Early-childhood educators adapt to region’s child care gap

Low pay and high cost of living contribute to lack of child care offerings in the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys

Laurine Lassalle
Aspen Journalism
Director of Growing Years Basalt, Adele Melnick, hands a wooden block to Lucas Gardner, 1.5, while playing with the child and Calvin Cooper, 2, in one of the classrooms of the Red Brick Building in Basalt, Colorado on Monday, Feb. 27. 2023.
Kelsey Brunner/Aspen Journalism

Editor’s note: This story is the second part in a two-part series examining the child care landscape in the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys. Part 1 looks at the uneven early-childhood landscape throughout the region and its limited licensed capacity. You can read the full story on Aspen Journalism’s website.

Rebecca Fuller was managing a hair salon in Glenwood Springs 14 years ago when she got pregnant. She thought she could call around when she was ready to get back to work and get a child care spot for her newborn son, but that’s not what happened. 

“I had no idea that it was so hard to find child care. And so I actually started staying home, I didn’t go back to my hair-stylist career,” Fuller said. “I stayed home and was watching just a couple of friends’ kids that had worked in the industry as well — and then it got to the point where I was like, well, I better get a license and get this legit.”

She then got licensed through the state and went through several pre-licensing courses. “It turned out after just a few months that I really enjoyed being home with the kids,” she said. “So it was really kind of a surprise career change. I didn’t plan it. It happened because of the lack of child care options for myself.”

Fuller, an in-home child care provider based in New Castle, is one of the 30 family licensed providers located between New Castle and Parachute reported in the Licensed Provider Survey Data Report, released last month by Confluence Early Childhood Education Coalition (CECE). This report is based on a questionnaire distributed by CECE from June through September to the 71 child care providers licensed at that time with the state of Colorado between Aspen and Parachute. All but one provider responded.

Survey results showed that there’s about one licensed spot available for every two kids across the region. As we explored in the first part of this series, the child care landscape is uneven in the valley and capacity differs. Low pay for teachers and a high cost of living in the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys are the main driving factors for the lack of child care spots. 

Although Fuller’s son is now ready to go into high school, she still cares for the little ones. Her in-home child care is licensed for nine children. She doesn’t have other employees, but her husband and adult daughter help her out sometimes. 

With housing prices going up in the Roaring Fork Valley, more and more families have moved farther into the Colorado River Valley in the past 10 to 20 years. The 2019 Greater Roaring Fork Housing Study stated that nearly 40% of the region’s population growth between 2001 and 2017 occurred in the New Castle-to-Parachute area.”There’s a lot of housing coming in and not necessarily more child care,” Kelly Esch, Early Childhood Network’s director, said.

Fuller has been witnessing this shift. She has extended her opening hours since she opened: The hours, which had been 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., are now 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. “People are living further away and having to commute so much further that I’ve had to change my hours to accommodate giving families time to get to work and back.”

She also said that she is getting more calls from parents who want to get on her waitlist while they’re thinking about having a baby rather than searching for child care options when they’re getting back to work.

Fuller added that some families have been on that list for two to three years. Sometimes, when it’s their turn, they don’t need the spot for the child they initially registered but, instead, for that child’s younger sibling. 

Sally Boughton, development and communications director for the Glenwood Springs-based social services nonprofit Valley Settlement, said she has been seeing families getting pushed farther downvalley and west over the past few years — especially during the height of the pandemic. “We’ve kind of moved with those folks and kept them enrolled in our programs whenever we could,” Boughton said. 

Valley Settlement’s preschool El Busesito (Spanish for “The Little Bus”) offers child care to Latino families from Basalt to Glenwood Springs. The setting is different from traditional child care providers, who are typically based in one location. El Busesito is a bus that travels to various neighborhoods and provides a free bilingual preschool education to 96 children. The organization found in 2011-12 through interviews with its client base that fewer than 1% of preschool-age children in low-wage Latino families in the valley were enrolled in preschool — mostly due to cost, lack of spots, language barriers and lack of transportation.

But as more families, including Latinos, are moving to western Garfield County, Valley Settlement is looking in the coming years to develop potential partnerships on that side of the county to provide additional child care and services.

Rebecca Fuller, an in-home childcare provider, snuggles Sydni Gray, 2, in New Castle, Colorado on Friday, Feb. 23, 2023. Fuller has been in the childcare business for 14 years and has taken care of approximately 50 children. She currently takes care of four children and will soon have two infants joining her care.

High tuition but low pay

“The true cost of care in the early-childhood world … is really high, and so parents are paying a lot of money to send their kids to a spot if they can secure one, but at the other end, the providers are not making very much money,” said Katie Langenhuizen, who served as CECE director until the end of February. “It really feels like it’s a lose-lose business model in so many ways.”

