Giving Thought: Quality counts in early education

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought
Aspen Community Foundation, Lauder event, Aug. 13, 2018.
Steve Mundinger

Early-childhood education advocates often think of the field as a three-legged stool: capacity, cost and quality. To really have an effective and responsive early-childhood education system, you have to address all three.

In this column and in our work at Aspen Community Foundation, we’ve focused a lot on capacity, on increasing the availability of early childhood education as a way to give our children the best chance at success in life. And, we’ve highlighted the various programs that address the cost of child care, especially for low-income families.

But increasing the number of child care slots for children ages 0 to 5 and providing financial subsidies are not enough. We must also continue to guarantee that these child care spaces are high-quality to ensure that children develop the necessary language, social skills and brain structure to maximize their ability to learn.

During the years from birth to 5, children’s brains grow rapidly. It takes a trained educator to recognize a child’s developmental level and respond appropriately in the classroom. Learning to share, to wait one’s turn, to manage disappointment — these skills do not come automatically, but they’re vital to a successful transition into the K-12 system.

Since 2014, the way of tracking a program’s quality has been through Colorado Shines, a quality rating and improvement system that monitors and supports early-childhood education programs. Its primary functions are to help participating programs and professionals improve their quality through assessment, training and tools, and to connect parents to quality programs.

Licensed programs enter the rating system at Level 1. To advance to the next levels, programs must demonstrate quality in multiple ways. This includes ensuring children’s health and safety, having well-trained and effective staff, demonstrating sound management practices, providing supportive learning environments, and helping parents become partners in their child’s learning.

It takes a lot of effort and attention on the part of the child care providers to reach and maintain a high Colorado Shines rating. In the Aspen-to-Parachute region, we have about a quarter of the programs that are Level 3 or above (5 is the highest). Three programs are rated at Level 5: Aspen Country Day School Prekindergarten, Stephanie Northrup in Blue Lake, and Rebecca Fuller in New Castle. You can find quality ratings for licensed child care programs on the Colorado Shines website:

There are several more programs working to move up the Colorado Shines scale. And while all of our licensed child care programs value providing high-quality care, the cost to do this is expensive. However, there is a huge gap between what it costs to provide quality care and what families can afford to pay.

We are fortunate to have a few organizations focused on working with licensed child care providers to maintain and increase quality. Kids First in Aspen, the Early Childhood Network serving Garfield County, and the Rocky Mountain Early Childhood Council (RMECC) have been working tirelessly to support the region’s child care providers. A key part of this quality improvement work is the professional training provided by these agencies to licensed programs.

The RMECC is a state-designated organization that supports the development of high-quality early-childhood programs in Eagle, Garfield, Lake and Pitkin counties. There are 34 such councils across Colorado, serving 62 out of the state’s 64 counties. Stacy Petty, coordinator for the RMECC, says our rural resort region is “trending toward the head of the pack” in providing quality care, but it’s a continuous improvement process.

“We are incredibly blessed to have a wonderful group of coaching agencies,” Petty said. “There are 10 coaches in our four-county area, and many councils have none.”

The Aspen-to-Parachute region has made great progress in enabling new, high-quality programs to open their doors and serve hundreds more young children than before, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all environment. There’s a long way to go before the region, let alone the state, has resources to provide an early-childhood education for each and every child.

Tamara Tormohlen is the executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.