Weighty regulations, high operating costs and rapidly changing neighborhoods are compounding child care shortages in many of Colorado’s low-income communities.

But state and local policymakers can help by providing informal child care providers — family, friends and neighbors providers — with streamlined policies, low-cost training and a network to connect families with care, a panel of providers and advocates said Tuesday.

Recognizing how widespread that type of care is and putting a renewed value on those providers could help close stubborn academic achievement gaps that begin to appear as early as kindergarten, the panel said.

“I wish that it was an option for everyone,” said Liliana Flores Amaro, an Elyria-Swansea resident and community activist who was raised by her grandmother and teared up recalling her early years. “I know there are lots of families who don’t have those networks around them to give those special experiences to the young children around them.”

Those comments were made at Chalkbeat’s “Lessons From a Child Care Desert” event. The panel featured Liliana Flores Amaro, an Elyria-Swansea resident and community activist; Richard Garcia, former executive director of the Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition; Rebecca Kantor, dean of the School of Education and Human Development at the University of Colorado Denver; and Patricia Martiñon, a child care provider in Elyria-Swansea.

The event at the Mile High United Way followed Chalkbeat’s close look at how one north Denver neighborhood, Elyria-Swansea, is grappling with few child care options. The problem is so pronounced, the neighborhood is designated as a child care desert.

But the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood isn’t alone.

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.

One effort to reverse that statistic in Elyria-Swansea is an intensive course for family, friend and neighbor providers called Providers Advancing Student Outcomes, or PASO.

PASO is helping 22 informal child care providers obtain a common entry level child care credential, Garcia said. But his organization’s efforts need to be replicated on a greater scale, he said.

Knowing that most Colorado children are not being cared for by licensed providers, Garcia said policymakers need to turn their attention to supporting informal providers.

“I’d put more value on what (family, friend and neighbor providers) are doing,” he said. “How do we support this type of work?”

Martiñon, who looks after her nephews, has participated in the PASO training.

“I’m realizing the challenges are many,” she said through an interpreter. “Taking care of children goes beyond keeping an eye on them. … I learned there are so many ways that I can express love to the children — and teach them, not just have them in front of the TV or computer.”

While there are several “universal” factors — including a lack of funding for low-income families to cover tuition at licensed centers — contributing to the lack of child care in Denver, rapid gentrification is adding another wrinkle, said Kantor, of CU Denver.

“The tensions that are always inside a community that is changing are very real,” she said. “You can’t take child care alone. It’s in a context.”

Flores Amaro, the community activist, agreed that an influx of new people and businesses can improve her neighborhood, but said that long-standing residents shouldn’t be displaced.

“We want everything else Denver has,” she said. “Just not at the expense of us.”

Watch the panel’s discussion here: