Fernanda Carrillo and Lauviana Mazs take a dual enrollment class on early childhood education on Sept. 14, 2022, at the Roy J. Wasson Academic Campus in Colorado Springs. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

COLORADO SPRINGS — Fernanda Carrillo still remembers the way her kindergarten teacher could swiftly turn a classroom of crying kids into a safe space where they felt nurtured and that they belonged.

One of her sharpest memories from one of her earliest school years takes her back to a day a classmate started sobbing, triggered by a book with a sad plot. Before long, the rest of the class was in tears, too. Carrillo’s teacher calmly brought the boy up to the front of the class to sit beside her, hugging him and reassuring him he was surrounded by friends.

“I saw how a little bit of kindness goes a long way,” said Fernanda, 17, a senior at Mitchell High School in Colorado Springs who is learning how to work with preschoolers in an early childhood education dual enrollment program offered by Colorado Springs School District 11.

With longstanding struggles to recruit and retain teachers into early childhood education — largely driven by low pay — communities across the state are turning to the bookends of the state’s workforce, zeroing in on both teens like Fernanda and retirees to consider one day helping young learners be ready to enter kindergarten. Their efforts belong to a broader statewide push to prepare for a major preschool expansion next fall as Colorado searches for enough early childhood educators to teach all the students who enroll — even as the state still does not know how many instructors it will need. 

An estimated 66,000 4- and 5-year-old students will be eligible for the program, in which the state will provide at least 10 hours a week of free preschool to every kid in the year before kindergarten. Anywhere between 60% to 80% of eligible kids could enroll in the expanded preschool program, according to state projections, said Lisa Roy, executive director for the new Colorado Department of Early Childhood.

Many students will access additional hours of preschool through other funds, such as Head Start or a local program like Denver Preschool Program, and some will qualify for more hours of preschool funded by the state through its expanded preschool program.

The department is trying to nail down the number of early childhood educators in its existing workforce and how many it will need to effectively expand preschool, with hopes of having concrete figures by January, Roy said. 

The department’s current data is outdated, particularly as early childhood education has seen significant staffing turnover throughout the pandemic, spokesperson Tova Cohen said, noting the department is working with Colorado Evaluation and Action Lab to pin down workforce numbers and is also collecting information about educator shortages from regional organizations charged with implementing expanded preschool. The department wants to create a dashboard that will reflect the state of the workforce, Cohen said.

A dashboard posted by Gov. Jared Polis’ office shows that Colorado had 20,325 early childhood professionals in fiscal year 2021, the most recent data his office has, spokesperson Conor Cahill said.

When asked whether the state will have enough preschool teachers for the launch of expanded preschool, Roy pointed to “a shortage of every kind” for employees across industries, including in her department.

“We’re going to have to do the work,” she told The Colorado Sun. “There’s going to have to be multiple strategies. We’re going to have to work with high school students and identifying high school students that have an interest.”

Dr. Lisa Roy began her role as executive director of Colorado’s Department of Early Childhood in spring 2022. More than 60,000 Colorado youth are estimated to be eligible next year for the state’s expanded preschool program. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

With a variety of early childhood settings taking part in the state’s expanded preschool program, including schools, child care centers and licensed home-based providers, Colorado stands a better chance of having an adequate workforce, Roy said.

“The use of a mixed delivery system actually will help us to get there a lot easier,” Roy said.

Early childhood advocates emphasize that teacher shortages are one of the biggest hurdles to overcome in building up a statewide preschool program that will meet the needs of kids.

“It is the crux of what we need to address to make the rest of the early childhood system function,” said Kelly Hurtado, vice president of programs at Joint Initiatives for Youth and Families. “If we don’t have a solid, stable, high-quality workforce, it’s going to be very difficult for us to offer high quality early childhood programming.” 

The Colorado Springs-based nonprofit that focuses on early childhood, juvenile justice and racial equity has been tackling the early childhood workforce crisis in El Paso County for more than a year. The organization, which will oversee the rollout of expanded preschool in El Paso County, is branching out to partner with school districts to expand high school class offerings that will set students on a path to become qualified to staff an early childhood classroom, Hurtado said.

