This article was published in Spanish in two parts in the the March 9, 2023 and March 16, 2023 editions of Sol del Valle.
PART I: Informe ilumina la brecha en la capacidad de cuidado infantil a lo largo de la región Aspen-Parachute. Leer la primera de una serie en español / Read in Spanish
PART II: Educadores de primera infancia se adaptan a la brecha de cuidado infantil en la región. Leer el segunda de una serie en español / Read in Spanish.

Data gathered from licensed early-childhood education providers in the Aspen-to-Parachute region shows that these operators have capacity for fewer than half of the area’s children under the age of 5.

The data also shows a disparity in the child care capacity available between the communities that make up the region. Providers between Aspen and Glenwood Springs have capacity for more than half of the children under the age of 5 who live in those communities. But in the Colorado River Valley — which is the area west of Glenwood Springs through Parachute and which has the most young children of any of the four subregions in the survey area — licensed child care capacity amounts to just 35% of children under the age of 5. There are also differences in the type of child care options available, with licensed in-home child care options, which are almost nonexistent upvalley, accounting for the majority of providers in Garfield County. 

“Sometimes families never get off the waitlist,” said Megan Monaghan, co-manager of Kids First, a city of Aspen department focused on child care. “They might put their baby — an unborn child — like as soon as they find out they’re pregnant, they might get on a waitlist, and by the time that they get called up and [are told], ‘We have space,’ the baby may not be a baby anymore.”

Monaghan added that many families get on multiple waitlists to increase their chances. “A lot of it is just luck,” she said.

The Licensed Provider Survey Data Report, released last month by Confluence Early Childhood Education Coalition (CECE), 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. It asked the providers for information on capacity, tuition rates and other data points. All but one provider responded. Survey results showed that there is about one licensed spot available for every two kids across the region, with capacity constraint driven by low teachers pay and high cost of living in the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys. The Aspen-to-Parachute region counts 2,482 licensed spots among the 70 providers who answered the survey for a 4-and-younger population of 5,300, according to the 2020 American Community Survey.

Those licensed spots include 163 for infants, 444 for toddlers (1- and 2-year-olds), and 1,875 for preschoolers, according to the CECE report, which included an analysis of the survey data conducted by Aspen Journalism. 

CECE counts among its members 17 local public and private organizations, including governments, school districts, businesses and nonprofits. The group, which was initially called the Rocky Mountain Preschool Coalition, formed in 2017 to look at providing valleywide resources in response to the scarcity of child care spots. Among the solutions now being studied, CECE is examining the potential for creating an early-childhood education special district, which would be established under the framework put forward in a bill passed by the Colorado legislature in 2019. Such a district would require all three boards of county commissioners — Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield — with jurisdiction over the region to be served to approve putting a ballot question before voters, potentially in 2024, who would ultimately decide whether or not to create the district. Such a district would have a publicly elected board and with voter approval could raise public funding for programs benefiting children from Aspen to Parachute. 

“There just aren’t enough child care centers,” Monaghan said. “Any real estate in this valley costs so much that the smartest financial use for it is not child care. Child care does not make anyone money. There’s no private business owner who owns a child care center who’s wealthy.”

The availability of spots for infants and toddlers is even more scarce and expensive as an infant or a toddler requires a higher ratio of staff per child than a preschooler.

“Across the board, licensed providers are serving more kids than they would like to,” the report noted. “Providers may be licensed for a certain number of kids and [can] legally serve that many kids, but often, they desire to serve fewer kids in order to have lower ratios and higher quality of care. Due to the pressures of serving as many kids as possible knowing they struggle to find any care elsewhere, many providers serve kids closer to their licensed capacity than their desired capacity.”

In 2019, the Bipartisan Policy Center reported that Colorado’s statewide child care gap was larger than the 35-state average. (The study didn’t include most Southern states, and a few others including Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon, Nevada, New Jersey, Minnesota and South Dakota.) According to that report, Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District had the largest child care gap in the state, with 45.1% of the children who couldn’t access early-childhood education based on the district’s licensed capacity and population.

Experts agree that it’s difficult to pinpoint what the actual licensed capacity goal would be, but Bell Policy Center analyst Perrine Monnet said that what’s important is the ability for parents to have the choice of where their children go. “It’s not to say that we necessarily should have more licensed care or that informal care is not something we want, but more that parents need the options and need to have the availability to choose the child care that is more ideal for them.”

Capacity picture differs throughout the valley

The CECE survey and asked providers for their licensed capacity forecast as of Oct. 1. Seventy local providers from Aspen to Parachute answered the survey.

