testing ground

A giant leap: How one Colorado community plans to double its child care spots in three years

It sounds a little like a car race, but it’s more like a care race.

Child Care 8,000 is one Colorado county’s ambitious new effort to create thousands of new licensed child care slots and significantly improve the quality of its child care programs over the next three years.

The initiative in Mesa County has drawn interest and praise from early childhood leaders around the state, with some hoping it could serve as a model for other Colorado communities. At the same time, there are questions about the feasibility of such a lofty plan in a county that has lost scores of child care slots over the last year and that isn’t enjoying the same economic surge as the state’s Front Range.

One thing everybody agrees on is that child care is hard to find in the western Colorado county where Grand Junction is the county seat.

A national group that has examined child care supply in 22 states, including Colorado, has designated large swaths of Mesa County as a child care desert. That means the number of small children far exceeds the number of licensed child care slots.

For local leaders, Child Care 8,000 is also a way to tackle other pressing problems in the 150,000-resident county — everything from low elementary test scores and high suicide rates to workforce churn. The fix, they believe, is high quality early education.

On one hand, it makes sense. Some of the most respected researchers in the field have found that top-notch early childhood programs yield a better return than the stock market by improving children’s long-term education, health, and employment outcomes.

“This is a community that’s stepping out and saying we need to address this now,”
said Kathryn Harris, president and CEO of the Denver-based nonprofit Qualistar Colorado. Harris has worked with project leaders to develop the plan.

“I think a big county push like this that is putting quality at the forefront … is critical,” she said.

Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood initiatives for the Colorado Children’s Campaign, said, “Boldness attracts enthusiasm, and it’s certainly a bold goal.”

Practically speaking, Child Care 8,000 is a heavy lift. Half of its two-part goal is to increase licensed child care slots from the current 4,200 to 8,000 by the end of 2020. That means hundreds of new providers must be enticed into a field known for low pay, high turnover, and a raft of regulation.

While the project’s current focus is on creating new slots for children from newborns to 5 years old, creating new slots for school children ages 6-12 is also part of the plan. About half of the 3,800 new slots envisioned will be for the older age group.

Jeff Kuhr, executive director of the Mesa County Public Health department and a chief architect of Child Care 8,000, said the 8,000 slots represent about 60 percent of the county’s population of children ages 0-12 — the approximate proportion who need child care either because both parents work or their household is led by a single parent who works.

The second part of the Child Care 8,000 goal calls for 30 percent of providers caring for young children to earn ratings in the top three tiers of the state’s quality rating system. This means dozens of providers — both existing and new ones — will need to undertake an improvement process that has been described as time-consuming and onerous by some who’ve gone through it.

Currently, only 10 percent of Mesa County providers have ratings in the top three levels of the rating system, Colorado Shines.

Kuhr said his vision for the project grew out of a longtime interest in the potential for child care to improve many aspects of child and family well-being, and by extension, community well-being.

The project, “is truly addressing social determinants,” he said. “This ends up in a healthier community.”

Having spent the last few months pitching the project, Kuhr knows there are some doubts.

“We have some people say, ‘Well, that’s an impossible goal,’” he said. “You can always adjust, but you have to start somewhere … In my book, if you’re making progress, the goal is secondary.”

Word of the project is still trickling out. Some early childhood providers in the county said this week they hadn’t heard about it.

One of them was Kathy Laro, a licensed provider who watches four children in her Clifton home and leads the Mesa County Family Child Care Home Association. When told about the initiative, she laughed and said, “I didn’t know what that’s even about.”

A few minutes later, she said, “If they want more of us, they’re not doing their best to encourage it.”

Laro cited the red tape of licensing rules and what she and other veteran providers sometimes feel is disrespect from licensing specialists or other authorities.

At its heart, Child Care 8,000 is a collective impact effort — an approach to complicated social problems that relies on collaboration by numerous public and private groups. In Mesa County’s case, partners include county agencies, the school district, the local university, the early childhood council, community groups, businesses, and some statewide leaders.

Kuhr and other local leaders plan to deploy a wide range of strategies to increase child care slots and raise quality. These include expanding and subsidizing training for prospective providers, streamlining the licensing process, increasing provider wages, and making back-office tasks, such as purchasing and accounting, easier for providers. While some of these efforts are underway, many are still in the planning stages.