According to the survey, the median monthly tuition from Parachute to Aspen is $1,300 for infants, $1,277 for toddlers and $1,115 for preschoolers, according to the CECE report. Those amounts often create a financial barrier for families. 

Adele Melnick, director of Basalt-based child care center Growing Years, said child care centers don’t have the funding that public schools have. Instead, they have to rely on tuition and grants. “The sad thing is that tuition alone never covers the cost of running a high-quality child care center,” she said. 

In Colorado, public funding — which includes Colorado Child Care Assistance Program (CCCAP), Colorado Preschool Program (CPP), Preschool Special Education, and Head Start/Early Head Start — covers approximately 28% of child care costs, according to a Bell Policy Center study released in January 2022. The remaining is covered by tuition fees.

Melnick estimated that roughly 70% of the tuition goes to wages, while the other 30% goes to utilities, such as electricity, or the curriculum and other services that they provide each child. 

“That’s how we keep the doors open,” Melnick said. “We don’t have anybody else who is supplementing child care.” Tuition covers about 75% of her total cost of care.

Norma Alvarez applauds Emilia Gonzales, 2, during a lesson at her home while providing early childhood care in Rifle, Colorado on Monday, Feb. 27, 2023. (Photo by Kelsey Brunner)

Colorado is among the Top 10 most expensive states regarding child care costs. The Bell Policy Center reported that the average annual cost of care for a 4-year-old in Colorado reaches $12,095 in a center and $9,953 in a family child care home. The national averages are $8,672 and $7,148, respectively. 

Although tuition rates are high, the median hourly wages in the Parachute-to-Aspen region is $23.50 for a lead teacher and $18 for an assistant teacher, which leads to staff shortages. Wages are higher than the statewide median hourly wage for child care workers of $14.50 in 2021, according to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, and the national median wage of $11.43 an hour.

The CECE report stated that during the 2021-22 school year, 104 early-education staffers left, citing better pay and relocation as their reasons. (The survey did not count the total number of employees.) “When asked if they’d thought about leaving the field, 56% of providers said yes. The main reasons were the low pay, working long hours and being burnt out due to the level of stress and paperwork,” according to the report.

Fuller said that she received a federal stabilization grant for child care providers during the pandemic, and offered discounts and scholarships to help families offset some of the costs, but prior to that, she didn’t receive any significant grants. 

She also said that with inflation, providers who prepare meals for their children had to increase their rates because of the rising food costs. “We’re just trying to make what we were making before and offering the same services like meals and such as we were a few years ago,” Fuller said.


Finding solutions

Melnick said Pitkin County and the city of Aspen have been helping to provide better pay to her employees. The city of Aspen’s Kids First program created a wage supplement for teachers of $500 a month for full-time employees and $250 a month for part-time teachers that is aimed at helping them pay for housing. 

Megan Monaghan, who runs Aspen’s Kids First, said her program offers coaching and training, parent workshops, and financial aid for qualifying families to help pay for child care. 

Kids First last year started a one-year internship program in which an individual without a lot of experience is hired and gets to learn the tricks of the trade. While they keep learning and finally get accredited as an early-childhood teacher, they are being paid by the city. After that year, they get a job in a child care center anywhere they want — but ideally in the county. 

“We graduated our first intern in August, and they are still working in a program in Pitkin County,” Monaghan said. “That’s kind of feeding the pipeline for qualified staff.”

Bell Policy Center analyst Perrine Monnet said that the funding that goes to child care is different from community to community. Some are able to pass a local sales tax, such as Aspen, or lodging tax that funds early-childhood education programs, but not every community can do this. “Local communities don’t have equal resources to provide care,” Monnet said.

In recent years, and especially since the pandemic hit, national conversations have revolved around child care, creating funding opportunities to help existing providers keep their doors open and to help new providers get started. 

“I feel that it’s a popular topic right now,” said Esch, but she’s worried about when child care won’t be a “fad” anymore. She said that a lot of funding opportunities have been created in the past couple of years, but “I don’t know if the funding is still going to be there in five years.”

Gov. Jared Polis signed the Universal Preschool (UPK) Colorado bill into law last year. UPK is a voluntary program, which offers families with 4-year-old children up to 15 free hours of preschool (and more free hours for eligible children) per week in participating programs. Three-year-olds with qualifying factors can get up to 10 free hours per week. The program will begin this fall. From Jan. 17 to Feb. 24, families were able to register for up to five programs for their children.

All the resource and child care providers we talked to for this story concur that it’s too soon to tell how UPK is going to change the local child care landscape. Esch said she is concerned about the misconceptions surrounding the program — especially when it comes to actual capacity in the valley.

