol) Hill in D.C. who are beginning to take up that mindset,” he said.

According to the report, 30 percent of Colorado residents live in child care deserts, but the problem is more acute in some communities — including those with higher Hispanic populations.

That’s the case in Elyria-Swansea, where more than 60 percent of residents are Hispanic, according to census estimates. The same is true in several other Denver neighborhoods classified wholly or partly as child care deserts, including Valverde, Athmar Park and Ruby Hill.

click on the map to enlarge

No local space

In Elyria-Swansea, a variety of factors contribute to the lack of child care — ranging from poverty to the neighborhood’s industrial roots. Amidst its train yards, warehouses and marijuana grow houses, there’s little suitable space for commercial child care — a high-cost, low-margin business.

Only Swansea Elementary School and a tiny nearby Head Start program offer formal child care in the neighborhood — a total of 81 full-day seats, mostly for 4-year-olds.

Even the federal government has picked up on the problem — earmarking the ZIP code for special consideration in grant awards for certain child care slots.

“Our challenge is facilities out there,” said Lance Vieira, chief operating officer of Rocky Mountain Service Employment Redevelopment, which runs the Head Start program in Elyria-Swansea.

Some local families send their kids to another Head Start center three miles away in the Sunnyside neighborhood. Special busing was provided for the youngsters through last year, but that ceased for a variety of reasons, including because the program switched from half- to full-day.

In a bid to help satisfy the demand for child care, Focus Points Family Resource Center, a longtime nonprofit serving families in Elyria-Swansea and Globeville, used grant money to open up a 30-seat preschool in the fall of 2016. With no space available in the two neighborhoods, leaders settled on a facility in the nearby Cole neighborhood.

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Olga Montellano walks with her daughter Milagros Santos, 3, right, and her neighor’s son, Juan Pablo Ordoñez, 3, after preschool in their neighborhood.

Quality varies

Yadira Sanchez, a mother of three in Elyria-Swansea, knows what it’s like to struggle with child care. She still remembers sending her oldest child, Ruben, now 17, to a neighbor’s house when he was a little boy and she was working as a home health aide.

Culturally, she and her neighbor had a lot in common, and she felt confident Ruben would never be abused. Still, the boy spent most of his time on the couch and was regularly asked to share the meals Sanchez packed for him with the neighbor’s young daughter. The woman, who sometimes watched soap operas during the day, was anxious about the children getting hurt and discouraged active play.

The kind of informal care Sanchez used for Ruben — often called family, friend and neighbor care — is common in Elyria-Swansea and many other communities. Often, parents like it because they know the caregiver well, hours are flexible and it’s usually inexpensive or free.

Still, such unlicensed care is mostly unregulated by the state and quality varies widely.

Sanchez’s neighbor, who’d eventually added Ruben’s sister and a couple other children to her child care roster, stopped offering care after a few years.

“She felt like, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, maybe I shouldn’t be doing it,’” Sanchez said.

From there, Sanchez tried a licensed home and two licensed centers outside the neighborhood but didn’t like those options, either. At two of them, the providers were cold, strict and the kids were often in trouble.

Sanchez wishes there was a child care center in the neighborhood.

Nothing fancy, she said. “Just a safe place … with people who actually love to work with kids.”

Rosemary Alfaro, who lives in Elyria-Swansea and works as a clerk for a home visiting program, yearns for the same kind of thing.

Over the years, she’s made various child care arrangements for her children. Her husband’s aunt helped out for awhile and the two older girls attended Head Start in the Sunnyside neighborhood and later the Highland neighborhood — a short drive to the west.

Today, her 3-year-old son attends morning preschool at the Focus Points center in the Cole neighborhood and her mother-in-law takes care of him and another youngster in the afternoons.

“She is my right-hand woman,” Alfaro said. “If I didn’t have her, I wouldn’t know what to do.”

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
Members of the PASO class practice CPR and first aid during a session in July.