What’s not clear is how much it will cost to jump-start a large crop of what are essentially new small businesses. Leaders will apply for some grants, but for now, they say there are no plans to pursue the kind of voter-approved tax measures that have underpinned efforts to support early childhood programs in Denver, Boulder, and San Miguel County.

For years, a Denver sales tax has funded preschool subsidies for 4-year-olds, and a Boulder County property tax has funded a variety of safety net programs, including child care subsidies for low-income families. Last November, voters in San Miguel County in southwestern Colorado approved a property tax that will create new slots for infants and toddlers, fund child care scholarships, and boost pay for child care workers.

Mary Anne Snyder, who leads Colorado’s Office of Early Childhood, said in an email that state officials are excited about Child Care 8,000 but can’t provide financial resources to support it. (Some state early childhood funds already flow to Colorado’s counties, including Mesa.)

A big slice of Child Care 8,000 hinges on getting local businesses to invest in child care — possibly by subsidizing child care for employees, creating on-site child care facilities, or donating money to communitywide child care efforts.

This kind of push for business community involvement has gained traction in Colorado and elsewhere as child care is increasingly framed as a critical cog in employee recruitment, retention, and productivity.

Bernie Buescher, a former Colorado attorney general who is working with Kuhr and other local leaders on the project, said business owners are feeling the effects of the county’s child care shortage.

“They are coming to the realization that in Mesa County one of the things their employees struggle with is their kids not having child care, and that means sometimes parents can’t make it to work,” said Buescher, who leads the Mesa County chapter of the business group Executives Partnering to Invest in Children.

But Buescher and other project leaders also know that recognizing the problem isn’t enough.

Tracey Garchar, director of the county’s human services department, said getting active involvement from business leaders will be a major challenge.

It’s critical to find partners who are “willing to see the value in this and step forward from the business community,” he said. “If we’re successful in this, it could help everybody. There’s nobody who loses from having adequate, accessible child care in Mesa County.”

Since Kuhr came up with the concept of Child Care 8,000 about a year ago, the county has lost more than 100 licensed child care slots.

A few child care centers have closed, but more troubling to some early childhood advocates is a new state law governing how many children unlicensed providers can legally care for in their homes. The 2017 law raised the cap to four, prompting some home-based providers to let their licenses lapse, allowing them to continue doing what they’re doing mostly free of state regulation.

Holly Jacobson, co-coordinator of the early childhood council in Mesa County, said at least a half-dozen home-based providers have not renewed their licenses in recent months or are considering it specifically because of the new law.

Laro, the provider who cares for four children in Clifton, considered letting her license lapse but decided against it because moving to unlicensed status would reduce the daily payment she receives for one of her charges — a child in foster care who Laro watches more than 10 hours a day — from the current $32 to as little as $9.

While the number of licensed providers in Mesa County who have decided not to renew because of the new law isn’t large — a handful of providers representing maybe two dozen slots — it’s unclear whether the problem will intensify.

Despite such obstacles, Jacobson said Child Care 8,000’s aspirations are necessary.

“We’re shooting high” she said. “But we need to shoot high because there is significant need in our community.”

Prize money

A million dollars, 570 hopefuls, and 15 winners: How a new competition aims to boost babies and toddlers

PHOTO: JGI/Jamie Grill | Getty Images
Boy displaying drawing.

A Colorado team is one of 15 winners to share in $1 million awarded by a Denver-based organization as part of a new contest recognizing innovative efforts benefitting children from birth to 3 years old.

The Boulder-based team will receive $80,000 for a project that helps little kids acquire language, thinking, and social-emotional skills using a cell phone app inside a stuffed animal.

Gary Community Investments, which gives grants and makes for-profit investments to benefit low-income children and families, announced the winners of the Early Childhood Innovation Prize on Tuesday afternoon. (Gary Community Investments, through the Piton Foundation, is a Chalkbeat funder.)

The Colorado team that won prize money developed a tool called MindScribe. It works like this. An adult slips a cell phone with a special application into the belly of a stuffed zebra. The app prompts the child to explain what they are doing or making and asks follow-up questions, such as “What happened next?” and “Why?”

MindScribe founder Layne Hubbard, a Ph.D. student in computer science at the University of Colorado Boulder, said her work as a teacher at Boulder’s Children’s House Preschool inspired the project.

