When Sheridan Brull and her husband moved to Durango from Kansas a couple years ago, finding care for their 1-year-old daughter was “unimaginably hard,” she said.
“I think I Googled and called about 20 different places and left messages, and got no calls back,” said Brull, who was starting a job as an English teacher at Durango High School.
Although a neighbor eventually helped her find a spot at a local child care center, Brull’s initial dead-end search illustrates just how tough it can be for working parents to line up dependable child care, especially for infants and toddlers. Such predicaments can have wide-ranging consequences for schools, forcing young teachers to look for jobs elsewhere or quit altogether, and leaving students with a revolving door of instructors.
School districts in Colorado and the nation are increasingly trying to solve such problems by offering in-house care to district employees. While not free, the programs are convenient — aligned to district calendars and often located down the hall or down the street from teachers’ classrooms.
Both the 5,000-student Durango district in southwestern Colorado and the 31,000-student Boulder Valley district in the state’s populous Front Range will open child care programs for infants and toddlers in the next two weeks — both to be housed in district high schools. Leaders in the tiny West End district in western Colorado plan to launch an infant and toddler program at the district’s elementary school sometime this fall.
Last fall, a fourth district, the rural 750-student Dolores district in southwestern Colorado, opened an infant and toddler program in the same location as its preschool, a half a block away from the district’s main campus.
Together, the four district-run child care programs could soon produce about 80 full-time slots for infants and toddlers in Colorado. It’s a relatively small number in a state lacking licensed care for about 93,000 of 244,000 young children being raised by two working parents or a working single parent. Still, the programs help beef up local child care ecosystems, and represent a promising piece of the state’s teacher recruitment and retention puzzle.
Like non-salary benefits such as district-provided housing or loan forgiveness, child care could give some Colorado school districts a competitive edge in attracting staff. The state’s average teacher salary is about 15 percent below the national average of $59,660 and a recent report on teacher shortages found that 95 percent of rural districts paid average salaries below the local cost of living.
But some observers say that statewide solutions are needed to fix Colorado’s school funding crisis, not individual district investments in things like employee child care.
Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, said in an email, “While CEA is very appreciative of those school districts using innovative approaches to attract and retain quality teachers, the state should not keep putting districts in the unenviable position of meeting student needs with stopgap funding solutions.”
A persistent problem
The creation of district-run child care for staff often starts with a nagging need — then a brainstorm. That’s what happened in the 317-student West End district near Colorado’s western border with Utah.
“Being in a rural area specifically … we had just been going through hard times being able to keep and attract qualified people,” said Hank Nelson, principal of Naturita Elementary School.
Starting salaries in the district are about $30,000 a year.
Nelson knew of a handful of respected teachers who were scrambling to find workable care for their small children. Christine Harty, the high school science teacher, was one of them.
The Norwood child care center she settled on for her now 2-year-old son — one of the few options in the region — was 40 minutes from her home and a half hour from her classroom at Nucla High School.
“It’s an expensive daycare and it’s a lot of gas to get there, but it’s just what you do to have peace of mind,” said Harty, who will start her 4-month-old daughter at the Norwood center this week.
Nelson said his idea of the perfect school has long included child care, a natural preface to district-run preschool and then kindergarten.
Learning, he said, “doesn’t start at 5 years old, it starts much younger.”
Nelson floated the idea of an infant and toddler center to the West End superintendent last year. He was game, so with the help of the local early childhood council and economic development corporation, the project slowly took off.
The new program — called Colt Care after the elementary school mascot — will enroll 13 youngsters and be housed in a portable classroom at Nelson’s school. The district’s preschool program is in an adjacent portable.
While the district is still working to raise money to finish outfitting the new center, Nelson hopes it will open by October.
“We’re very confident that we’re going to have a waiting list,” he said.
Once it’s up and running — and equipped to accept the state child care subsidies — Harty said she’ll consider moving her kids to Colt Care.
“The fact that they’re only five minutes from my work is very appealing,” she said. “We haven’t had a daycare facility in the community for I don’t know how many years.”
Preparing to launch
For districts adding on-site child care programs, one commonality is extra space.
In the Dolores and West End districts, which are about 85 miles apart, there were portable buildings available. In Durango, a larger community in southwestern Colorado, there were free classrooms across from the high school’s welding shop. In Boulder Valley, district officials repurposed nursery space previously earmarked for the children of students in the district’s dwindling teen parent program.
Perhaps tougher than finding space is undertaking renovations or equipment purchases to ensure new child care centers and playgrounds adhere to the slew of state rules governing child care facilities. It’s not cheap.
Vangi McCoy, a Dolores school board member and coordinator of the Montelores Early Childhood Council, said the district’s 15-slot infant and toddler center — part of its Teddy Bear preschool — was a community effort. Local contractors provided plumbing and electrical services for free, gravel and fill dirt were donated, and town officials waived permit fees. The district also used about $25,000 in grants to get the job done.
McCoy, who calls the new center a godsend, said, “It’s a great way to show district employees that you appreciate them, to align educational goals from the very beginning … It was really worth the effort here in Dolores.”
In Boulder County, there’s not the same dearth of child care that plagues rural communities like Dolores, but district officials say the new center, called Early Connections, will benefit staff.
“The advantage, of course, for teachers is it’s only open and you’re only charged for the days you’re here,” said Joan Bludorn, principal of the Arapahoe Campus where the nursery is located.
Tuition at the 40-spot center is similar to local market rates — $1,550 a month for toddlers and $1,600 for infants. But district officials say teachers will save about $3,000 annually by not having to pay for child care during summer and school breaks. While Boulder Valley has some of the highest teacher salaries in the state, the cost of living is also high there.
While district-run centers like the one in Boulder are designed around the needs of teachers and other district staff, community members will be able to use them too if there’s space.
In Durango, where work crews are scrambling to finish the new infant and toddler center before its August 13 opening day, Sheridan Brull, the high school English teacher, is looking forward to having her 10-month old son just one floor below her second-story classroom. (Her daughter, now 3, will stay in the child care center she’s attended since the family first relocated to Durango.)
It doesn’t surprise Brull that more and more school districts are providing child care to staff.
“I think it’s smart,” she said. “When I look at where education is in our country right now, something is going to have to give in order to keep teachers, who are primarily women, in the career.”
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.