“If you’re already enrolled [in an early childhood program], then you get a higher priority to go to that program [through the UPK portal],” Esch said. “So, families that don’t have child care because they can’t afford it are automatically starting off with lower priority getting into the programs that they select.”

Director of Growing Years Basalt, Adele Melnick, plays with building blocks with Calvin Cooper, 2, in one of the classrooms of the Red Brick Building in Basalt, Colorado on Monday, Feb. 27. 2023. (Photo by Kelsey Brunner)

Family, friends and neighbors help fill the gap

Another common alternative to licensed providers but that is often overlooked in studies and reports is the use of family, friends and neighbors, also called FFN, to help take care of children. The 2021 Northwest Colorado Council of Governments Regional Assessment of Child Care Industry noted that, according to the Colorado Children’s Campaign, nearly 50% of children across the state, including school-aged kids, are cared for in unlicensed or informal settings.

FFN providers tend to offer a cheaper option while also responding to a cultural or linguistic need that some families prefer. 

“Families can find a provider who speaks the same language as they speak at home with their family,” said Emily Santich, a research analyst at the Colorado Health Institute. “I don’t think we should overlook the value that FFN providers bring in this space as well. And especially as it relates to the qualities of child care that people of color might be looking for in a provider.”

Valley Settlement has trained nearly 80 FFN providers since 2017 through its two-year program, which includes health and safety sessions as well as instruction on teaching skills on reading and language development. 

“We originally noticed that sometimes the kids who were being brought to El Busesito were not being brought by parents but, instead, by kind of neighborhood caregivers,” Boughton said. 

Early Childhood Network in Glenwood Springs has been training FFN providers over the course of a two-year coaching program targeted especially at those located between New Castle and Parachute. 

One of them is Norma Alvarez, who lives in Rifle. She has been involved with the Early Childhood Network for about two years. She regularly receives visits from a coach who answers her questions, and she is taking a 16-week course on child’s brain development and how to better approach and talk to children with the network.

Alvarez isn’t new to child care. She worked in early childhood in Mexico before she moved to the United States about 20 years ago. Since then she has kept taking care of children. Her child care services quickly spread by word-of-mouth. “Little by little, some women started asking me to take care of their children — first, for a few hours, but then for whole days,” she said through an interpreter. 

When she came to Colorado, she first lived in Carbondale for about a year before moving to Silt due to the high cost of housing in the valley. She lived there for 10 years before she finally landed in Rifle, where she has lived for the past eight years. 

Alvarez takes care of one child (and sometimes two if a family occasionally needs her help) whose family lives in town. She said her rates are flexible, but she doesn’t really make a living from it. “It’s extra income” for the family, she said.

As an FFN provider, Alvarez said one of her advantages is that she can provide more personalized care. “In my experience, parents are very grateful that the children I’ve had in my home became part of my family,” Alvarez said. “The children walk around freely — under my watchful eye — but they [the children] say, ‘my home,’ ‘Norma’s home is my home.'”

She added that sometimes children in the Latino community are losing their Spanish because they speak English at school and the parents may not have enough time when they’re back from work to help them practice their Spanish. So, having a provider who speaks the language and knows the culture and the food is appealing to some parents. 

Alvarez has thought about getting licensed, but since she has been caring for only one child and occasionally two, she thinks it may not be worth it as she would need to make some changes to her house. In Colorado, providers can care for up to four children without a license as long as no more than two of the children are younger than 2. 

Norma Alvarez applauds Emilia Gonzales, 2, during a lesson at her home while providing early childhood care in Rifle, Colorado on Monday, Feb. 27, 2023. (Photo by Kelsey Brunner)
Kelsy Brunner/For Aspen Journalism

‘We’re not babysitters

Although the profession has been getting more valued by families and society in general, the CECE report still highlighted the lack of consideration that child care providers sometimes feel. A provider said in the CECE survey, “People need to know that we’re not babysitters!” 

Fuller agreed. “We have to go through a huge licensing process, background checks, and we also have to go through so much education and ongoing education each year,” she said. “I just don’t think they know the amount of time in schooling that goes into continuing this career. I just don’t think that families are aware of that.”

Melnick shared a similar feeling. “There’s a little bit of a lack of education around what child care is really about,” she said. “It’s not just a place where parents can drop off their kids so they can go to work. It’s not a day care. It’s not a babysitting service. … We’re forming these kids to become successful learners.”

Research has shown that high-quality early-childhood education results in better outcomes later in life —  in education, health, sociability, economic productivity and reduced crime. 

Esch said that every semester, she tells providers that they are teachers and educators — not babysitters. “By the end of the class, we do evaluations and they’re like ‘I came in as a babysitter and I left as an educator.'”

This story is the second part of a series examining the child care landscape in the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys. In the first story, we looked at the uneven early childhood landscape throughout the region and its limited licensed capacity. 

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