Joint Initiatives has already been collaborating with Pikes Peak State College to develop a federally registered apprenticeship program and now, with grant funding, the organization is exploring the possibility of offering high school coursework students could take before the apprenticeship. 

The nonprofit is working to identify school districts that have the capacity to introduce early childhood education courses, Hurtado said.

But its work doesn’t stop with high schoolers. The organization is even reaching out to middle school students, attending career days to put early childhood education on their radar at a time when they’re already thinking about the kinds of careers they’re open to and the ones they’re not — and before the adults in their lives sway them away from teaching.

It is critical to “try to influence that narrative at that point in a child’s development around their future potential,” Hurtado said. 

The job of early childhood educators is often reduced to babysitting, which overlooks the profound effect it can have on children’s lives. 

High schoolers, in particular, are “very invested in seeking work that aligns with their values or their own personal mission,” she said. “And so knowing that early childhood (is) such an important way to impact social change, we see them as a target demographic.”

The Roy J. Wasson Academic Campus is seen on Sept. 14, 2022, in Colorado Springs. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Odyssey Early College and Career Options in Colorado Springs has been training high schoolers to become early childhood educators with classes that allow them to earn up to nine college credits through Pikes Peak State College before they graduate. 

Annie Friesema has been at the head of those classes for the past nine years, during which she has taught at least 150 students. Only a couple of those students have stayed in early childhood education, with more veering toward teaching elementary, middle or high school where they can take home bigger paychecks, Friesema said.

Low wages stand in the way of keeping more educators in preschools long term and recruiting more males into the field, she said, though she is encouraged by her district — District 11 — paying its preschool teachers on the same scale as its K-12 educators. 

Annie Friesema teaches high school students in a dual enrollment class on early childhood education on Sept. 14, 2022, at the Roy J. Wasson Academic Campus in Colorado Springs. As Colorado prepares for the rollout of universal preschool in less than a year, different areas of the state are branching out to recruit childhood educators from untapped places, including high schools. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Friesema’s classes, bundled under an early childhood education program, typically draw 15 to 20 students each year, though this school year enrollment has plummeted to five — a reflection of Colorado’s widespread challenges to sell students and professionals on a career in a preschool classroom. The dual enrollment courses are open to all high schoolers in the district, which buses students from their high school to the Roy J. Wasson Academic campus, home to the Odyssey Early College and Career High School. However, schedules at a few of the district’s high schools don’t match up with the program’s schedule, so generally students at those schools are unable to consider it as an option. 

Like the workforce, Friesema’s classes are composed mostly of females. Despite a struggle to enroll more boys and sway more students to pursue careers in early childhood education, Friesema said she hasn’t found it too difficult to hook students while trying to spread interest in the field.

“If we’re in the high schools and we give them a chance to experience it, many of them are on fire about working with kids,” Friesema said. “This is their passion.”

Students who commit to the early childhood education program take two semester-long courses while also juggling a yearlong course in early childhood education, learning everything from the history of early childhood education and theories of child growth and development to the different types of preschool programs, how to manage kids’ behavior and how to interact with families, Friesema said. Additionally, they spend 60 hours as an intern in a preschool classroom, first observing kids and their grasp of language, communication and motor skills as well as taking in the classroom environment. From there, the high schoolers help the teacher and must plan and lead two activities with preschoolers, whether with their full class or in a small group. 

Annie Friesema teaches high school students in a dual enrollment class on early childhood education on Sept. 14, 2022, at the Roy J. Wasson Academic Campus in Colorado Springs. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

By the time students complete the early childhood education program in one school year, they are also certified in first aid and CPR through the American Red Cross and are qualified to work as a teacher assistant. 

Fernanda, whose kindergarten teacher inspired her to consider a career in a classroom of young learners, isn’t deterred by the reality of low pay, even as she worries about how she might support a family. The prospect of shaping students for bright futures is enough to motivate her as she wants to “help (students) be better people for our community and able to help society when they’re older.”

She also understands how much students need to excel in the first years of their education with trusted adults to steer them.