Expanding the pipeline

One day last summer, two-dozen Spanish-speaking women practiced first aid and CPR on rubber dummies at a Catholic church in north Denver. An instructor in pointy cowboy boots walked them through the proper responses to various emergencies — discovering an unconscious child on the ground or handling a seizure without knowing the child’s medical history.

Olga Montellano — the caregiver who ushered the children inside after hearing the gunshots — was there. So was Dolores Alfaro, Rosemary’s mother-in-law.

The four-hour session was part of an intensive course for family, friend and neighbor providers called Providers Advancing Student Outcomes, or PASO.

The initiative is just one part of United Neighborhoods, a Mile High United Way project focused on education, housing, health and workforce development in Elyria-Swansea and neighboring Globeville. It began last year and is expected to last three to five years.

The course leads to a common entry-level child care credential and represents a key strategy in the United Neighborhoods plan to address the problem of child care deserts.

The Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition, one of several partners in the United Neighborhoods work, has run PASO classes in several Front Range communities for years, often enrolling mostly undocumented immigrants and paying for the program with private funds.

The course in Elyria-Swansea is a bit different. The City of Denver’s Office of Economic Development — another United Neighborhoods partner — kicked in $130,000 to cover the cost of 14 participants, all of whom are legally in the United States.

City officials say the investment was a chance to help residents climb up the first rungs of the career ladder and improve child care quality at the same time.

Once PASO ends in mid-December, more than $5,000 in federal funding will be used to shepherd some participants through the arduous licensing process that will allow them to offer state-sanctioned child care in their homes. Leaders at Denver’s Early Childhood Council, which will provide that assistance, say they’ll create eight new Early Head Start slots for children birth to 3 in the 80216 ZIP code by next fall.

Other initiatives unfolding now or launching in the near future could eventually help boost child care offerings in Elyria-Swansea, too.

One, funded partially by Gary Community Investments and set to start in spring of 2018, relies on a nonprofit called WorkLife Partnership. The group operates across Colorado, charging employers a membership fee to get help with services — such as child care or housing — that help employees stay on the job.

Liddy Romero, executive director of WorkLife Partnership, said to increase child care along I-70, where soon hundreds of construction workers and other kinds of employees will be needed, the group will award $5,000 mini-grants to licensed in-home providers. The idea is to help them buy new curricula or equipment, and figure out how to offer more slots or expand into overnight care.

WorkLife Partnership is also partnering with the national online marketplace to ensure those providers — once they expand their capacity or hours — get efficiently matched with families that need child care.

Using money from another source, Romero said the group is already working with 17 in-home providers along I-70. None of the 17 are in Elyria-Swansea or Globeville, but providers from both neighborhoods, possibly some who are not yet licensed, could be included in the future.

Liliana Flores Amaro, an Elyria-Swansea resident and community activist, said with some residents leery of outsiders pushing in solutions, it’s important for leaders of all the projects underway or planned to avoid a “deficit mindset.”

They should approach the work “really honoring and respecting the experience and knowledge of child development and child-rearing that is in this neighborhood,” she said.

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Olga Montellano, seated on floor, plays with her daughter Milagros Santos, 3, right, as friend and neighbor Berenice Morales watches.

Changing city, changing neighborhood

Residents and civic leaders all see signs that gentrification is coming to Elyria-Swansea — and sending residents to Adams County, Aurora and Edgewater.

For leaders at Focus Points, one indicator was the gradual disappearance of waitlists for parenting programs that were once over-subscribed. At the Valdez-Perry library branch, it’s near-daily goodbyes staff bid to patrons who are moving out of the area.

And, of course, there’s skyrocketing real estate prices.

“The reality is these families will be offered so much money for their houses they’re not going to stay,” said Vieira, of Rocky Mountain Service Employment Redevelopment. “It’s going explode in Globeville and (Elyria) Swansea will be very close behind.”

