help wanted

It’s hard to find qualified early childhood teachers. Here’s what one Denver provider is doing about it.

Malanna Newell is a toddler teacher at the Mile High Early Learning center in Denver's Westwood neighborhood. She started as a teaching assistant before taking Mile High's Child Development Associate training last fall.

Scattered around a meeting room in groups of three or four, 13 women bent over laptop computers and smartphones, squinting at Colorado’s hundreds of child care regulations.

They were child care and preschool employees from all over Denver on a scavenger hunt of sorts, searching for answers to worksheet questions such as how quickly child care workers must be trained on child abuse reporting and which eight kinds of toys and equipment classrooms are required to have.

The exercise on a recent Tuesday night was part of a 120-hour course — the equivalent of two college classes — that leads to a nationally-recognized child care credential.

Leaders at Mile High Early Learning, which operates seven centers around Denver, decided last summer to launch the training program to help solve one of the organization’s — and the field’s — most intractable problems: A shortage of qualified teachers and assistant teachers.

“We were having difficulty finding staff so we thought, ‘How could we grow our own?’” said Pamela Harris, the organization’s president and CEO.

In a field known nationally for low pay and high turnover, Mile High’s staffing struggles are hardly unique. What’s more unusual is the organization’s decision to address the problem with a formal in-house training. It’s a move that illustrates the anxiety providers face in finding high-quality staff and the gaps that exist in the state’s early childhood worker pipeline.

Over the next three years, a new state early childhood workforce plan aims to fill some of those holes, in part through alternative pathways like the training offered by Mile High. But experts agree the task is formidable.

Three participants in a recent training at Mile High Early Learning look through child care regulations.

In Colorado, the dearth of well-trained child care and preschool teachers has worsened in recent years even as evidence mounts that quality caregivers play a critical role in setting kids up for long-term success.

Christi Chadwick, who heads the Transforming Colorado’s Early Childhood Workforce project at the nonprofit Early Milestones Colorado, said the state’s population growth, stagnant wages in the field and more demanding worker qualification have exacerbated the problem. It’s particularly acute for community child care providers, which can’t usually pay preschool teachers as much as school districts do.

“The compensation is a challenge,” Chadwick said. “If we’re going to ever professionalize the field, we have to think of how we have our teachers on par with those in elementary education.”

A winding road

Experts say many child care workers back into the profession — following a twisting path that may not include any formal training on how to work with little kids.

Some come in with only high school diplomas, some with associates degrees and some with bachelor’s degrees, though often in unrelated subjects.

Take Muna, a 24-year-old participant in the recent Mile High training. She holds a bachelor’s degree in international affairs from the University of Colorado Boulder and has held jobs working with adult refugees and teaching high school girls in Saudi Arabia.

Until eight months ago when she became a staff aide at Mile High’s center in the Lowry neighborhood, Muna had never worked with young children.

Staff aides are entry-level workers who make about $12 an hour. They allow Mile High to meet staff-child ratio requirements, but under state rules, can’t be left alone with children.

Muna, who asked that her last name not be used, is exactly the kind of person Harris wants to nudge up the career ladder with the new training program,

“We want to push them out of staff aide. We want them to be teacher assistants,” Harris said, noting that a pay bump comes with the promotion.

Mile High is among a variety of organizations that offer the training, which leads to a credential called the Child Development Associate. Mile High staff can take the course for free as long as they commit to stay for a year. Employees at other Denver area centers can participate for a fee. Harris said one of Mile High’s next steps will be to offer the training in Spanish.

For Muna, the course was mainly a way to learn the ropes of a profession she’s found both fulfilling and unfamiliar.

“I felt like I really didn’t know anything,” she said. “I didn’t want to be making mistakes or doing anything wrong.”

During the scavenger hunt activity, Muna and her two partners — both of whom work at centers outside the Mile High network — talked about the maze of rules that govern child care.

Muna recalled how jarring it was to learn that she had to don gloves first before tending to a crying youngster with a bloody nose.

Megan O’Connor, a former marketing officer and the mother of a teenage boy, laughed about the fact that there’s not only a specific technique for changing a baby’s diaper, but also for throwing the diaper away.

The changing pipeline

Starting in the 1980s, state law prohibited Colorado’s universities from offering bachelor’s degrees in early childhood education. When that changed a few years ago, it opened the way for a new crop of college graduates with specialized coursework focusing on young children.

But that spigot, while promising, is also very new.

A recent survey of about 5,000 early childhood workers across the state revealed that while just over half of lead teachers have a bachelor’s degree, only 25 percent have degrees in early childhood education or a closely related field. (The full results of the survey are due out in mid-August.)

Diane Price, president and CEO of Early Connections Learning Centers in Colorado Springs, was pleasantly surprised this summer to land three new teachers who’d recently graduated with bachelor’s degrees in early childhood. But with more than 40 percent of her staff turning over every year, recruitment is still a battle.

“I firmly believe that right now in early education you either grow your own or steal from someone else,” said Price, who was a member of the steering committee that helped developed the state’s new plan.

Early Connections doesn’t offer its own Child Development Associate training like Mile High does, but the course is available through local partners.

Both Harris and Price say the training is enjoying a resurgence at the moment. It provides a gentle way of introducing child care workers, who may find college intimidating or unaffordable, to the prospect of higher education.

“We don’t want this profession to be a dead end,” Price said. “We want them to see there is a pathway. You can become a teacher, you can be a lead teacher … You can be a director some day.”

year in review

Early childhood discipline, child care deserts and funding challenges in the spotlight during 2017

Malanna Newell is a toddler teacher at the Mile High Early Learning center in Denver's Westwood neighborhood. She started as a teaching assistant before taking Mile High's Child Development Associate training last fall.

