Eagle County Schools gets grants to address early childhood capacity downvalley

The grants will help support the expansion of services, resources and facilities in the Gypsum area

Eagle County Schools has recently been awarded grant funds to begin design work for a potential new early learning center as well as to outdoor learning centers in Gypsum.
Eagle County Schools/Courtesy Photos

The need for additional early child care options has grown in tandem with the recent population growth in down valley communities such as Dotsero, Gypsum and Eagle. In order to keep up with the increasing demand, Eagle County school district has sought out and recently received grant funding to address capacity issues. 

At the district’s board of education meeting on Wednesday, July 13, the board discussed the terms of the first recently awarded grant as it relates to building a new Early Learning Center in Gypsum.

Eagle County Schools’ Chief Operating Officer Sandy Farrell said the grant would allow the district “to address early care and learning capacity in the Gypsum area.”

The grant — which was awarded by the state of Colorado — would bring just over $1 million to the district to pursue the center. According to Farrell, $800,000 of this is from the state, with the county and district matching $125,000.   

Due to the parameters of the grant, the board had to approve an attestation to the district’s direction in pursuing the down valley early learning center. This attestation stipulates that while the district intends to use the grant funds for design work on the site, the grant award is “contingent on the passing of a ballot measure to fund the construction of the building,” according to a report to the board.

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Should the ballot measure not pass, the district would be responsible for repaying the funds received from the state. The attestation holds that the district has three years to raise funds for the building. Once the center is built, the district is also required to keep it operational for five years.

“They want to make sure once they grant an organization a large amount of money that it goes to keeping it in operation, they don’t just open it, sell it and move on,” Farrell said.

The contemplated Early Learning Center would provide approximately 35,800 square feet and serve 290 children through:

  • 12 preschool classrooms supporting a capacity of 180 students;
  • Seven toddler rooms supporting a capacity of 70 children; and
  • Five infant rooms with a capacity for 40 children.

This count not only includes the current eight preschool classrooms at Red Hill and Gypsum Elementary — which Farrell said would move to the new center, freeing up classroom space at those schools for additional kindergarten through fifth-grade classes — but also rooms to help meet growing demand. With the center, the question is not will the district be able to fill those 290 spots, but rather “Is it going to be big enough?” Farrell said.

“There are additional classrooms added for kids we have on waiting lists and students that don’t attend preschool because of location. So, we would want to be able to pick up those,” she said. “It also comes from data and information we’ve gotten from the county and from polling on how many families are doing without preschool because there is nothing there.”

According to the board report, priority enrollment would be given to Eagle County school district and government employees with additional spaces provided and funded through the new statewide universal preschool, Head Start and Early Head Start. This, Farrell said, would allow the site to encompass three- to five-year-olds as well as infant toddlers.

The site in question is located next to Red Hill Elementary School and Gypsum Creek Middle School, with the district looking to use the site for both the center and employee housing. The design work, Farrell said on Wednesday, would include work for both the early learning center and housing facilities.

Design costs, she added, will likely exceed the grant amount “to get them clear to the construction documents,” but is necessary.

“It’s a process we would go through anyway because we have such a need for early learning centers in the west end of the valley and additional housing. Even if we’re not able to get capital funding for it, we would still want and need to pay these directly from our budget in order to get these facilities up and running,” Farrell said. “We have a need to do this and the more work we can do now to prepare for that funding, the better off we will be and in a position to actually get the capital funds and get the center open.”

With the board approving the attestation on Wednesday, Farrell said the worst-case scenario would be that the district spends all the state grant funds through the design process, gets as far as it can on the project, has to go to the voters for a bond to build the facility, the voters deny the bond, and therefore, the project does not get funded capital wise in the next three years.

“If that occurs, we pay the $800,000 back to the state for the grant out of our capital reserve, which would be transferred from our general fund,” she said.

Ideal learning grant

The district also recently was awarded with an additional $22,800 from the Early Milestones Colorado and Trust for Learning. The district — alongside five other recipients — was awarded funding from the Expanding Ideal Learning Environments in Pre-K Through Kindergarten grants initiative in its inaugural year.  

According to a press release, the awardees were selected based on which projects “center educators and their ongoing professional development as core components of successful implementation of ideal learning approaches and serve primarily historically marginalized communities.”

The tenants of “ideal learning” are defined by Early Milestones Colorado as “an approach that focuses on all aspects of a young child’s development, including physical, academic and social-emotional growth.”

The Eagle County School District will use the funding from the grant to “strengthen a new preschool classroom’s alignment with the ideal learning principals,” according to the release.

Specifically, it says the district will establish new outdoor learning centers at Gypsum Elementary School. Additionally, it will “create a classroom environment that authentically represents, embraces, and celebrates the different languages and cultures of the children and their families.” 

Shelley Smith, the district’s director of early childhood education, said the money will “help fund the classroom materials for the classroom we are adding in Gypsum.”

Both grants, according to Matt Miano, the chief communications officer for the district, are helping Eagle County Schools “make incremental progress toward additional preschool options and greater resources and access to classroom materials downvalley and we will continue to pursue opportunities as they present themselves.”

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