Eagle Valley Community Foundation: The childcare gap in Eagle County
According to a study by Qualistar Colorado, the annual cost of sending your child to preschool in Eagle County is $11,100 a year. The same study found that the average annual cost for childcare for young children is $13,000 which is 53% higher than the median cost across U.S. school districts.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has stated that no more than 10 percent of a family’s income should be spent on childcare for it to be considered affordable. However, in reality, low-income families spend a much larger portion of their income on childcare.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, families above the federal poverty line spend an average of 8 percent of their income on childcare, whereas families below the federal poverty line spend an average of 30 percent.
Feeling the pinch locally
Pamela Ramos, a Gypsum resident and mother of three, said she recently had to quit her job and stay home to take care of her kids because she was spending so much of her income on childcare.
“When we first moved here, Santiago was 5,” she said. “For him to attend preschool, in Avon, it was $30 a day and then an extra $3 a day for his lunch. So I went to work and made $60, $70 a day at the restaurant then half of that is already gone.”
Ramos said these costs do not include the money she spent on transportation and additional childcare after Santiago got out of school for the day.
“All of the jobs that I was looking into, they start at 6 or 7 in the morning and then these preschools they start at 8 a.m. and end at 3 p.m.,” she said. “But if you don’t get out of work until 5 p.m. then you end up paying somebody else to go pick up your kid and watch them.”
‘It just feels … impossible’
Based on population and enrollment figures provided in the 2015 Eagle County Child Care Market Assessment, 4,300 children from birth to age 5 live in Eagle County. Approximately two-thirds have one or more parents employed, yielding 2,881 children who may need childcare. Infants and toddlers comprise roughly half of that number.
Currently, there are 1,500 children in licensed care, leaving 1,381 children whose families may need or want licensed care, but may not be getting it. Many of these families will choose license-exempt family, friend or neighbor care, while others may turn to unlicensed care, juggle work schedules, or sacrifice employment to have one parent stay home.
“You don’t know where to go to get services and you don’t know if the bus will get you there and you don’t know if you’ll be eligible,” Ramos said. “I don’t know, it just feels … impossible.”
Ramos said that she relies heavily on family members to take care of her two youngest children. Even now, she said that whenever she has to leave the house her oldest daughter Veronica (15) is often tasked with looking after Santiago (6) and Daniela (9 months).
“I have to basically rely 100% on my sister-in-law or Roni,” she said. “And if they’re not available like if my sister is gone and Roni is at school then I can’t do anything, I can’t go to work. I’ve thought about having Roni skip school for the day but then I know that’s not right.”
Ramos said that, ultimately, she had to weigh whether she should try to keep a job so that the family could save up to repair their car (which has been sitting in the driveway since breaking down a few weeks ago) or whether she should stay home so that her daughter can go to school and lead a normal, teenage life.
“I grew up taking care of all of my siblings so I know how hard it is to manage that with everything else going on in your life as a kid, as a teenager,” she said. “It’s really hard and then you don’t get to go out and be a kid yourself because you’re stuck at home being, like, a parent.”
“I always tell Roni, you know, you have to focus on school. But then it doesn’t make sense for me to say that and then, at the same time, ask her to focus on taking care of the kids too,” she added.
For this reason, Ramos said she quit her job to be more present for her kids, which has made things very tight financially. Ramos worked in education for a while when she was still living in Mexico and said that she understands how important it is for children to have access to a good education, especially in the early years of their lives.
“To me, education is very important and at that age they should be exploring, learning, getting to know things and using all of their senses to learn,” she said.
Critical for success
According to Ounce of Prevention, a Chicago-based organization which develops early childhood education solutions for low-income communities, “Nearly 5 million children under the age of 5 live in poverty in the U.S. and the majority don’t have access to high-quality early childhood programs that could dramatically improve their future. The first five years of a child’s life are critical for setting the foundations for lifelong health, learning and success.”
Ramos said that many low-income families in Eagle County understand this, but are simply unable to afford the rates at local childcare centers and, thus, have to turn to cheaper alternatives.
“If you can’t afford daycare, then you end up just trying to find a babysitter and with that, you never know how qualified they are,” Ramos said. “I have no idea like if they know CPR, if they are good with kids, if they’re going to engage with the kids. There are a lot of babysitters who just sit the kids in front of the TV all day or who are taking care of 6 or 7 or 8 kids at once.”
While statements like these outline the need for childcare providers to be properly certified and trained in how to support young children in the most important years of their development, trained childcare providers are still paid very poorly and often do not receive the support they need.
Trying to fill the gap
Eagle Valley Community Foundation is working with Colorado Mountain College to try to close the childcare gap in Eagle County by empowering and supporting the next generation of early childhood education professionals.
By providing professional development scholarships to students currently studying or interested in pursuing a career in early childhood education, ECVF is not only increasing the quality of care given by individuals currently in the field, but also incentivizing others to enter the field. So far, EVCF has provided scholarships to 60 students studying early childhood education at CMC over a period of 10 semesters. The organization also works with CMC to provide childcare for students while they are in class.
“I’m really grateful for the ECE scholarship because it has allowed me to attend classes and still make my rent and have food to eat,” one student, Jill Romanek, said. “Without the scholarship I would be taking one class at a time and struggling to pay rent.”
Another scholarship recipient, Maria Cage, said, “In my two years returning to the Vail Valley, I am both alarmed by the level of need in the ECE field and likewise heartened by philanthropic efforts to move our professionals and environments closer to meeting standards of developmentally and culturally appropriate practice to better support young children and their families.”
Director of Community Impact for EVCF, Susie Davis, said that the early childhood education scholarship program is very near and dear to her heart.
“Early childhood professionals are a special breed, their open hearts, their endless patience and thoughtful approach with children helps to grow good humans,” Davis said. “We are lucky that 60 people in our community care enough to expand their education to keep offering what’s best for our community’s kids.”
Davis said that while the response to the scholarship program fills her with hope for the future of access to childcare in Eagle County, she knows there is still much work to be done in order to truly close the gap.
Kelli Duncan is a marketing and volunteer coordinator with The Community Market, a project of Eagle Valley Community Foundation.