“I thought back to storytelling and how powerfully the children’s original stories catalyzed growth, development, and connectedness,” she wrote via email. “I realized that I wanted to scale this opportunity to reach young children across diverse early childhood communities, especially those which are multilingual, low-income, or affected by trauma or disability.”

One little girl who stars in a MindScribe’s demonstration video describes her crayon drawing of a garden — and her fictional protagonist’s desire to change “boring weather” — to the MindScribe zebra for seven minutes.

But the girl, Mia, isn’t oblivious to the cell phone inside the paunchy stuffed animal. Instead, she’s delighted.

She explain how it works to her father, saying, “This is like the teacher but with a radio inside the teacher.”

Mindscribe, which is still in the pilot stage, began with three languages and is now available in 11.

The Early Childhood Innovation Prize, unveiled by Gary last fall, is distinctive because there are few contests that focus on very young children — despite a large body of evidence showing that high-quality care and education for this group yield significant financial and societal dividends.

Leaders at Gary invited prize submissions from teams with advanced ideas, early-stage ideas, and nascent concepts. Five advanced winners received $100,000 each, five early-stage winners received $80,000 each, and five beginning-concept winners receiving varying shares of $100,000. Gary also recognized seven teams, including one from a Colorado Springs-based network of child care centers, that didn’t win money but offered promising ideas.

The contest used an online platform that made each submission publicly viewable and allowed teams to get feedback from fellow candidates, and in some cases, mentoring from experts.

“We really wanted the prize to be an engaging opportunity for people in the early childhood field,” said Steffanie Clothier, Gary’s child development investment director.

Gary received 570 submissions, with winning ideas coming from nonprofit and for-profit groups, universities, city governments, and the National Head Start Association.

One winning team aims to eradicate book deserts by putting children’s reading materials in public spaces like barber shops and beauty salons. Another proposes classes on mindfulness to reduce child care providers’ stress levels. Several feature technology solutions — to improve child care business operations or promote early developmental screenings.

Clothier said although most of the prize winners are testing projects outside Colorado, their ideas could eventually be replicated here. She said the organization has not decided whether to hold the innovation competition again.

career prep

A growing Jeffco program trains future early childhood workers while they’re still in high school

Julian Salazar, 18, plays with preschool children at an internship that's part of his high school's early childhood pathway program.

Julian Salazar pushed preschoolers on swings, weaving deftly between them as the children careened back and forth. Earlier in the afternoon, the 18-year-old had worked mazes, played a number-themed card game, and snacked on Goldfish crackers with the 3- and 4-year-olds.

It was all part of Salazar’s weekly internship in a preschool classroom a couple miles away from his high school, Jefferson Junior/Senior High in the Denver suburb of Edgewater.

The internship, which ended in early May, is one component of a new early childhood career pathway offered at the high school. The year-long program also includes two early childhood classes and leads to an entry-level certificate from Red Rocks Community College that qualifies students to be assistant preschool or child care teachers.

Salazar — and students in similar concurrent enrollment programs around Colorado — represents one segment of the child care field’s next generation. With their professional lives just beginning, the students are laying the foundation to earn further credentials and become the lead preschool teachers and directors of the future. It’s a vision straight out of the state’s three-year plan to build a strong early childhood workforce. But in a field known for low pay and high turnover, keeping these students in the pipeline is no small task.

Julian Salazar, 18, helps a preschooler with his jacket during his internship.

Still, organizers of the Jeffco school district’s early childhood pathway are optimistic. Enrollment in the program at Jefferson is set to more than double from 19 this year to 43 next year, and plans are in the works to expand to two other district high schools — McLain Community and Arvada West — by 2020.

The district offered similar early childhood training programs at certain district high schools in the past, but they fizzled out. One had targeted teen moms enrolled at McLain, for example, but many of the students weren’t ready for college-level work, said Janiece Kneppe Walter, who leads the early childhood education program at Red Rocks and helped the district set up the pathway program.

A few years ago, Kneppe Walter and her colleagues won a grant to revamp the two introductory early childhood classes. Then in the fall of 2016, teacher Nicole Kamman launched the pathway program at Jefferson with eight students. At first, it was just a sequence of two college courses modified for a high school audience. This year, leaders decided to add the 22-hour internship to give students more hands-on practice.

