Momentum growing in SLV early childhood services

ALAMOSA — “There is so much momentum and recognition that we’re seeing and hearing right now.”

That statement was part of an update provided by Sherry Valdez, director of the Early Childhood Council of the San Luis Valley, in a presentation made to Alamosa City Council. According to Valdez, the Early Childhood Council has been in existence in the Valley for 20 years. The summary of ongoing activity reflects a busy time.

Topping the list — universal pre-school.

On April 25 of this year, Governor Jared Polis signed into law HB22-1295, creating a state-funded, no-cost to families, pre-school program, which will begin in the fall of 2023. The program provides 10 hours per week of pre-school to each child in Colorado before they start kindergarten.

As part of that legislation, a new state department — the Department of Early Childhood — has been created, absorbing the work of several existing agencies, such as the Child Care Assistant Program, and charged with the selection of local coordinating organizations (LCO) who will assist in helping families apply for the program and recruiting local providers into the network.

Valdez said the hope is to have the facilities needed to provide the pre-school and, if more help is needed, other funding available to meet the need.

“We’re both excited and scared,” she said.

In terms of discussing which SLV based organization should apply to be the Local Coordinating Organization to help families and providers “navigate the system”, four community meetings were held in the last several months, including people from the school districts, directors of Social Services in the different counties, other non-profit organizations, and county administrations.

Through the course of those meetings, consensus was reached that the Early Childhood Council was the organization most suited to fill the role.

“It’s what the council is already doing,” Valdez said. “We help families navigate systems, we connect them to needed services, we support licensed childcare providers and help new ones become licensed and have a strong professional development program with scholarships and on-going training,” she said.

The Early Childhood Council will apply to be the LCO within the next 10 days, Valdez said, followed by a planning period. That plan, due to the state department in the fall, will also be developed with input from the same groups who were already part of the discussion about pre-selecting a LOC.

“Year one will be universal pre-school,” Valdez said. “The following years will be spent connecting families with all services available to them, including home visitation and early child intervention.”

Valdez also briefed council on a local grassroots initiative, that has already been working for about two-and-a-half years. Known as the SLV Child Care and Early Learning Initiative, the group involves employers, key leaders with an investment in childcare services, school districts, Adams State University, Alamosa City Council, Valley Wide and SLV Health.

The purpose of the group is to increase access to licensed childcare, as the lack of access is being reported by employers as a barrier to recruitment and retention.

“This is seen as a great need in the community,” Valdez said, with employers being unable to hire employees because “they don’t have childcare.”

In addition to increasing access to employees, the group also has a goal of seeking out schools to serve as “lab schools” that will not only serve as a benchmark including best practices but also as an opportunity to develop and educate a new workforce to meet the growing demand in licensed childcare providers.

The SLV Boys and Girls Club is also working “under that umbrella”, Valdez said, and referenced discussions about building/renovating an existing site for new classrooms.

They have “chosen a model to put in place” and will be looking for grant funding, but Valdez recognized that the cost “keeps going up and up.” The project, originally estimated at costing $4.3 million would now cost closer to $5 million.

In closing her presentation, Valdez highlighted the strong collaboration and community partnerships that have been built in place in both discussions around implementation of universal pre-school and increased access to employee-based licensed childcare facilities – both of which demonstrate the high priority placed on early childhood education among members of the community.