On a recent morning, 15 women gathered in a mint green classroom at First Lutheran Church in Longmont to learn more about the fundamentals of child care. They talked about mapping out daily schedules with time for reading activities, group play, meals and naps. They traded tips about the inexpensive educational materials available at Dollar Tree stores.
This was no Saturday morning babysitting boot camp. It was part of a 120-hour training course that will eventually earn participants a national child care credential.
What made the class unique was the women enrolled. Ranging in age from 20-something to 60-something, they were Spanish-speaking mothers, aunts and grandmas who care for the young children of friends and relatives in their homes. Some do it for free. Others earn a small wage.
Most are undocumented immigrants, and as a result not eligible to become licensed childcare providers in Colorado. Still, they are a critical part of Colorado’s early childhood workforce — one that is often overlooked in the policy realm.
In Colorado and nationally, so-called Family, Friend and Neighbor care is legal and ubiquitous. It cuts across racial and socioeconomic lines, with many parents choosing it because they know and trust the caregiver. While more than half of young Colorado children with working parents receive such care, the providers are often isolated and invisible.
“There’s not a database. They’re not connected to any system,” said Liz Houston, executive director of the Early Childhood Colorado Leadership Alliance.
This under-the-radar existence has meant little public awareness or support for such providers — and by extension the thousands of children in their care.
But with the growing push to make sure children are ready for school no matter what kind of child care they get, that’s changing.
The training session in Longmont is one example. It’s part of a program called Providers Advancing Student Outcomes, or PASO, run by the Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition. Funded mostly by grant money in four Front Range locations, it’s received national notice and represents one of the few initiatives targeted to Spanish-speaking providers.
“There’s not another program that’s as intensive as PASO out there,” said Valerie Gonzales, director of operations for the Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition.
There are other efforts, too, several coordinated by some the state’s early childhood councils. One, launched by the Denver Early Childhood Council with private grant money, was a shorter, less formal series of trainings for Family, Friend and Neighbor providers in two Denver neighborhoods. Both drew Spanish-speaking providers, although they were open to all providers. The Boulder, Arapahoe and Weld county councils have also led the way in working with Family, Friend and Neighbor providers, Houston said.
Houston’s organization, which works on behalf of Colorado’s 31 councils, also embarked on a recent effort to help unlicensed providers. Using $250,000 in federal money, the group awarded mini-grants to some Family, Friend and Neighbor providers who were seeking to become licensed.
While the women in the church classroom got ready to break for lunch, PASO graduate Maria Perez recounted her own experience in the program six years ago.
She was caring for her aunt’s three children as well as two of her own at the time.
“We didn’t know anything when we started,” she said. “It’s true. The first day I came I was like, ‘Wow, we know nothing about early education.”
But she stuck with it, earning a perfect attendance certificate and coming to appreciate how each class connected to the last like a series of train cars. Today, Perez, who arrived here from Mexico 11 years ago, heads the team that provides child care in the church nursery during PASO classes. She seeks out other PASO graduates to assist her because she knows they’re well-trained.
Perez is an enthusiastic evangelist for the program and the parent empowerment it promotes. Since she took the course, which is led by instructors known as “tias” or aunts, she’s referred 10 other women.
She also urges parents of her young charges to get involved in their kids’ schools and in the community. She points to her 17-year-old son — a responsible boy who’s helpful with his younger siblings and taking Advanced Placement classes at school.
“This is thanks to the fact that I am always involved,” she said. “And I am always trying to learn in any program…I always tell that to the parents; ‘Go to the classes and pay attention.’”
Flor Marquez, community engagement coordinator for Denver’s Early Childhood Council, found the same kind of enthusiasm in the training sessions she led in northeast and southwest Denver over the summer.
Participants, who learned about topics such as child abuse prevention, nutrition and discipline, saw the power in educating themselves, she said.
“They didn’t want the group to end,” she said
In fact, the southwest Denver group didn’t end. The women in it decided to keep meeting weekly even after its official conclusion. There’s no more grant money to support it, but Marquez helps out when she can.
Preliminary findings from an outside evaluation also show PASO is working. Besides significantly increasing providers’ scores on performance assessments, it showed that children in their care made gains too, especially on social-emotional skills.
It’s not cheap. The classes, coaching and materials cost about $10,000 per person.
“There is sticker shock,” said Gonzales.
Currently, PASO is grant-funded and gets some additional dollars from the Boulder Valley and St. Vrain Valley school districts. In Aurora, the program is now on hiatus because the grant money recently ran out.
Gonzales wishes state money were available to help.
Some critics have argued that undocumented immigrants don’t deserve such support, but Gonzales notes that the children served by such providers are typically born here and will attend school here. Most come from low-income Latino families and will be on the wrong side of the achievement gap if they don’t get a strong start.
Marquez said much of the state funding available to help child care providers improve is focused on those who are already licensed or heading in that direction.
“I definitely think it creates a huge challenge…because these are grassroots programs that require a lot of time and effort for recruitment and sustainability,” she said.
With no master list of Family, Friend and Neighbor providers, groups that want to work with them spend lots of time on outreach — going to churches, laundromats, community events and even door-to-door.
Houston, who is hoping to secure another round of state funding for mini-grants, said while the state has done a tremendous job making improvements to its licensed child care system, more needs to be done for Family, Friend and Neighbor providers.
“It’s in the best interest of all of us to support providers across the board,” she said.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.