Justice Wofford spent a month driving her daughter from her home in Mancos to River Mist preschool east of Durango so she could attend class at Fort Lewis College during the spring semester. In the end, Wofford took her daughter, Eden, out of the preschool.
“It didn’t really work out, it was just too far,” she said.
Wofford began looking for a preschool for Eden, 4½, before school started, but like many other parents in the area, she faced waiting lists. River Mist was the first one with an opening.
After Eden stopped attending River Mist, she often attended class with her mom. It wasn’t ideal, but her professors didn’t prohibit it.
“They are pretty chill about it,” she said.
Wofford’s struggle to find child care is common in La Plata County.
Child care is available for about 44 percent of all children younger than 5 years old in the county, but 62 percent of families report both parents are working, said Heather Hawk, executive director of the Early Childhood Council of La Plata County.
Early childhood care is important because it allows parents to work and helps support brain development, she said.
“Brain development in the first five years of life has lasting impact on lifelong physical, social and intellectual development. This learning starts very early in life through sound, sight and touch,” she said.
To help meet the need, several groups in town, including Durango School District 9-R, Early Childhood Council of La Plata County and others, are working to increase the early education workforce and expand the availability of child care.
Durango High School plans to offer classes for students to study early childhood education in the fall to help bolster the workforce, said Libby Culver, the district’s coordinator of early childhood programs.
“We are trying to be really responsive to the needs of our kids and the community,” she said.
Students who complete all the coursework could go to work immediately or continue studying education, she said.
The district will also start offering child care this fall for infants and toddlers, up to 3 years old, for district and high school staff members.
The early childhood center at the high school expects to serve 13 children, and it will double as a learning lab for high school students, Culver said.
“It’s going to be a rich environment,” she said.
The district will also open a 12th preschool classroom this fall at Sunnyside Elementary School.
The additional classroom was needed in part because of the increasing number of children in La Plata County with learning disabilities. The district must provide free preschool to children who have a disability after they turn 3 years old, Culver said.
The number of children with disabilities in the district has increased from 24 in 2009 to 54 in 2017.
All these children are integrated into classrooms, and it’s in the best interest of all the students if they are dispersed among different classes.
“We are committed as a district to the best learning environment for all kids, which means inclusion,” she said.
The Early Childhood Council of La Plata County is also expanding child care by distributing grants to private child care providers to open new businesses, expand their facilities and add classrooms. The El Pomar Foundation and the Colorado Department of Human Services funded the efforts. Some of the grant money through the state could be used for furniture, learning materials, curriculum and professional development as well.
Between 2013 and 2017, the council provided funding for private businesses to serve an additional 126 infants and toddlers across the region, Hawk said. In La Plata County, child care centers expanded care to 80 additional children.
The El Pomar funding ended in 2017. But programs in La Plata County can apply for grants between $1,000 to $2,500 per year to purchase curriculum, furnishings and training. Programs can also apply for a one-time award of up to $7,000 to open new classrooms and offer more care, she said.
The council and several other organizations in the county were also recently awarded a one-year $38,000 grant to increase the awareness of careers in the early childhood field and increase the number of qualified early education teachers by working with Fort Lewis College and Pueblo Community College.
La Plata County Thrive! Living Wage Coalition is also working to set up a fund to support the salaries of early child care professionals, said Steve Krest with the nonprofit.
The shortage of workers in the industry is driven in part by low wages because young families often can’t afford to pay the true cost of care, Culver said.
While Eden was attending River Mist, Wofford paid $500 a month for daily child care. It was expensive and far more care than she actually needed.
In her mind, there is room for alternative child care options in area, she said.
“I would really like to see a place open where people could do drop-ins for a reasonable price,” she said.