While Jefferson is one of the lower performing high schools in the district, it has posted improved graduation rates and test scores in recent years. The vast majority of its students are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals, a proxy for poverty.

Kamman sees the early childhood program as a way to give these students valuable experience in a field where qualified workers are in high demand.

“Any opportunity to get them career-ready … I knew I had capacity to promote that,” she said.

At the same time, local preschoolers in Edgewater and nearby areas get the chance to see teenage role models from their own communities, many of whom speak Spanish, as they do.

On a spring day in Kamman’s classroom, her high school students discussed nine child temperament traits and then acted them out as classmates tried to guess the characteristic.

When it was Salazar’s turn, he mimed sweeping the floor, not giving up even after repeatedly fumbling with the broom and dustpan.

“Persistence,” a classmate guessed correctly.

Of the eight Jefferson students who completed the early childhood pathway program last year, four landed jobs at local preschools or child care centers, Kamman said, and a fifth enrolled at Red Rocks seeking a degree in early childhood education.

But for some students, perhaps even a majority, the pathway program is a stepping-stone to something else.

“I don’t think they necessarily see early childhood as their endpoint,” Kamman said.

One of her students hopes to become a pediatrician, so the early childhood classes are a useful stop in a longer journey.

Salazar, a self-assured teen who was as comfortable helping kids with stubborn jacket zippers as playing chase on the playground, described his internship in the preschool classroom at Jefferson County Open School as “amazing.” Asked if he planned to pursue early childhood education, he said he could see working as a teaching assistant for a short time, but not necessarily long-term.

“I’m looking more or less for a ‘now’ thing,” he said.

Another student in the pathway program, senior Sonya Hernandez, felt the same way. She plans to study event management at Metro State University next year, but enrolled in the pathway program to improve her short-term job prospects.

“For me, it was more so about having the opportunity to get a better job after high school rather than working a regular minimum wage job at a fast food place or retail,” the 17-year-old said. “I figured I might as well do it and also get the college credits.”

Kamman said the field’s wages are a bit higher than minimum wage and therefore competitive for teenagers just starting out. Nationwide, the median wage of early childhood workers is $10.60 an hour, according to a 2016 report from the U.S. Department of Education. Colorado’s minimum wage is $10.20 this year and will rise to $11.10 in 2019.

The shortage of early childhood workers is a perennial problem in the state. A recent survey of Colorado child care providers found an average annual turnover rate of 16 percent for lead teachers and 22 percent for assistant teachers. In addition, 70 percent of directors reported difficulty in finding teachers for vacant positions.

Early childhood pathway programs like the one at Jefferson Jr./Sr. High represent only a partial solution to the early education workforce crunch. But to Kneppe Walter, that’s OK. If some pathway students use early childhood jobs to work their way through college in unrelated majors, she doesn’t see that as problem.

“They’re still walking away with some great life skills,” she said. “If they could contribute for two to five years, I’d be tickled pink.”

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Ariadna Santos, a student at Jefferson Junior/Senior High School reads to preschoolers during her internship.

Ariadna Santos, a soft-spoken high school junior who also interned at Jefferson County Open School, may well fit this profile.

The 16-year-old, who said she has no younger siblings and has never worked as a babysitter, said the internship made her more comfortable with young children. On a recent day, she sat at a knee-high table and read a picture book about animals to a half-dozen preschoolers. As one little boy repeatedly touched his neighbor’s arms and shoulders, she calmly said, “Let’s not grab other people. Keep your hands to yourself.”

It was the kind of episode Santos found daunting at the beginning. Early in the internship when two children got in a sandbox fight, she had no idea what to do and the lead teacher had to intervene.

“Nowadays, it’s just easier to calm them down and get them to work with each other,” said Santos, whose other career interests include architecture and interior design.

“I don’t really know what I want to do as a career yet so I just really wanted to take this class as an opportunity to see what one of the options could be,” she said.

Even if Santos doesn’t stay in the early childhood workforce permanently, Kneppe Walter is hopeful that the pathway experience will be formative for others in the program.

“What’s lovely about early childhood is it’s got this strong core of social justice to it,” she said. “If students resonate with that idea, ‘I want to be empowered. I want to make a difference,’ then it’s not such a hard sell to go into early childhood.”