So what will come of efforts to fix the child care desert if the families — and the kids — move away? No one expects all current residents to leave, but the demographics will surely change. Some observers expect fewer large families and an influx of middle-class residents.

One check on gentrification could be new affordable housing planned for a large new development to be built on a six-acre parcel at the corner of 48th Avenue and Race Street. Leaders at the Urban Land Conservancy, which owns the land, say there will be hundreds of affordable housing units included, but the exact number will be determined when a developer is chosen in early 2018. The development will include space for local nonprofits at below-market lease rates. The first phase of construction could start in 2019, with completion four to five years later.

Sheridan Castro, the interim executive director of Focus Points, said the group will apply for some of that space for a childcare facility there. The idea is to move the organization’s preschool in the Cole neighborhood to the new development and add care for infants and toddlers.

“It would be an economic opportunity as well for members of our community and our staff who have been working toward becoming certified early childhood educators,” Castro said.

Christi Smith, the conservancy’s operations and communications director, said the need for child care in the neighborhood is well-known, but there’s also interest in using the nonprofit space for a medical clinic, a fresh food market or job training. As with the affordable housing units, the developer will make the final decision, she said.

But even if the new development does include a child care center, some observers expect families who can afford to pay for the care will scoop up many slots.

All the changes bring both hope and uncertainty for long-time residents like Olga Montellano.

She already believes the PASO program has made her a better caregiver. She gets the children in her care outside more and has learned skills and activities to help get her neighbor’s 3-year-old son, who used to be silent, talking.

But whether she stays in the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood is an open question. Her landlord has raised the rent, but not much, she said. She would like to buy a home, but homes that used to be affordable and small are now unaffordable and small.

“My preference would be to stay here because I’ve already lived here 15 years,” she said. “I don’t know … it seems strange to leave.”

New direction

Three years in, an ambitious experiment to improve the odds for kids at one elementary school is scaling back

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Tennyson Knolls students return to school after a ribbon-cutting ceremony on school grounds in September.

Blocks of Hope was once envisioned as a pint-sized version of the Harlem Children’s Zone.

The project would provide an array of educational and social services to young children and families living within the boundaries of one high-poverty Adams County school — in the process, changing not only the lives of individual children but also the community around them.

But after three years, the Westminster-based nonprofit that spearheaded Blocks of Hope is scaling back its ambitions.

While the project won’t disappear entirely, the nonprofit’s leaders say they’re no longer focusing services and staff so tightly on the school’s boundary zone and may eventually stop using the Blocks of Hope name.

“We’re starting to question whether it’s the right strategic direction for the organization,” said Karen Fox Elwell, the new president and CEO of Growing Home, which launched the project in 2014.

The shifting shape of Blocks of Hope — originally framed as a 20-year effort intended to change the trajectories of children 0 to 9 within the Tennyson Knolls Elementary School enrollment zone — is a disappointment for some advocates who’d hoped this “placed-based” approach would not only be successful, but also possibly serve as a model for other Colorado communities.

A raft of issues have prompted the changes, including greater-than-expected mobility among the school population, fundraising challenges, and the tension that came from devoting resources to the 2.25-square-mile project zone while also trying to serve the broader Adams County community.

“It was hard to find that balance to do both well,” said Fox Elwell, who joined Growing Home in January.

Organizers knew when they started that the community was changing, but gentrification pushed out families faster than they expected. About a quarter of Tennyson Knoll’s students left the school in 2015-16.

Leaders said that was one reason it was tricky to track child outcomes that would demonstrate the project’s impact — a hallmark of successful place-based work.

Fox Elwell said there’s more stability among residents in the Harlem Children’s Zone because of rent-controlled housing.

“So families are really staying in that community for years upon years,” she said. “With Blocks of Hope, it’s just not the case.”

Fox Elwell said the board and staff will determine the future of Blocks of Hope during the group’s upcoming strategic planning process starting in late spring.

