Eagle County launches early-childhood information, subsidy programs
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• For more information about Eagle County’s Grow and Thrive campaign, visit www.ourmtnfamilies.org.
EAGLE — Eagle County officials believe early-childhood education is an issue that affects all locals, not just parents and kids.
There is widespread research that shows children who have access to early-childhood education are more likely to do well in school and, ultimately, earn higher wages, live healthier lives and give back to their communities. Additionally, the availability of early-childhood education helps parents balance the demands of work and the challenges of raising kids.
But the benefits from early-childhood programs don’t stop with families, county representatives stress. When parents and kids reap the benefits of quality early-childhood education, local employers don’t lose qualified workers because mom or dad has to stay home with children.
Beginning this summer, the county has launched three different efforts aimed at supporting local early-childhood education. The first is basic — they want people to understand the scope of the need.
Grow and Thrive
In mid-June, Eagle County launched a public information campaign called “Grow and Thrive” that outlines both the benefits of early-childhood programs and the local need.
“We want to raise awareness that this isn’t just an issue for parents,” said Michelle Dibos, Eagle County Early Childhood Systems coordinator.
According to a child-care assessment completed for Eagle County by an organization called Corona Insights, there is a significant shortage of early-childhood education programs in mountain communities. There are only 45 licensed child-care options in the entire Eagle River Valley to serve the estimated 4,300 children ages 5 and younger. Capacity for infant care is even more scarce (by 44 percent) than the limited options for 3- to 5-year-olds. As a result of this scarcity, wait lists for licensed programs can run into the hundreds.
Cost is another factor complicating the local child care scenario. The few early-childhood education options that do exist in Eagle County are cost-prohibitive for many families who struggle under the financial pressures of living and working here. Lower-income families in Eagle County can receive child-care assistance through federal programs such as Head Start and state programs such as Colorado’s Child Care Assistance Program, but many middle-income mountain families earn too much to qualify for federal help.
As noted in a local study called the Eagle County Early Childhood Roadmap, Colorado is the seventh most expensive state in America for child care. The average cost of child care for a 4-year-old in Colorado is $9,619 annually, and $12,736 annually for infants — double the cost of a year of tuition and fees at one of the state’s colleges or universities.
“This makes early-childhood education programs cost-prohibitive for many of our Eagle County families, where the cost of living is the seventh highest in the state and the cost of childcare is 53 percent higher than the median across all school districts in Colorado,” notes the Grow and Thrive campaign information.
“Many mountain families cannot afford to have a parent stay home with their children, nor can they afford the cost of an early-childhood education program or child care.”
Dibos said the lack and cost of programs filters from homes to business when parents can’t return to work because they can’t find child care.
“Abundant, affordable early-childhood education programs empower parents to return to work more readily and contribute to the economy more reliably,” notes the Grow and Thrive campaign. “Supporting early-childhood education can help our local businesses attract and retain a workforce that is present, prepared and productive.”
It’s a recognized economic principle that one way to decrease cost is to increase availability. Eagle County is applying that strategy to the local early-childhood education issue where the need is most acute — infant and toddler care.
The county has earmarked $220,000 in 2018 to launch a subsidy program for licensed infant/toddler-care providers in the Eagle River Valley.
“We know that running an infant/toddler child-care program is highly expensive, and we recognize that offering these services is critical to making Eagle County a great place to live,” Dibos said.
She noted the subsidy program includes parameters and eligibility requirements to incentivize quality programs. Applications are available online.
According to Dibos, nearly $113,000 has been allocated to four large child-care centers and one home-based center since the county launched the program in June.
“With that, we have been able to expand 110 to 115 infant and toddler spots,” she said.
Dibos said the county hopes to see more small, home-based programs take advantage of the subsidy program.
Expanding available child-care options in the county means finding qualified professionals to work at centers or open home-based licensed programs. Incentives for child-care workers is a second funding focus for the county.
The county has earmarked $90,000 in 2018 for salary supplements for early-childhood professionals.
“We want to recognize the valuable work these professionals do,” Dibos said. “The reality is we don’t always have enough qualified staff for local child-care centers.”
Early-childhood professionals who have been employed at a licensed facility in the Eagle River Valley for a year or more may be eligible to receive these funds. The supplements range from $425 to $550 per year, depending on qualifications. Nearly $18,000 has been allocated to qualified applicants during the program’s first month.
Dibos said the county is getting great feedback from both the subsidy and salary supplement efforts. Along with handing out money, Dibos said the programs are designed to collect data so the county can expand its information about the availability, quality and need for early-childhood services.
And, as the Grow and Thrive campaign states, the goal is to present a key takeaway about the Eagle River Valley’s early-childhood education environment— “Our mountain children, families and local businesses don’t have the early-childhood program options we need to succeed.”
The valley’s commercial and residential property markets are similar in some ways — availability is tight and nothing is what you’d call “cheap.”