Amid national debate on the disproportionate number of suspensions and expulsions given out to young boys and children of color, Colorado lawmakers and educators grappled with the best approach to discipline in 2017.

The year kicked off with a bill in the legislature to curb suspensions for early elementary and preschool students — a shift that would have put Colorado on the forefront of school discipline reform, some observers said. Although the bill had a broad array of backers, a Republican-controlled Senate committee killed the proposal after last-minute opposition from a group of rural school district leaders. Some of those leaders said suspensions weren’t a “rural problem,” but a Chalkbeat analysis found otherwise.  

Despite the defeat, advocates of the bill expect a renewed push for the measure during the 2018 legislative session.

In the meantime, Colorado’s two largest school districts — Denver and Jeffco — spearheaded changes to reduce the number of suspension handed out to young children. In June, Denver’s school board instituted a policy limiting the suspension of preschool through third grade students, though some educators worried they weren’t being given enough support to handle kids who misbehave.

In Jeffco, after Chalkbeat wrote about the district’s high rate of early elementary suspensions, administrators commissioned a report on the issue with recommendations to increase the use of restorative justice practices and other alternatives to suspension.  

Also in 2017, local early childhood leaders launched or expanded efforts to address key problems in the field — including teacher recruitment and retention and kids’ sometimes rocky transition to kindergarten.

At the same time, some early childhood advocates were forced to reckon with the perennial lack of funding that plagues the industry and constricts families’ choices. One of Denver’s most well-known child care providers, Clayton Early Learning, closed one of its two facilities last summer — a move observers said spotlights the high cost of quality child care.

But there were also bright spots in the funding landscape — some growing out of local efforts in Colorado’s rural towns and resort communities. A preschool in Holyoke found a way to give staff members generous raises and a growing number of cities and towns are getting new dollars for early childhood programs through sales or property taxes.

In Denver, several efforts — using a combination of public and private funds — aim to improve child care options in the city’s Elyria-Swansea neighborhood, which is designated a “child care desert.”

At the state level, officials promoted recently-created financial incentives for child care centers with top quality ratings, though some providers say earning those ratings is too much work.

Looking ahead to 2018, early childhood advocates hope to renew a tax credit that helps child care providers make ends meet. Plus, winners of a new early childhood innovation competition will get financial help to scale up their ideas.

Giving Quest

Advocates push to extend tax credit to encourage donations to cash-strapped child care providers

PHOTO: Porter-Leath

A wide-ranging coalition that includes early childhood, education and business groups is galvanizing support for a bill to extend a state tax credit that incentivizes donations to Colorado child care providers.

Advocates say the Child Care Contribution Tax Credit, which will be up for reauthorization during the 2018 legislative session, represents a key tool for supporting an expensive but perpetually underfunded sector.

“It’s the child care provider’s lifeline to additional funding,” said Gloria Higgins, president of the business group Executives Partnering to Invest in Children, or EPIC.

It’s a public-private partnership of sorts — with the state rewarding private citizens and businesses with lower tax bills when they support early childhood education.

During fiscal year 2016, Colorado taxpayers made about $52 million in donations that qualified for the tax credit, according to data from the Colorado Department of Revenue. Donations can cover costs such as child care scholarships, teacher salaries and building improvements.

“If parents had to pay $50 million more for child care, I don’t know what they would do,” Higgins said.

The tax credit, which first took effect in 1999 and has been reauthorized once, allows donors to claim an income tax credit worth up to 50 percent of their contribution. In other words, a donation of $200 to a qualifying child care provider would yield a state tax credit of $100 for the donor.

Donations to a variety of organizations — including child care centers, programs offering before- and after-school care, residential treatment centers and homeless youth shelters — are eligible for the credit.

The tax credit was suspended for a couple years during the Great Recession because slow-growing state revenue triggered a special provision in the law. The credit was restored in phases starting in 2013 and will expire in 2019 if it’s not reauthorized.

Given the state’s historically bipartisan support for the tax credit, advocates are hoping for a smooth passage.

“The reason why some people like tax credits … really comes from the fact that you’re just declining revenue,” said Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign. “You’re not necessarily building new government programs.”

And for taxpayers who make the donations, the philosophy is about “letting people keep more of money they’ve earned,” he said.

Currently, there is no organized opposition to renewing the tax credit for another 10 years.

Still, advocates know there are many demands for state dollars.

“We, in early childhood, are truly competing … with potholes or K-12 education,” Higgins said. “We just want to hold onto what we have.”

Colorado is one of only a handful of states that offer tax credits to individuals or businesses that donate to child care providers or related programs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Oregon, Mississippi, Louisiana and Pennsylvania all have some version of a contribution credit, though generally the parameters are more restrictive than in Colorado.

Tami Havener, who leads a nonprofit that offers full-day preschool and a host of other early childhood services in Steamboat Springs, believes the tax credit encourages supporters to donate more than they otherwise would.

“I think it definitely makes a difference in them deciding how much they can give,” she said. “It allows them to be more generous.”

The Family Development Center where Havener is executive director raises about $110,000 a year — in amounts ranging from $25 to $30,000. The money helps pay for need-based scholarships, teacher training and extra staff so that student-teacher ratios stay low.

The preschool enrolls 80 students, about one-third of whom come from low-income families.

Havener said she’s gotten more savvy in recent years about advertising and explaining the credit to donors because she realized that some didn’t understand the financial benefits.

Now, in addition to helping specific child care providers, some groups envision the credit as a way to get communities to collaborate on larger child care initiatives. The idea is to use the credit as a rallying point for donors interested in pooling their resources for big projects — say, building a child care facility in a neighborhood without one.

“This is no silver bullet by any stretch,” Jaeger said. “It’s a tool in the toolbox.”