In the Colorado River Valley, the 31 licensed providers located in ZIP codes 81635, 81647, 81650 and 81652 can serve 35% of the younger-than-4 population living in those ZIP codes. Local providers are licensed for a total of 879 spots, including 64 infant spots, 114 toddler spots and 701 preschool spots.

Meanwhile, downvalley, midvalley and upvalley providers can serve more than half of the younger-than-5 population living in their respective area. Downvalley providers in the ZIP codes 81601 and 81623 can serve 57% of that age group with 1,071 licensed spots for 1,885 kids, including 53 infant spots, 236 toddler spots and 845 preschool spots. Upvalley providers, who are located in the ZIP codes 81611 and 81654, count 323 spots for 610 kids younger than 5, including 30 spots for infants, 56 for toddlers and 237 for preschoolers. They can serve 53% of that population. Midvalley providers can serve up to 78% of that population living in the ZIP code 81621.  

If child care capacity is lower in Garfield County and especially in the Colorado River Valley, that’s mostly due to a larger population living in the area, resulting in a lower number of child care programs per capita.

Katie Langenhuizen, who served as CECE director until the end of February, said the data didn’t capture the commuting pattern in the valley. “There’s quite a movement of people moving toward their jobs, toward their incomes, which is typically upvalley or against the river flow.”

The type of providers also varies across the region. At the time of the survey, there were no licensed in-home providers — also called family child care providers — in Pitkin County. That can be attributed to the smaller homes and apartments in which many working locals live and the many state and HOA regulations regarding what places can be used for child care. 

“It used to be that you couldn’t be on a second story or you had to own the property, and they’re changing some of those things,” Monaghan said. Those policies have created barriers for people who would want to be in that industry but are not homeowners or live in an apartment. “It’s hard to run a child care center out of an apartment,” she said. 

Meanwhile, in-home care accounts for about half of the licensed providers between Carbondale and Parachute. That’s mainly a response to the child care crisis in Garfield County.

The CECE report indicates a child care shortage of 814 spots between Carbondale and Glenwood Springs and a shortage of 1,552 spots between New Castle and Parachute. The New Castle-Silt region is considered a child care desert, which is any census tract where the number of children younger than 5 is three times the number of licensed child care slots.

Kelly Esch, director of Early Childhood Network, a nonprofit organization based in Glenwood Springs that provides resources to families and providers in Garfield and western Eagle counties, said expanding current child care offerings by opening additional centers is difficult. Finding a building, whether that’s Aspen or Rifle, is not easy. 

“Many of these family child care [centers] had opened their homes because of the child care crisis in Garfield County,” Esch said. “They had children of their own and they weren’t able to find child care. So they started doing child care out of their home. [For] many of them, their kids are now older and they’ve just continued to do it, but that’s how they originally started, and it’s much easier to start a business out of your home instead of acquiring a building.”

Lack of options opens a new door

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.”

Although Fuller’s son is now ready to go into high school, she still cares for the little ones. Her in-home child care in New Castle 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, stands outside of her home and the residence of Fuller Childcare in New Castle, Colorado on Friday, Feb. 23, 2023. She started out her childcare services when she couldn’t find care for her son 14 years ago. “It was really kind of a surprise career change. I didn’t plan it. It happened because of the lack of childcare options for myself.” Credit: Kelsey Brunner/Aspen Journalism

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 Langenhuizen. “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.

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. Child care centers like Melnick’s don’t have the funding that public schools have. Instead, they have to rely on tuition and grants. Tuition covers about 75% of Melnick’s true cost of care. Credit: Kelsey Brunner/Aspen Journalism

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. 

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 during this first batch. The state is still accepting applications here.

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.”

Rebecca Fuller, an in-home childcare provider, plays with trains with Oliver Schilz, 3, left, and Enzo Schilz, 18 mon., in New Castle, Colorado on Friday, Feb. 23, 2023. Some families have been on her wait list for two or three years. Sometimes, when it’s their turn, they don’t need the spot for the child they signed up for, but instead for that child’s younger sibling. Credit: Kelsey Brunner/Aspen Journalism

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 leads Emilia Gonzales, 2, in a lesson at her home while providing early childhood care in Rifle, Colorado on Monday, Feb. 27, 2023. Alvarez is a family, friend and neighbor (FFN) provider and has been taking care of children since she moved from Mexico to the U.S. about 20 years ago. Credit: Kelsey Brunner/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.’”

Editor’s note: This story was updated to include information about ongoing UPK applications.

This story ran in the Post-Independent on March 5 and 8; The Aspen Times on March 10 (Part. 1), and in Sol del Valle, published in Spanish, in the March 9, 2023 edition.

Laurine Lassalle is Aspen Journalism’s data desk editor, where she works to catalogue and analyze local public data. She also heads our our “Tracking the Curve” project, documenting COVID-19 in Pitkin,...