‘Fingers crossed’: Child care still a crisis in Routt County

Parents are camping in parking lots for a spot, while centers are limiting capacity until they can find more staff

Melinda Maas, executive director at Heritage Park Preschool west of Steamboat Springs, gives direction to parents lined up for the early childhood education center's registration at 7 a.m. Thursday, April 14. Seventeen families showed up hoping to get their child one of the school’s available spots.
Dylan Anderson/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Last Wednesday, April 13, Jason Breakstone slept in the Heritage Park Preschool parking lot.

Breakstone lives in Broomfield, but his family is making a move to Steamboat Springs this summer. The timing works out well for Breakstone’s 11-year-old to start sixth grade in the fall, something Breakstone hopes will aid the transition. But he and his wife are less sure about the couple’s 3-year-old.

It was difficult to find a full-day preschool on the Front Range, and they heard it was even worse on the Western Slope.

After calling around to several child care centers in town, Breakstone’s wife learned of a first-come, first-serve opportunity at Heritage Park.

Determined to be first in line, Breakstone showed up at the school at 8 p.m. Wednesday — 11 hours before the center’s registration was set to start. He traded off sitting in a camp chair by the school’s door and in his vehicle, where he had a small sleeping pad. Law enforcement paid him a visit during the night.

At 7 a.m. Thursday, April 14, Breakstone was first in line, but there were not any open spots. Instead, he had to put his name on a waitlist.

Bloomfield resident Jason Breakstone, who is moving to Steamboat this summer, drove up and spent Wednesday, April 13, night in the Heritage Park Preschool parking lot hoping to get his name first on the school’s waitlist, as they currently don’t anticipate any preschool openings.
Dylan Anderson/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Breakstone was one of 17 families that showed up early at Heritage Park on Thursday.

The school has just five summer spots available, and 10 for the fall — all for toddlers between 12 and 36 months.

Unless something changes with current families, Heritage Park doesn’t have a spot for Breakstone’s child.

“We were hoping there was going to be one spot, but it sounds like one of the existing families ended up snabbing it,” Breakstone said. “Fingers crossed.”

Last August, a child care center closed in South Routt County, and the lack of early childhood education was elevated to a crisis level. Routt County Commissioners held a summit on the issue, and the forum was heavily attended.

The county and city have partnered to explore the possibility of building a child care center.

Also, Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp. announced in October the company would build its own center for staff. Then a new center, Totally Tots, opened in Hayden in January. The Steamboat Springs School district also plans to expand preschool spots this fall.

Before the end of the session, the Colorado General Assembly is expected to create a new Department of Early Childhood, elevating the issue to a cabinet level in state government.

Despite all of this, access to child care in Routt County remains a crisis.

“(Centers) still need staff — quite a bit,” said Angela Pleshe, program leader for First Impressions of Routt County, the local early childhood council. “That was the issue in the fall and the summer last year and that continues to be an issue.”

Melinda Maas, executive director of Heritage Park Preschool, sits with children as they eat a snack last fall. The center is converting a preschool room to a toddler room this fall, hoping to better serve the need locally, which is especially limited for infants and toddlers.
Shelby Reardon/Steamboat Pilot & Today

At Discovery Learning Center, another person got in line the night before registration last week, but Executive Director Colleen Miller said they are not taking new children until the center can add more teachers.

Executive Director of Young Tracks Kim Martin said they are so short-staffed that hiring four more people would only open up room for four more students.

Pleshe said it is still too early to see the fruits of various efforts to ease the situation, and there is more in the works. On Thursday, she submitted a grant application to help local centers better advertise their open positions.

But the leaders of several local centers say the heart of the problem is the lack of respect for early childhood education as a viable career path in general, which has left them with few responses to their job postings.

“We’re willing to hire somebody that has a passion for early childhood education and wants to learn about it and grow within an organization,” Miller said. “We’re just not finding that level of interest.”

Heritage Park Preschool Executive Director Melinda Maas said early childhood education needs to better appeal to people entering the workforce to ensure they can recruit the people who have a passion for it.
Shelby Reardon/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Pay is difficult, but at Discovery Learning Center Miller, teachers are paid around $50,000 a year with full benefits. Still, the director has only received about 15 applicants in the last year and a half.

Miller said she tries to balance keeping the cost for families reasonable — who in Routt County pay on average $16,000 a year per child — while paying teachers a livable wage. For some, increasing pay hasn’t helped them retain their staff.

“We did pretty substantial raises last year, and I still lost people,” Martin said. “And I lost people to other industries. They’re not even staying in the field.”

Martin said the industry needs to find ways to better appeal to those entering the workforce, so that a job in early childhood education seems just as attractive as a schoolteacher.

“We just need more funding for early childhood,” said Melinda Maas, executive director at Heritage Park Preschool. “It’s a really hard job … but if you’ve got the passion for it, you should be here.”

Routt County Commissioner Beth Melton said she believes businesses’ efforts to expand access would likely produce the fastest results. Steamboat Resort hopes to open its center by the end of the year with space for about 35 children.

Depending on the definition, all or parts of Routt County are considered a child care desert, and were before the pandemic began. Then there are staffing issues too, Melton said.

“Let’s say we could come up with some way to pay people $50 an hour to do child care, would we be able to bring in enough staff?” Melton asked, adding she didn’t know the answer.

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