Sen. Hickenlooper visits Valley Settlement’s El Busesito, hears Latino concerns
U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper, D-Colo., on Tuesday lauded local efforts to improve early-childhood education and address other issues of concern within the Latino community during a visit to Carbondale.
Hickenlooper was invited to tour the Valley Settlement Project’s El Busesito mobile preschool bus at Carbondale’s Third Street Center and meet with some of the families whose children have benefited from the program.
He then sat down with Latino business and community leaders for a roundtable discussion on a variety of issues, from inflation and housing costs, supply chain shortages, wage and benefit concerns in seasonal resort markets, climate change impacts, education and gun violence.
“What’s great here is you see a lot of community organizing, of people saying, ‘What do we need and what do we need to get from that senator,’” Hickenlooper observed in a post-event interview.
“That’s how you get more money for education, for health care, for transportation, for public safety. … I think that’s how communities grow, and that’s healthy,” he said.
El Busesito, or “The Little Bus,” is a good example, said Hickenlooper, who recently helped secure $285,000 in federal funding for the purchase and retrofitting of three new mobile preschool buses, in addition to the three already operating from Glenwood Springs to El Jebel.
The money was part of $100.4 million in funding Hickenlooper successfully secured for 64 projects across Colorado in the fiscal year 2022 federal appropriations omnibus bill that passed Congress earlier this year.
“The preschool bus is a fabulous example of a local community creating something that is helping to solve their own problem, raising their own money, with a little help from the federal and state government. That’s kind of the American way,” Hickenlooper said.
Begun in 2011, El Busesito is a bilingual mobile preschool that now serves 12 neighborhoods in the Roaring Fork Valley, reaching 96 children who would otherwise have no access to preschool.
Antonia Castillo said her three children benefited greatly by having El Busesito available to them.
“It’s been essential, and so important because my daughters have learned a lot by being able to do these two years with El Busesito,” Castillo said through a Spanish interpreter. “They teach the basics to be ready for kindergarten … the alphabet, how to count, colors, how to write their names.”
Her youngest is preparing to enter kindergarten, and Castillo said her other two children, now in first and third grades, have excelled because of their preschool experience.
“It’s something I recommend to all families,” she said.
Karla Reyes is the El Busesito program director.
“We’re now in the midst of our strategic planning, to look at the demographics of our region and decide where to place the new buses,” Reyes said.
This coming fall, they will begin piloting a four-day-a-week program, expanding from the current two days, and from two-and-a-half hours to 10 hours of preschool instruction per week, free of charge.
“Having more buses in our fleet will allow us to spend more time with our kids and to build a better connection with them,” Reyes said.
The expansion of the local program dovetails nicely with Colorado’s new universal preschool program, which guarantees 10 hours a week of tuition-free preschool instruction for all children age 4 in the state, she said.
In addition to grant funding for the three buses, Valley Settlement has been able to secure donations to make sure the new buses are staffed with teachers and supplied, Valley Settlement Executive Director Maria Tarajano Rodman said during the Tuesday event.
“We’re on the cusp of what is next, and what is possible for Valley Settlement,” she said of services aimed at helping the Latino community from childhood to adulthood.
“Education is the source of all things possible, but you have to have opportunity,” she said. “We seek to reduce barriers that limit opportunities for people, and El Busesito is a great example of making sure every child, wherever they are, can access preschool.”
Housing, guns and more discussed
A Western Slope visit for Hickenlooper this week brought him to the Roaring Fork Valley for a couple of stops Tuesday. Prior to the Carbondale stop, Hickenlooper toured the home of Rocky Mountain Institute co-founder Amory Lovins in Old Snowmass and discussed clean energy solutions and climate resilience with RMI staff and local energy leaders.
The Latino community roundtable in Carbondale included business owners, elected officials, education leaders and people associated with numerous nonprofit organizations.
Many of the issues discussed are not unique to the Latino community, including the impacts on business owners and consumers from inflation, and high housing costs.
On the housing front, Hickenlooper said he is part of some early discussions about making federal lands managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and immediately adjacent to towns, available long-term for the development of affordable workforce housing.
“Evidently this has been done in some places, so we need to research how that was accomplished,” Hickenlooper said. “Conceivably, especially on the Western Slope, that could help dozens of communities address some of their housing needs.”
The senator offered that inflation in the cost of goods and services and supply chain issues are a result of the economy adjusting during the COVID-19 pandemic and readjusting as the pandemic subsided.
Those situations should again correct themselves over time, Hickenlooper said.
When the topic of gun violence came up, in light of the deadly school shooting last week in Uvalde, Texas, Hickenlooper said he doesn’t see a bipartisan effort on gun control measures.
“The partisanship is so vicious right now,” he said, adding that what he might be willing to support in the way of limiting access to guns won’t have enough support in Congress.
Instead, he would like to start a conversation around creating a federal agency similar to the National Highway Transportation Safety Board that could address gun safety in the same way that highway and automobile safety measures have been addressed since the 1960s.
“We spend a billion dollars a year keeping our highways safe, so why don’t we have a billion dollars a year to make sure that people know how to lock up their weapons, and for classes on how to handle firearms safely, in every community in America?
“That’s all stuff that I would think we — Republicans and Democrats, everyone — could agree we want our neighbors to know and practice.”
The Aspen Flight Academy is putting out the all-call for incoming Aspen High School students to participate this summer in the “Every Student Flies” program, which offers every student at the school an hour of free flight time.
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