Teva Sienicki, the former president and CEO of Growing Home and the project’s original champion, said significant evidence supports the place-based strategy that underpinned Blocks of Hope, but didn’t want to second-guess the decisions of Growing Home’s current leaders.

“I really do wish them the best,” said Sienicki, who left Growing Home last summer.

Even at the outset of the project,  Sienicki acknowledged that changing demographics and funding challenges could alter the long-term course of the project. Still, she was optimistic, projecting a gradual expansion that would bring two to three other elementary schools in the Westminster district under the Blocks of Hope umbrella, and increase the number of employees dedicated to the project from two to 70.

In addition to improving family functioning, the project’s goal was to boost school attendance, kindergarten readiness, and third-grade reading scores, and reduce the number of children referred for special education services. This year, 85 percent of Tennyson Knolls students are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals, a proxy for poverty.

One of the essential ideas behind place-based efforts like Blocks of Hope and the Harlem Children’s Zone is to flood a carefully defined geographic area with services in the hopes of touching a critical mass of residents, usually around 60 percent. By reaching such a large proportion of a population, proponents say such efforts create a kind of tipping point that pushes the whole community to adopt the norms and aspirations of those who receive services.

But Blocks of Hope never got close to that tipping point.

While certain components of the project, such as backpack and school supply giveaways, reached a large number of families, others, such as parent programs, never got above 15 percent, said Fox Elwell.

Aside from high mobility, the fact that many students ride the bus to Tennyson Knolls — instead of getting dropped off by their parents — made it harder to connect with parents than organizers anticipated.

The nonprofit’s limited budget was also a factor. Spending on the project was originally set at $250,000 annually, with eventual plans to reach $3 million if it expanded to other schools.

The nonprofit’s actual spending on Blocks of Hope has been around $100,000 a year, said Fox Elwell. In addition, a grant that Growing Home leaders hoped would pay for an evaluation of the project never came through.

“There were some incredible hopes to grow the budget and deeply invest in the community,” she said. “And maybe it was more challenging to fundraise than we anticipated.”

There are still several Blocks of Hope programs at Tennyson Knolls this year, including backpack giveaways, holiday gift and meal help, and two parenting classes. The school also houses a boutique with used children’s clothing and gear.

An after-school tutoring program was discontinued after last school year because it wasn’t effective, leaders said. Another program aimed at grandparents raising grandchildren was slated to launch this spring, but will not because school leaders felt they had too much going on.

A community organizer originally hired to work with Blocks of Hope families to advocate for affordable housing has expanded her territory to include other neighborhoods.

“There’s a lot of need just a little bit south and a little bit east of those (school) boundaries,” said Leslie Gonzalez, a Growing Home board member.

Residents in some of those areas began to assume they were no longer eligible for any of the nonprofit’s services as Blocks of Hope ramped up. That wasn’t true, but the project sent some “unintended negative messages,” she said.

Despite looming questions about the future of Blocks of Hope, leaders at Growing Home and Tennyson Knolls say the project has helped families, sparked welcome changes to the nonprofit’s case management strategy, and built community at the school.

Tennyson Knolls Principal Heather McGuire, who is the school’s third principal since Blocks of Hope began, said the project helped get parents involved at school, whether attending PTA meetings, taking Blocks of Hope classes, or attending “coffee with the principal” meetings.

She credits the project with giving rise to the school’s tagline, “We are TKE,” a reference to the school’s initials.

Gonzalez said, “We don’t view Blocks of Hope as a failure necessarily … Even though there were a lot of challenges, a lot of good came out of it, too, and we were able to meet even more families in that community we serve.”

safe haven

Colorado could get its first 24/7 child care facility for families in crisis

PHOTO: Jamie Grill | Getty Images
Mother rubbing forehead while holding baby son.

Last fall, Lisa Rickerd Mills, a medical social worker in Grand Junction, worked with a single mother who needed inpatient mental health treatment.

