Giving Thought: Early childhood education gets some of the attention it deserves

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought
Tamara Tormohlen
Steve Mundinger

For as long as I can remember, finding affordable preschool or day care for young children has been one of the more frustrating aspects of Roaring Fork Valley life.

Every provider seemed to have a long waitlist for spaces, and every family had a story to tell about their struggles to find appropriate care, at an affordable cost, for even two or three days of the work week. The problem is not solved yet, but there is meaningful progress to report.

Thanks to a funding stream at the state’s Office of Early Childhood, grants are being disbursed to “emerging and expanding” child care providers across the state. And nine programs in the Aspen-to-Parachute region have received money, either to get started or to grow. Along with the funding comes coaching and training to meet the state’s standards for licensed childcare providers, which include everything from safety in the classroom to a deep understanding of early childhood brain development.

At the center of these exciting developments is the Glenwood Springs-based Early Childhood Network (ECN), which connects families to child care and preschool providers in Eagle, Garfield and Pitkin counties. Kelly Esch, a longtime employee who recently became executive director, says she was lucky to assume the helm from her predecessor, Joni Goodwin, when she did.

“We’re in a new and unprecedented time,” Esch said happily.

What makes it an exciting time for Esch is the local, state and even federal attention being paid to early child care. Funding from Washington D.C. and Denver is trickling down to child care programs in the region for programming, staff training, and to subsidize families with limited income. The ECN has recently doubled the size of its staff with coaches to help providers earn their licenses and improve their skills.

“This means an increased number of licensed child care spots in Parachute, Rifle, New Castle, Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and El Jebel,” Esch said. “Those towns are where many of the programs are located — four centers and five licensed family child care programs.”

This doesn’t mean that the valley has suddenly become an easy place to find child care, but things are improving. Esch herself is a mother of two children, a 2-year-old and an infant, and both kids are enrolled in licensed child care centers. Of course, Esch knew exactly how to go about it: “I was on the waitlist when I was five months pregnant,” she said.

Of all the babies born in the region, Esch said, only about 40 percent end up in licensed child care programs. In a perfect world, every family would be able to find and pay for a slot in a high-quality program. But Esch knows that, while moms and dads Sacross the region are at work, many of these infants and toddlers are in the care of a grandmother or a trusted neighbor. Most of these providers aren’t licensed and certified, but they’re everywhere, they’re inexpensive and they’re popular. Esch and her colleagues call these providers “family, friends and neighbors,” and ECN works with them too.

“Most families have both parents working to make ends meet,” Esch said. “Our philosophy is, we know these children are being cared for. Why not make sure they have the best quality child care as well?”

ECN has four coaches on staff, half of whom are devoted to informal, unlicensed caregivers. In this two-tiered landscape, Esch and her staff are doing their best to improve child care across the board and make it accessible to all families. Every dollar is spent to realize that goal. Last year, Esch laughed, the organization finished the year $10 in the black.

Fund raising for ECN has taken a pause during COVID-19. The organization’s annual fundraiser was canceled two years in a row for public-health reasons, but the pandemic also delivered unforeseen benefits.

“All of those emergency services that needed to run during COVID, all those doctors and nurses and first-responders needed child care for their children,” she said. “That was one unexpected positive of COVID — people could actually see the importance of child care.”

If you’d like to learn more about ECN and how it serves local families, then visit And rest assured that Esch, as a mother of two young ones, can relate.

“I’m right in there with everybody,” she said.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of the Aspen Community Foundation.