For the second year in a row, Garfield County was ranked 16th out of the 25 most populous Colorado counties on the Colorado Child Well-Being Index, lagging particularly in preschool enrollment.
The rankings are released as part of the Colorado Children’s Campaign’s “Kid’s Count in Colorado!” report, and considers 12 key health, familial, economic and educational indicators. Garfield County, although average or above by most standards, lagged not only in preschool but also in the number of children with health insurance.
“We’re not doing badly, but we’re definitely not doing great,” said Jonathan Godes, director of the Early Childhood Network, which helps connect families with child care in Garfield, Eagle and Pitkin counties.
“There’s only capacity for about a quarter of the children in Garfield County to be going to any licensed child care program,” Godes said.
That figure drops further if you eliminate facilities that aren’t ideal for working parents because they close in the summer or cover only part of the day.
It matters, he said.
“If you could have universal pre-K, I believe it would have dramatic effects on those key indicators like fourth-grade reading and sixth-grade math,” he asserted. Research shows, for example, that kids who attend a good preschool but only half-day kindergarten outperform their no-preschool, full-day kindergarten counterparts.
According to Godes, about half of Garfield County’s child care takes the form of dedicated centers, while the remainder takes place in homes. Often, small-scale private child care is a short-term solution. Stay-at-home parents might take in a few extra kids to help make ends meet, but often opt for a more traditional job when their children enter school.
“It’s a real struggle to maintain four or five children in your home every day,” Godes noted.
As for more traditional child care centers, Godes estimates that preschool for a toddler runs around $13,500 a year, while an infant costs $16,000. That’s a hefty cost for the average working family, but a dedicated location, liability insurance and a full professional staff comes at a price.
“No one’s getting rich on this,” Godes said.
Many valley child care programs rely on nonprofit status to get by. Some large organizations such as Valley View Hospital run preschool programs for employees, but most local business are too small for such a venture to be tenable. Roaring Fork School District’s program is open to the public but takes summers off and is mostly suited to teachers.
It takes a dedicated and talented group and an ideal location to get a program off the ground, and both are hard to find. Last year, a Family Enrichment Center was proposed for the old Gordon Cooper Library building in Carbondale. Another plan was chosen, but subsequently backed out. By the time the process began again, Family Enrichment Center organizers had moved on and the proposal was not renewed.
In Godes’ home state of Iowa, these challenges are largely offset by state funding that helps provide pre-K and full-day kindergarten. Colorado, however, was ranked 38th out of 40 states surveyed for per-capita early childhood spending. Even low-income families enrolled in the Child Care Assistance Program spend around 10 percent of their income on child care in Colorado.
“I guess as a state we just don’t value that,” Godes said.
He thinks it’s a mistake.
Without that preparation, Godes said, students spend the beginning of kindergarten learning basic skills relating to constructive interaction and conflict resolution instead of making academic gains.
Although he considers early childhood education to be a “silver bullet,” Godes acknowledges that area youth face many other challenges. Although Garfield County has a middle-of-the-road child poverty rate of 16 percent, the Colorado Children’s Campaign’s report indicates that only 2.3 percent of the county’s children are enrolled in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families compared with 6.1 percent statewide, and that 19.4 percent of children younger than 18 are uninsured, as opposed to 9.1 percent for Colorado as a whole.
Both figures date back to 2012, and may have changed with the recent Affordable Care Act rollout.