Giving Thought: Expanding early child care services in the area

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

In the past six years, the Aspen-to-Parachute region has successfully increased the number of early-childhood spaces by 24 percent. This means that hundreds more local children — more than 577 individuals, because most of them don’t attend preschool full-time — are reaping the benefits of an education during the vital years between birth and age 5.

One of the pillars of Aspen Community Foundation’s Cradle to Career Initiative (CCI) is ensuring that all of the region’s young children are socially and cognitively ready to learn in kindergarten. And preschool figures prominently in preparing children for a classroom environment.

“Kids from 0 to 5 are our most vulnerable population,” said Joni Goodwin, executive director of the Early Childhood Network that serves Basalt to Parachute. “That’s when 90 percent of brain growth occurs and getting a child into a quality program is very important.

“That’s not to say moms shouldn’t stay home with their children, but for most families in our area that’s just not a reality,” she added.

In other words, when parents work full-time to pay the costly bills that go with life in the Roaring Fork Valley, they often don’t have money for steady, high-quality child care. And even if they do have the financial resources, they can face an uphill battle to find a vacancy in a nearby preschool.

The Early Childhood Network’s primary focus is to help connect parents with affordable, quality child care options in their communities. The Network also aims to improve the quality of local childcare through training, advocacy and coaching.

Building a solid early-childhood infrastructure is good for children, but there’s also a family and workforce benefit. Stated simply, every day when a child is engaged at a quality preschool or child care program also is a day when mom and dad can work hard to put food on the table, secure in the knowledge that their child is safe and learning. Those are important ingredients of a healthy community.

Of course, while we’re thrilled to have more of our children getting some preschool experience, the job of preparing those children for kindergarten is far from finished. For example, while 82 percent of incoming kindergarteners have attended some preschool, still only 62 percent of the total are demonstrating “readiness” for kindergarten.

“Even with such good participation, we still have some children who aren’t meeting critical learning benchmarks,” said Gretchen Brogdon, ACF’s data and research director. “So what else is going on for those children?”

There are probable theories — problems at home, economic disadvantages, genetic factors and many more — but limited data to clarify the connection between young children’s experiences and their readiness for learning. And other questions are presenting themselves.

We know that vulnerable children need high quality social and educational experiences with support for their families. Can we get better at developing specific kinds of early education programs that best suit them? And, we know more about the preschool-aged children (3- and 4-year-olds) than we know about the infants and toddlers in the community. What can be done to help these families and improve their prospects?

Our Cradle to Career Initiative is a multi-pronged effort with dozens of institutional partners to improve overall youth success from Aspen to Parachute, and we are learning every step of the way. In the coming weeks we’ll share more about the data from these Cradle to Career efforts and what the research is telling us.

Another positive development we can report is that public awareness of the need for affordable early childhood education is growing, and both local and state officials are exploring ways to build a strong and sustainable early childhood system. A vast body of research confirms that public investments in early childhood education pay off handsomely in the long run.

“I think it’s going to be a great year for early childhood,” said Goodwin. “Awareness is growing statewide, even nationwide. We’re not where we need to be, but I’m seeing a lot of steps in the right direction.”

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.