The problem was child care. The woman had no one to watch her two small children during her stay and bowed out of treatment.

It’s exactly the kind of scenario a group of advocates hope to prevent with a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week child care facility for families facing emergencies or periods of high stress.

The center, to be called the Grand Valley Crisis Nursery and set to open in late 2018, would provide free care for children 0 to 5 years old for periods ranging from a few days to 30 days. The idea is to give parents a safe place to leave their youngest children when they’re facing a crisis — a period of homelessness, an emergency medical procedure, domestic violence, or the threat of job loss. It’s meant to prevent child abuse and neglect and keep kids out of the foster care system.

While there are around 70 crisis nurseries nationwide, the one planned for Grand Junction would be the first of its kind in Colorado. It could pave the way for a new type of state child care license and perhaps crisis nurseries elsewhere in the state. The project is unfolding amidst a broader push in the western Colorado community to improve child and family outcomes by dramatically expanding child care options over the next three years.

Kaleigh Stover, a former pharmaceutical sales representative who moved to Grand Junction from Sacramento last summer, is leading the charge on the crisis nursery. Prior to her move, the 26-year-old volunteered at the Sacramento Crisis Nursery, which runs two of five crisis nurseries in California and, like many such facilities, relies heavily on volunteers to care for the children.

“I’m like that girl in the grocery store who will offer to hold your baby,” she said. “I have a soft spot for babies and moms and helping those people who are experiencing hard times.”

When she first arrived in Grand Junction, Stover called around to several nonprofit organizations and was surprised to learn there wasn’t a crisis nursery in town.

She said local advocates told her, “We don’t have anything like this … but we need it.”

Child abuse cases — and hotline calls about suspected child abuse — have steadily risen over the last few years in Mesa County. The western Colorado county also faces numerous other challenges: higher than average rates of child poverty, foster care placement, and teen pregnancy.

The community’s transience also means that parents of young children often arrive without a circle of family and friends to help out in a pinch, said Rickerd Mills, a member of the crisis nursery’s board.

That can mean parents leave their kids in the care of people they don’t know well or enlist older siblings to watch them.

In addition to providing licensed overnight care for young children, crisis nurseries have case managers who work to connect parents with community resources and get them back on their feet.

While there are a host of typical housing, job, and medical problems that prompt parents to use crisis nurseries, parents with a child care problem outside the usual list won’t be turned away at the Grand Valley center, Stover said.

“We let families define the crisis,” she said, adding that parents using the center would be required to check in with case managers regularly.

Over the past six months, Stover has steadily made progress on the nursery — holding a community town hall, recruiting board members, and finding a local nonprofit to serve as the nursery’s fiscal sponsor. She’s currently in the process of finding a location for the nine- to 12-bed center and will soon begin fundraising.

Stover expects the first-year costs to be around $455,000 if the group purchases a building, with operations costing $150,000 in subsequent years. About 80 percent of the nursery’s funding will come from individual and corporate donations and 20 percent from grants, she said.

In what might be the nursery project’s biggest victory so far, Stover got a preliminary nod in February from the state’s child care licensing advisory committee, which agreed to consider giving the crisis nursery a waiver from state licensing rules.

If the waiver is granted, it could set the stage for a new kind of child care license in Colorado — a cross between a typical child care center license, which doesn’t allow 24-hour care, and a residential child care facility license, which allows 24-hour care but doesn’t permit care for children under 3 years old.

“Having a new license type is kind of nightmare, but it changes the whole state if we can make it happen,” Stover said.

Ebony White Douglas, program manager at the 22-year-old Sacramento Crisis Nursery, praised Stover’s persistence in pursuing the project. She said she routinely consults with people in other states interested in launching crisis nurseries and has seen many such projects sidelined because of complex licensing logistics or daunting fund-raising requirements.

Rickerd Mills said she was heartened to hear about the positive reception from the state’s licensing advisory committee.

“I think it just goes to show the need in this community and the state,” she said.