“Preschool is really important and kindergarten is as well because a lot of families, they just don’t have the privilege to take their time to teach their own kids,” Fernanda said.

Her classmate Zaid Momani, a junior at Coronado High School in Colorado Springs, is still deciding whether he wants to teach and is torn between grade levels. The 16 year old, whose mother and sister are both teachers, knows how much young boys need a male role model, and Friesema’s courses give him the opportunity to learn firsthand what responsibilities come with that.

“If I want to ever pursue something in teaching,” Zaid said, “this would give me a good idea of what that career would be like.”

Corralling older adults back into the classroom

A parallel effort to build up Colorado’s educator workforce ahead of the rollout of expanded preschool next year is targeting a different generation: retirees.

The nonprofit Early Childhood Service Corps launched in September 2020 to integrate older adults into early childhood education and has rapidly multiplied its number of trained professionals, said executive director Lisa Armao.

The organization, based in Denver and funded by grants, started with 15 corps members, eight of whom took college coursework through the University of Colorado Denver to become qualified to teach in early childhood.

Mike Van Meter, who is training to become a preschool substitute, takes notes during his student observation at the Garfield Montessori School in Denver. He was part of the first cohort of older adults training for a second career after retirement through the Early Childhood Service Corps. The 15-week program is taught by the University of Colorado Denver and graduates will receive an early childhood teacher certification. (Provided by Early Childhood Service Corps.)

In its second year, the program garnered interest from 85 people, with 43 of them enrolling in the program. Ten of the graduates became volunteer business advisers and were paired with early childhood education centers that needed help with writing grants and sorting through administrative tasks. Another 10 are classroom site volunteers, some of whom work in the classroom and others who set up libraries or gardens at their schools.

By January, the remaining 24 older adults will be finished with their college coursework and ready to step foot in a classroom as teachers, Armao said, while her waitlist for her next cohort already exceeds 50 people, without any recruitment efforts.

Participants willing to take on more training can become substitute teachers, first completing coursework through the nonprofit that is tailored toward older adults before moving on to take courses at CU-Denver.

Volunteers and substitutes are spread throughout the state, including in Denver, Arapahoe, Boulder, Eagle and San Miguel counties, Armao said.

Bringing together opposite generations fills a critical gap, she said. In the next five years, Colorado will need up to 34% more early child care providers and teachers, according to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. Meanwhile, by 2030, more than 32% of the state’s population will be over 60 years old, Armao said, citing data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

And it forges meaningful relationships between preschoolers and older adults — relationships Armao has seen come to life with her corps members.

“It just fills them up,” Armao said, adding that kids will often squeal and run up to hug the adults she’s trained.

A preschool playground isn’t the kind of setting that Jim Platz envisioned he’d land in during his retirement. But three afternoons a week, Platz, who retired about five years ago after owning a design and construction firm in New York, heads to Garfield Montessori School at the Clayton Early Learning campus in Denver to supervise children as they rove and race around the schoolyard.

It takes Platz, 76, back to his days of lifeguarding.

“My head keeps swiveling to keep an eye on the children like I was back at the ocean,” he said.

Platz and his wife moved to Denver from New York about four years ago, and he was part of the first cohort of the Early Childhood Service Corps earlier this year.

“The more I got involved in it, the more I enjoyed it and became very excited about the possibility of being in a classroom,” he said.

Through the program, he learned how much young learners need play — something he now watches firsthand as an assistant teacher.

“It just gave me a real eye-opener on how important early childhood learning is,” Platz said. “From 3 to 5, that brain is cooking. It is developing at an amazing rate.”

He heads home each day a happier version of himself — so much so that his wife has noticed a difference — and he finds joy at the playground, where he can turn his thoughts away from all the stress and turmoil in the world.

The school pays Platz $17 per hour, but his paycheck is overshadowed by the connections he’s made with his 18 kids, who break into smiles and say, “Hi, Mr. Jim” upon his arrival.

“That’s it,” Platz said. “That’s the end of the story. It’s wonderful.”

Erica Breunlin

Email: erica@coloradosun.com Twitter: @EricaBreunlin