Totally Tots in Hayden nears opening, will add much needed slots for child care
HAYDEN — Miranda Watts is making an unexpected return to the high school she graduated from in 2014, but the building is no longer Hayden High School, and she isn’t a student.
In this classroom, she’s the teacher.
“It’s just cool to see the building alive again,” Watts said. “I had math class in this classroom, and now I’m teaching in this classroom.”
Instead of teaching freshman algebra, Watts will be in charge of a group of toddlers at the Yampa Valley’s newest child care center — one that has been in the making for nearly three decades.
Located inside the Hayden Cernter, Totally Tots doesn’t have a firm opening date yet, as it’s awaiting appropriate state licensing, but the new child care center is expected to open in the coming weeks. Even though it’s not open, Totally Tots already has is a waitlist, underscoring the need for more child care facilities not only in Hayden but across the valley.
Access to child care locally hit a critical point last summer when the only center in South Routt County was forced to close because of a lack of staffing. Totally Tots won’t replace all 40 spots lost, but adding some more will be helpful.
Hayden Mayor Zach Wuestewald said when the town began discussing the prospect of buying the old high school to create the Hayden Center, space for child care was always a central piece.
With the town renovating and owning the space and the nonprofit operating the center, the hope is to make it sustainable long term. It’s a model currently being studied in Steamboat Springs.
“(Town leaders) wanted something to be the heart of the town,” said Celena Frentress, preschool teacher at Totally Tots, referring to the Hayden Center. “Child care is the heart of the town.”
Founded in 1994, Totally Kids’ original goal was to build a child care center in Hayden, where the only local options are a couple home providers.
But Caroline Gregory, who was on the board at the time and has since become director of Totally Kids, said the dynamic of Hayden likely wouldn’t have been able to support it then.
“They had family members around, or they were seasonal workers, so it just felt like a day care center wasn’t feasible,” Gregory said. “Things have changed.”
Now, Hayden is a small community with big ambitions, as it transitions away from an economy dominated by coal power production. Hayden’s population grew by 7% since the 2010 census, a faster pace than the county as a whole.
Gregory said Totally Tots opening will mean Totally Kids has come full circle, adding a piece of the community they long felt it needed. Town Manager Mathew Mendisco said building the child care facility is one of the most important projects the town has done in decades.
“How are people going to get to their jobs if they don’t have child care?” Mendisco asked rhetorically. “The economic benefits for a community to have a child care center, the return on investment is huge.”
Run by locals
In addition to Watts, Frentress is also a graduate of Hayden High School. Totally Tots Director Maggie Tucci is a graduate of Moffat County High School in Craig. Each of them now lives in Hayden.
“Locals helping locals,” Watts said.
The center will offer infant, toddler and preschool care, covering children as young as 8 weeks old. Both the infant and toddler programs, which can take seven and 10 children, respectively, are already full, with some families signing up months before they expect to give birth. It will be a regional asset with children from Craig and Steamboat already signed up to attend.
Angela Pleshe, program leader for First Impressions of Routt County, the local early childhood education council, said these infant and toddler spots are the hardest to come by in Routt County because they require higher student-to-teacher ratios, making them more expensive to run. Many centers locally don’t even offer infant care.
There is still room in the preschool program, likely because there already is a preschool program through the Hayden School District.
“I’m sure that once the word gets out, we’ll definitely pick up more,” Frentress said.
A new model
The town is renovating the Hayden Center, including all of the space occupied by Totally Tots. Mendisco said the town is waiting to hear back about several grants, and if they all come in as hoped, renovations on the community center could be done by September.
If they are not awarded some grants, work may be split into phases, but the Totally Tots segment is complete except for a few finishing touches, like a washer and dryer. The town and Totally Tots have a contract to use the space, which is separated from much of the community center.
While child care is often an issue advocated for by those affected, Mendisco said adding child care center was a top priority for residents when surveyed about their hopes for the Hayden Center.
“The biggest thing is that we want to see this survive and be sustainable for the future,” Wuestewald said.
Steamboat Springs and Routt County officials are studying the same model — a government entity providing the space and a nonprofit operating the child care center.
Pleshe said a feasibility study should have results back in February or March.
“The difference with us is that we will have to construct an entirely new facility,” Pleshe said.
Pleshe said the study hopes to take a look at all potential variables, like how big the center could be, what age groups it would serve and how much it would cost to recruit and retain adequate staffing. It also will explore funding avenues, which may result in a ballot measure.
“It’s probably going to come down to whether the city and county want to subsidize the program,” Pleshe said. “Then, secondly, if we are able to find the teachers to staff it.”
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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