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A group of 3- to 5-year-olds play together Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020, on the outdoor playground at the Early Connections Learning Centers Day Nursery in downtown Colorado Springs. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Tens of thousands of Colorado children will be eligible to enroll in the state’s expanded preschool program come fall of 2023, but as an educator shortage has swelled to “crisis” levels, pressure is mounting to find enough teachers to staff classrooms.

One solution the state implemented in December: lowering the bar on credentials to become an early childhood educator.

That has stoked some fear among early education leaders and providers that the quality of the state’s universal preschool program, which offers kids 10 hours of free preschool per week, will suffer. 

“You’re really, truly pulling new people off of the street and having them go work in your classroom, and that’s a whole different kind of pressure,” said Dawn Alexander, executive director of the Early Childhood Education Association of Colorado. “Where you used to be able to trust that someone could be in that classroom, there’s a lot of work to be done before that feeling of trust is really there.”

The change is one of several strategies state leaders, lawmakers and providers are pursuing to try to grow the teaching workforce while also preparing to stand up the state’s new Department of Early Childhood, which will oversee universal preschool, in July.

Other approaches include a legislative proposal to provide an income tax credit of up to $1,000 for early childhood teachers, using interns and retirees to bolster the ranks of educators, and a $3 million grant program legislators created during the 2021 session for child care teacher salaries.

Preschool teacher A.J. Hagn works with preschoolers Isaiah Davenport, left, and Robert Espinoiza Friday, July 30, 2021 during a morning class at Early Connections Learning Center in Colorado Springs. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun.)

The race to make sure preschools have enough educators has pitted quantity against quality in Colorado. Gov. Jared Polis has been one of the leading champions of making preschool accessible and affordable for more Colorado families, adamant that “high-quality preschool has a strong return on investment.” 

State officials preparing for the rollout of expanded preschool say that while the quality of early education programs is a top priority, they must also respond to economic pressures, particularly as parents rely on child care so that they can work. And they must consider how they can realistically build up the workforce, scrambling to find ways to attract more people into preschool classrooms and ensure they stay.

It’s a tricky set of challenges as Colorado tries to open up preschool to more students when the state has long struggled to staff existing classrooms — a problem that has worsened amid the pandemic.

Colorado must find more than 1,000 additional workers to meet Polis’ goal of increasing the workforce up to 21,341 by the end of June 2022.

It’s an ambitious objective at a time workers are seemingly nowhere to be found.

“We hear that programs are unable to staff their centers,” said Jennifer O’Brien, director of early childhood workforce development for the Colorado Department of Education.

O’Brien acknowledged that scaling back on credentials required of incoming early childhood educators was partly driven by the state’s workforce crisis and the need to simply have more adults in classrooms.

But she argued that the reduced requirements leave plenty of room to find qualified candidates who “will be prepared at a novice level.” 

“We don’t feel like we’re putting people who are unqualified in classrooms,” she said. 

The credentialing process scores candidates in four categories: formal education, ongoing professional development, experience and demonstrated competencies. 

Under the old system, candidates needed enough points in at least three categories to be certified. The change approved last month requires fewer points, from just two of the four categories, clearing the way to hire people with less education and experience. 

Sam Raboin is one of the Behavioral Health Specialists on staff at Early Connections Learning Centers in Colorado Springs. She played with Lillianna Farmer in her classroom at the center’s historic downtown building Monday, February 10, 2020. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The new standards worry many child care and early education providers that quality could be jeopardized, said Alexander, whose association advocates for licensed private early childhood education programs for kids from birth to age 12.

When asking owners and directors if they can provide quality services with educators who are less trained and less experienced, Alexander said, “they’re going to say, ‘absolutely not.’”

The official bar may be lowered, but she said day care providers still will try to hire better qualified teachers.

“They elevate the bar in terms of their knowledge and experience,” Alexander said.

Preschools are starting “with a bunch of beginners again,” she noted, and it will be the responsibility of the entire industry to support them and help them develop the skills they need in the areas that interest them most to make a difference for the state’s youngest residents.

“We all know if we’re growing professionally on our own in the areas that we’re passionate about, then that has staying power,” Alexander said.

O’Brien said the new standards line up with the realities of what incoming early childhood educators need at the start of their careers.

“In the end, really, it’s those young children in classrooms that we’re ultimately working for,” O’Brien said. “This is why we’re doing what we’re doing so that every child is healthy, valued and thriving. That’s our main goal. And so we don’t see this change as something that compromises that.”

