Roaring Fork, Garfield County school districts take step forward in early education development

Districts formally join Rocky Mountain Preschool Coalition

Glenwood Springs Elementary School preschooler Paola Perez-Vega goes down the playground slide on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2021.
Post Independent file photo

As child care and early childhood development options become increasingly sparse not just nationally but locally, the Garfield County Re-2 and Roaring Fork school districts each took a stance by joining the Rocky Mountain Preschool Coalition in their Aug. 11 school board meetings.

Both districts have worked with the coalition for some time as accessibility and affordability for early childhood education and child care options grow increasingly complicated. The move makes both districts listed as formal members of the coalition and will allow them to dedicate staff time to participate in it, Roaring Fork School District Public Information Officer Kelsy Been said. Both districts have worked with the coalition before but never as formal members.

“We’ve been involved with the Rocky Mountain Preschool Coalition since it started, because we know the importance of early childhood education, and we believe that all families should have access to high-quality preschool and child care,” Roaring Fork School District Superintendent Rob Stein said. “We are really excited to be a part of a group working together to coordinate efforts around the needs of our families.”

The coalition was formed in 2017 to help foster a regional approach on preschool issues. Members include locals from the education, business and nonprofit sectors to advocate for high-quality, accessible early childhood education and care options within the Roaring Fork Valley. Currently, wait lists double-digits deep are preventing parents from getting their child into care across the valley.

In 2019, the coalition assisted with House Bill 19-1052, which enables the creation of early childhood development special districts to seek tax revenue for those issues at the local level.

Its partners now range from the city of Aspen’s Kids First program to Garfield County School District 16, giving the coalition representation throughout the valley.

The coalition recently appointed its first faculty member, Policy Coordinator Katie Langenhuizen, as it began to “formalize” more this year. Part of the process included seeking out membership endorsements from local school districts.

Langenhuizen said equity issues and a supply/demand discrepancy, which are both issues on a national scale, are magnified locally by the area’s high cost of living.

“It’s still especially hard here on the Western Slope,” Langenhuizen said. “A lot of that stems from the inequalities of access and that sort of thing in the valley.”

Langenhuizen, a former kindergarten teacher, said brain development before school is essential. Neglecting that early development can widen the performance gap between the highest and lowest students, which complicates the process for all students and teachers. She said for some kids it might be too late to catch up to their peers before they even enter grade school.

Langenhuizen said she had to find three child care and development services for her two children, even with her insider knowledge and part-time work schedule.

Both school boards unanimously approved their endorsements of the coalition in their meetings.

“I can’t see why we wouldn’t,” Garfield County Re-2 school board president Anne Guettler said during the board’s discussion. “The advocacy piece is really important to me as well, and having multiple groups speak with one voice gives us more power at the state level.”

At the same Roaring Fork Schools board meeting last week, board members heard a final presentation on a tax mill levy override proposal that would raise property taxes. The purpose would be to raise funds to increase employee salaries as teachers face many of the same cost of living issues that complicate early childhood development. The board will vote to approve putting the mill levy on the November ballot in its Aug. 25 meeting.

The fixes for the crises aren’t simple, Langenhuizen said. The coalition is designed for a “marathon, not a sprint.”

“We’re trying to make that sustainable change,” Langenhuizen said. “Somebody’s got to be willing to find a solution to a complex problem.”

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