Giving Thought: Good news for local families with young children

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought
Tamara Tormohlen
Steve Mundinger

Our region has a real preschool problem. There aren’t enough spaces for small children up and down the Roaring Fork and Colorado river valleys, and the available spaces are often out of financial reach for working families.

There is reason for hope, however. The Blue Lake Preschool, which has welcomed the midvalley’s youngest residents for nearly 30 years, is expanding and showing others how to build capacity.

Located in the Blue Lake neighborhood adjacent to El Jebel, Blue Lake Preschool — which currently serves about 114 young children at its main site — launched an “extension” in Carbondale in 2015 called the Little Blue Preschool. Beginning in a rental space, Little Blue was able to eventually buy and renovate a single-family home in downtown Carbondale and now provides care for 47 children — ages 6 weeks to 5 years — while their moms and dads are at work.

But that’s not all. This week, Blue Lake joined hands with the Town of Basalt to open a new preschool on town property (currently vacant) in the Willits neighborhood. When up and running, this new child care center should accommodate another 130-145 kids at the corner of Willits Lane and Lewis Lane.

So when will the doors open? It may take awhile. Earlier this month, the Basalt town council agreed to name Blue Lake as the provider of child care services at the town’s location. What needs to happen now is the design and construction of the building. Michelle Oger, executive director of Blue Lake and Little Blue preschools, doesn’t know exactly how long that will take, but she’s beside herself with excitement at the big step taken this week.

When the as-yet-unnamed preschool in Willits opens its doors, Oger said, the organization will serve nearly 300 kids at its three midvalley locations.

“That’s a huge difference,” she said. “I’m thrilled to work with Basalt and Eagle County. We’ve been talking about ways to expand child care in the midvalley for years.”

This is good news, but unfortunately it doesn’t solve the shortage of child care spots valleywide. There are still families from Aspen to Parachute who can’t afford licensed child care at all. There are others who may have found child care for two or three days a week but have some kind of Plan B for the remaining days; maybe a parent stays at home, maybe a neighbor, friend or relative watches the child.

As the person who is ultimately responsible for the safety of the children and paying the bills, Oger is happy when her preschools are full every day. But being full also means Oger must turn families away. “It’s so hard not to give people what they need,” she said.

But here’s something she learned when she decided to create new facilities, add classrooms and take more kids. It involved hard work, fundraising and a bigger staff, but eventually everyone was better off.

“If I have more kids and a bigger center, it benefits everybody,” she said. “If you can go a little bigger, there’s more money that comes in.”

She has been able to raise salaries and hire additional people to spread the workload. And, because she’s serving more kids, she sees more parents at the fundraisers. Some would call her a “glutton for punishment,” and she admits to some workaholic tendencies. But she also knows there is demand out there for the supply of preschool spots that she offers.

“There are simply not enough spots for working families looking for care,” she said. “Families who want their children in a high-quality child care program are put on waitlists, competing with their neighbors for spots.”

That sub-optimal situation was aggravated over the past couple of years by COVID-19. When child care centers had to shut down or reduce their capacity, even temporarily, many parents couldn’t go to work. Oger said COVID opened a lot of eyes to the importance of child care. Let’s hope that everyone’s eyes remain open to this reality as we work to build early childhood education capacity for our working families.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of the Aspen Community Foundation.