The relaxed credentials could allow program directors to hire people with personalities suited for educating kids rather than having to prioritize specific criteria in their candidate search, Alexander added.

“They can really find the people who are passionate about kids and love working with kids,” she said. “And they can hire them and then work to get them trained up within the system.”

Could a $500 income tax credit keep more educators in preschools?

Colorado lawmakers who share concerns about the shortage of early educators ahead of the major preschool expansion hope to help build up a workforce by offering an incentive in the form of an income tax credit.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers on Wednesday introduced a bill focused on giving early childhood educators who meet eligibility requirements a income tax credit. Educators could receive $500, $750 or $1,000 a year, depending on their credentials.

Rep. Emily Sirota, a Denver Democrat, views the income tax credit as “a recruitment and retention incentive.”

“It doesn’t solve all of the compensation issues that we have in early childhood, but we do think it is a piece of the puzzle,” Sirota said.

Inadequate pay among early educators has long been one of the root causes of preschools’ struggles to build up their own workforces. 

Early childhood teachers are among the lowest-paid educators in the profession, the Colorado Office of Early Childhood said in September. 

An income tax credit would offer “real money to a person who is potentially making minimum wage, possibly not that much more than minimum wage,” Sirota said. “That’s not an insignificant boost come tax time.”

Alexander doesn’t believe an income tax credit would help draw anyone into the field but said it will offer some relief to educators and help them feel more supported.

“Financially, there’s this extra benefit over what they can get at a Starbucks,” Alexander said.

Diane Price, president and CEO of Early Connections Learning Centers in Colorado Springs, said the benefit could make the difference for some educators. 

“If I know that I’m going to get a tax credit,” she said, “I might stay in this field.”

Early Connections Learning Centers President and CEO Diane Price in the dining room at the organization’s nearly 100-year-old building in Colorado Springs on Monday, Feb. 10, 2020. It’s the oldest nonprofit child care organization in Colorado. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Like many program directors, Price is cornered into a business model constrained by small margins. Salaries and benefits packages represent about 80% of her center’s budget. The bulk of the budget comes from program service fees, including what parents pay for child care. But parents are often paying as much as they can afford already, Price said.

Early Connections Learning Centers raised salaries for all teachers and program staff by almost $6,000 last fall. The pay increase helped retain staff but didn’t entice any new teacher candidates, Price said. Week by week, she oscillates between freezing enrollment and opening enrollment, depending on how many teachers and students are in classrooms.

Providers like Price are becoming desperate to find teachers. They simply can’t, particularly as more career doors have opened up for women.

“Today you can do anything you want, and that’s a good thing,” Price said. “So we have to make education be something you want.”

Suhair Alhamad (center), her daughter Fatin Ahmad, and Juanita Chavez (not pictured) are the remaining employees at Sunshine Academy after six employees quit their jobs since spring 2020. Numerous child care centers have seen a shortage of workers in recent years, potentially complicating Colorado’s plans to roll out universal preschool in 2023. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Sunshine Academy in Denver has faced similar obstacles to keeping staff aboard and finding new teachers to replace those who leave.

Before the pandemic, the center had 10 full-time staff members. Now, it’s down to mother-daughter team Sue Alhamad and Fatin Ahmad, who run the center with help from one more employee.

Sunshine Academy paid staff members through the pandemic, in part with Paycheck Protection Program loans, and yet a steady stream of staffers departed until most all were gone by September.

Suhair Alhamad, her daughter Fatin Ahmad, and Juanita Chavez (not pictured) are the remaining employees at Sunshine Academy after six employees quit their jobs since spring 2020. Numerous child care centers have seen a shortage of workers in recent years, potentially complicating Colorado’s plans to roll out universal preschool in 2023. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Barely anyone has inquired about employment at the center since directors hung a “now hiring” sign up in September. They’re willing to pay up to $20 an hour for an aid — more than $4 higher than Denver County’s current minimum wage of $15.87.

Ahmad and her mother wonder each day when their time caring for kids at Sunshine Academy will sunset.

“We’re on the brink of closing,” Ahmad said, “if it keeps up like this.”

Erica Breunlin is an education writer for The Colorado Sun, where she has reported since 2019. Much of her work has traced the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic on student learning and highlighted teachers' struggles with overwhelming workloads...