A Bright Start for Eagle Co. child care? | AspenTimes.com

A Bright Start for Eagle Co. child care?

Melanie Wong
Vail correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

EAGLE COUNTY ” When Linda Foley opened a preschool program in her Eagle home in May, there were parents waiting at her doorstep to enroll their children.

Now Foley is up to maximum capacity with eight children enrolled in her Eagle Enrichment Program for the fall, and she has a waiting list, too.

Foley’s center closed two years ago because of financial reasons but reopened thanks to a startup grant from Eagle County’s Bright Start program.

“There’s a huge need for child care because the valley has grown so enormously,” said Foley, who has been a child-care provider for 15 years. “Young families are moving in, but usually both parents have to work because it’s so expensive to live here.”

She used the grant, which totaled about $2,800, to buy new tables, cubbies and other equipment.

Bright Start organizers hope the program will help many other home-based child-care givers get up and running, resulting in more places for working parents to send their children, said Kate Forinash, director of county health and human services.

Countywide studies show a serious educational, physical and emotional need among children younger than 9, said County Commissioner Arn Menconi, a major backer of the program.

In September, organizers are making their big fundraising push, hoping to raise $354,810 from the community.

Others disagree, saying voters rejected such a program when they voted down a property tax in November that would have funded early-childhood programs.

But amid fundraising campaigns and political rhetoric, some residents are left asking what exactly Bright Start is and what it hopes to accomplish.

The program stems from a 2006 study of the county that showed there were increasing numbers of young children and significant gaps in services for them, according to the study assessment.

Instead of focusing on one area of need, the program takes a multifaceted approach, said Jeanne McQueeney, executive director of Early Childhood Partners, a nonprofit children’s development organization.

“Kids don’t come in pieces but in whole, and they come with families,” said McQueeney, an adviser to Bright Start. “You can’t just support one aspect or one program.”

Of the different needs the program hopes to address, Bright Start focuses on several: providing affordable, quality child care, giving parenting support and identifying children with special needs.

One of Bright Start’s biggest priorities is child care, with $894,900 budgeted for early care and learning.

There is a serious lack of affordable and available child care, said Cheri Paller, director of the Family Learning Center foundation. The Learning Center in Edwards enrolls about 150 children from 6 weeks to 5 years old, and has about 36 staff members.

At least 25 percent of the enrolled children are on scholarships, Paller said, and they have almost 150 children on the waiting list.

The standard rate in the area is $40 to $47 a day per child.

“That’s just not affordable for most people,” she said. “This is not an easy place to live if you’re not independently wealthy.”

Bright Start gives grants, such as the one given to Foley, to help small-scale child-care providers who are licensed to work from their homes.

Smaller, home-based centers are easier and less expensive to start than larger care centers, Forinash said.

The county recently hired a child-care specialist to help potential child-care providers get licensed, trained and equipped, she said.

Additionally, the program hopes to subsidize larger centers for as much as $1,000 per child so that places like the Learning Center or Miller Ranch Child Care Center in Edwards can keep tuition down.

There would be scholarships for low-income families, too, McQueeny said.

Part of the funding would go toward child-care providers for training and paying more to providers who are trained or stay in the field.

Being a child-care worker can be financially difficult, McQueeney said.

It is a struggle to maintain well-trained staff, Paller said, and some centers even have had to close classrooms for lack of staff. The Learning Center did not have to do so, but it did have to freeze enrollment last winter, she said.

“This encourages those who those who have been doing it to keep doing it. It’s not for the light of heart, but the rewards are immeasurable,” Foley said.

Through Bright Start, parents can also find resources such as Network of Care, a website directory of all local programs, parent groups, and educational opportunities as well as links to state and national sites.

For parents who prefer a more hands-on approach, the county also will begin offering home visits to all new mothers within a few weeks of leaving the hospital. The visitors will come with a gift basket and answers for any baby questions new parents may have.

“We live in a community where people come and go. Many are here without families or support,” Forinash said. “Some parents don’t know how to take a temperature or when to go to the doctor.”

Bright Start will fund some new programs, such as parenting classes, Forinash said, but will also work in conjunction with existing childhood development programs.

One goal is to connect all the existing programs and resources, so that whatever department or program a parent goes to, they will be directed to where they can be most helped, she said.

“It’s a ‘no wrong door’ concept”, Forinash said. “So no matter what door a family goes through, they’ll be connected to all these resources of the county.”

That could mean sending children with learning problems to the right specialists, providing lists of all the county child care providers, or even something as simple as finding a location for a mother’s group, she said.

Another priority is finding kids with social, learning or physical problems and addressing those problems as soon as possible.

That could mean low birth weights, growth and development issues, coming from a single-parent or low-income family. The program would identify those children by expanding screening efforts, or running medical clinics where parents can come in with concerns or questions, Forinash said.

Right now schools are supposed test students for possible learning or growth issues, McQueeney said. Bright Start will provide additional money to do that.

Their goal is to screen at least 500 children through health clinics and the county’s public health department. It is especially important to identify children with special needs at an early age so they can be better prepared for school, McQueeney said.

“It’s shown that hearing loss, autism and vision problems are somewhat common among young children, but they can be helped if it’s caught early,” she said.

It will take a few years to measure the program’s results, Forinash said, but they hope they will see better grades, more children being tested, more parents attending classes, and lower child care costs.

“There’s a real feeling of accountability [among program organizers],” she said. “It’s a hard thing to [measure], but we’re trying.”