Preschools are feeling the pinch | AspenTimes.com

Preschools are feeling the pinch

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EL JEBEL – The recession has hit hard in some Roaring Fork Valley preschools as parents scramble to find ways to cut their household budgets after losing hours or even jobs.

Preschools that had lengthy wait lists for students to enroll as recently as one year ago now have openings. The unused capacity is costing preschools thousands of dollars per month in revenue and forcing them to cut the hours of teachers.

“It’s been unheard of that we had any open spots,” said Melissa Goodman, assistant director of the nonprofit Blue Lake Preschool in El Jebel.

Statistics tracked by Kids First, an organization that works on children’s issues in the Roaring Fork Valley, showed Blue Lake Preschool had a waiting list with 116 toddlers and 46 infants in September 2008. The school has 58 available spots daily, infant through pre-kindergarten. Of the hundreds of openings over the course of the week, 69 were unfilled the first week of September, Goodman said.

That translates into about $17,000 in lost revenue for the facility, Goodman said.

Blue Lake isn’t the only preschool facing challenges. “The economy has definitely affected child-care programs up and down the valley,” said Shirley Ritter, director of Kids First. “They’re not in dire straits, but they don’t have 30 to 40 people on the wait list like they used to.”

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In some cases, some very successful programs have consolidated classrooms. Others are being flexible by reducing the number of required days or even offering half-days to try to hold onto students. A handful of child-care facilities reduced rates.

Ritter said the poor economy is affecting child-care centers large and small. A big concern is that small, home-based centers that handle only six kids or so will lose a student or two, won’t find replacements and will be forced to close because of the hit to their budget. If that is the case, there won’t be enough facilities to meet the increased demand when the economy picks up again, Ritter said.

Many parents have tried to hold on to five days per week of child care, but the ongoing economic sluggishness has forced some of them to cut back to four or three days. In many cases, parents are juggling hours to handle child care on their own, Ritter said.

Kids First offers a financial aid program in its Aspen office to help families in need pay for child care. Ritter said a surprising number of recent callers seeking aid are people who just recently lost jobs, indicating the problem isn’t easing.

Goodman said it became apparent late last year that some parents were struggling to keep their kids in preschool and pay their bills. “Probably about mid-school year we saw what was happening,” she said.

The directors discussed the issues with their staff. Teachers volunteered to cut their hours so that everyone remained employed. Blue Lake has 14 full-time teachers and four parttime teachers as well as Goodman and director Michelle Oger.

The struggles for parents with children at Blue Lake peaked in August, Goodman said. Parents in both blue- and white-collar positions have lost jobs or had hours reduced. There were many emotional moments when parents informed the staff they had to reduce the days their kids came to school or were stopping child care altogether.

“It’s not just a school, it’s a family,” Goodman said. “To see the turmoil in their family is heartbreaking.”

Grants for hardship assistance have allowed Blue Lake to assist some parents with child-care expenses.

The openings are getting filled by people on the waiting list like they used to. While parents once jumped at the opportunity to fill an opening, now they often say they aren’t in a position to accept it. Blue Lake finds itself in the new position of trying to get the word out that it has immediate openings.

Ellie Narby, co-owner of the Learning Curve Preschool in El Jebel, said about four parents were forced to take their kids out of the preschool because of lost jobs. All left with a promise to return once the economy picked up, she said.

Even with the loses, Narby said Learning Curve has more students now than six months ago. It still has some openings in its classes for 1- to 6-year-olds. The preschool opened about a year ago and required some time to build its exposure. Despite the challenges of the economy, Narby said she feels good about the preschool’s future.

Ritter said Kids First is fielding numerous calls from parents with infants or couples who are pregnant. She believes there will be a surge in families seeking child care in the near future. That surge combined with an improvement in the economy could create a child-care shortage once again, along with a return of the lengthy wait lists.

scondon@aspentimes.com