New preschool hopes to address childcare shortage in Rifle
When Jennifer Knott moved to Rifle with her husband and two young children, she struggled to find the childcare necessary for her to return to work — an issue that parents in the area are familiar with.
“I was panicked,” Knott recalled.
While other parents may make the difficult decision to stay at home and forgo returning to work, Knott may have found a solution to both her problems. With support from various community groups, Knott and director Lorie Bishop are preparing to open Caring Kids Preschool in Rifle.
The preschool, located at the former Fellowship of the Rockies Church building at 1224 Railroad Ave., will operate from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, with prices starting at $35 per day. Initially, the center will have the capacity to enroll around 20 preschool age children, eight to 10 toddlers and eight infants — there is potential for future expansion, pending some remodeling on the second floor.
An open house is currently planned for 5-8 p.m. on Dec. 1, with a planned opening date of Dec. 7.
The most pressing concern at this point, Knott said, is that the center will not be able to fully address the needs in the community. The team has yet to start aggressively advertising and it is already half full.
“My main goal is to provide that safe, reliable facility for the community members and the families who live here. … My only fear is that we won’t be able to fully provide care to everybody that needs it,” she said.
Here concern is valid.
Across the state and particularly in Rifle, there is a shortage of state-licensed preschool and childcare providers, said Joni Goodwin, an early childhood consultant with the Early Childhood Network, a nonprofit that helps parents find reliable childcare in Garfield, Eagle and Pitkin counties. Throughout the entire region served by the nonprofit, Rifle is one of the most needful areas, she added.
According to data tracked by the Early Childhood Network, there are 17 licensed facilities in Rifle — the majority of which are home-based childcare providers. That amounts to 230 total spots for children; only 18 of which are available to children under the age of 2.
To put that in perspective, 2010 data from the U.S. Census Bureau states that 9.4 percent of the 9,365 people in Rifle were younger than 5 years old, which amounts to 880 children. The percentage of the population in that age range in Rifle was higher than the state average, and higher than the percentage in Glenwood Springs and Carbondale, where similar data is available.
There are an unknown number of non-licensed childcare providers in the area, however, the lack of a license makes some parents, and some of those who work in the early childcare field, uncomfortable, Goodwin said.
Garfield Re-2 School District does offer preschool at each of its elementary schools (those offerings are included in the data tracked by the Early Childhood Network), but space is limited and the emphasis is on those children who need more care in order to be prepared for kindergarten, said Julie Knowles, director of special programs.
“There are not enough high-quality brick and mortar preschools,” Knowles said.
Roadblocks to adequate and feasible preschool led, in part, to the creation of the Preschool on Wheels program — which features two mobile classrooms that travel to different sites in the Re-2 district — in 2012. The program has grown since its formation and at the close of the 2014-15 year this past June, it had served approximately 235 children.
The program, which was launched by the Aspen Community Foundation and supported by a range of financial backers, has been a great benefit, Knowles said.
Still, some parents struggle to find a licensed provider that meets their needs, and that can have economic impacts, said Mel Kent, manager of the Rifle Regional Economic Development Corp., which assisted Knott in opening the new preschool center.
Childcare is a critical component of what Kent called the “community development infrastructure,” which is needed to support the existing workforce and attract new businesses.
“I’ve heard since the day we landed that we’ve needed this,” Kent said of preschool and early child care. “You hear it often. … A lot of working families are just getting severely impacted. You hear stories about people not being able to work or having to reduce their hours significantly.”
At Grand River Health — the seventh largest employer in Garfield County, according to a 2015 report — the lack of childcare options continues to be an issue, especially for new mothers, said Jeanna dreamer, a human resources generalist for Grand River Health. One young mother recently put in a notice that she was going to quit due to the inability to find childcare.
“I’d say, yes, we’ve lost good people because of it,” Dreamer said.
However, the issue also is a personal one for Dreamer, who became a new mother about seven months ago. Already knowing about the trouble with finding childcare, Dreamer did not waste time searching. Throughout her pregnancy — a great joy for Dreamer who described their child as the couple’s “miracle baby” — it was a painful experience trying to find a suitable care provider for an infant.
In some instances Dreamer said she was put on a wait list, only to never hear back.
Unwilling to give up her job with Grand River, which she described as her dream job, Dreamer and her husband decided that the best choice was for him to leave his job and become a stay-at-home father for the time being — a difficult decision.
The couple is diligent about living within their means, which can be a struggle, Dreamer said.
Goodwin, with the Early Childhood Network, said there are several hurdles likely leading to the shortage.
Early childcare is not a lucrative business, and it almost always requires assistance in the form of grants and other outside funding sources and subsidies.
Wrapped within that is a shortage of quality educators who can earn more money and better benefits working for the school district, Goodwin said. Knott and Bishop with the new center are still looking for educators to fill the initial seven positions.
On top of all that, are the requirements and regulations that must be met in order to be a licensed care provider.
One current home-based care provider, who asked that her name not be used, said the number of rules and regulations providers must follow increases on an annual basis, and many parent may not realize the cost associated with keeping up with those requirements. This same provider took issue with the belief that there is a shortage of options in the area.
In Rifle specifically, there also is an issue of space for a center, Goodwin added.
“It’s not as easy at it sounds,” she said of establishing a childcare facility.
For those reasons, Goodwin and others are excited about the planned opening of Caring Kids Preschool in December.
“We’re very excited about (Caring Kids Preschool) starting up,” she said. “They’re going to fill a big need in that area.”
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With the steel skeleton of the new care center well under way on Graham Mesa, the groundwork for Grand River Health’s hospital expansion is currently taking shape in south Rifle