Tormohlen: Preschool’s importance to the valley’s kids and adults
In this column, we’ve discussed many of the issues impacting the Aspen to Parachute region and how philanthropy, nonprofit organizations and others are responding. Now we’d like to give voice to people who are passionate about and are working to enhance the vibrancy of our community.
For 17 years, Shirley Ritter has been director of Kids First, a department of the city of Aspen that supports child care services and providers in the upper Roaring Fork Valley. As a tireless and experienced advocate for early-childhood education, Ritter also has been a core participant in Aspen Community Foundation’s Cradle to Career Initiative, which, among many other things, seeks to ensure that all of the 4-year-olds from Aspen to Parachute are ready to enter kindergarten when their time comes. We spoke to Shirley about preschool in general, and about ongoing efforts to make preschool accessible for more local families.
Aspen Community Foundation: Why is preschool so important for young children and our community?
Shirley Ritter: The importance of early-childhood education is about brain development in those early years. That’s when the foundation for learning happens. But another important part is the workforce side, which is an economic issue in our communities. Parents depend on child care (in order to go to work), and that impacts employers and the community at large. Parents are concerned about their children being successful later in life, but they’re also concerned about being able to work and provide for their families.
ACF: What are the main challenges and barriers for families seeking child care?
SR: The No. 1 problem is finding quality child care when you’ve had a baby and want to go back to work. Programs up and down the valley are filled to overflowing. There is a point where they have to turn people away. The second part is the cost of quality child care. We’ve got a lot of folks in the service industry who make very low wages. At $55 to $60 a day for child care, that’s close to $15,000 a year. And if you have two children, oh my gosh.
ACF: Kids First is an attempt to answer those concerns in Aspen and Pitkin County. Tell us how the program works.
SR: The citizens of Aspen voted in 1989 to pass a tax that included affordable housing and child care. We were able to really look at the community needs and priorities and be able to address those. … There’s a lot to it, but I think of it as a three-legged stool — cost, capacity and quality (of child care services).
ACF: Please tell us about some of the ongoing efforts to address these issues in other parts of the valley.
SR: One of the four main goals of the Cradle to Career Initiative is getting kids ready for kindergarten. There are a lot of ways to tackle that, but we learned that there are areas between Aspen and Parachute where there are great things happening. There are also areas where it’s difficult. The Ready for Kindergarten Action Team really focused on Basalt-El Jebel, because there’s not nearly enough capacity for the (child care) needs in that community. The Business Roundtable for Youth Success has really helped pull folks together in the early-childhood community, local government and business. There’s a wide range of business people involved, and it’s incredibly encouraging that this range of people have identified the need for early-childhood education. They want things to happen and they bring expertise to the table that we in early-childhood education just don’t have. I think we’re all learning.
ACF: If you’re successful in somehow expanding affordable child care options in the midvalley, then what will that mean for the community?
SR: Clearly, parents will have good choices to find early childhood education when they need it, and our kids will have that experience before they go to (K-12) school. When (University of Chicago economist) James Heckman talks about early-childhood development, he says it drives success both in school and in life. In the short term, this will make our community more attractive for families, and in the long term it means the next generation will be ready to take the reins. Investing in early-childhood education is a cost-effective strategy.
Tamara Tormohlen is the executive director of the Aspen Community Foundation.
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