This story was originally published by Chalkbeat Colorado. More at chalkbeat.org.

Joyful Rothe worked in a nursing home kitchen for 18 years before taking an entry-level job as an aide at a child care center. Shelby Wilson also wants a career working with young children, but for now handles the paperwork for her husband’s log-hauling business.

The two women spend an hour every Monday evening in a second-floor classroom at Front Range Community College in Fort Collins, cars whizzing by outside as they learn how to talk to children about feelings, plan learning activities, and handle meltdowns. They are among hundreds of students across Colorado taking advantage of a new state program that pays for two introductory early childhood courses — a stepping stone to teaching in the field.

The initiative, funded with $4 million in federal COVID aid, is part of a state effort to mint more early childhood teachers before the state’s universal preschool launch in 2023, and help the industry recover from staff shortages exacerbated by the pandemic. In addition to the free college classes, the state is funding apprenticeships, scholarships, training opportunities, mentoring programs, and translation and other support for people from underrepresented groups seeking early childhood careers.

The need for new preschool and child care teachers in Colorado is formidable. State officials estimate that more than 2,000 people — 10% of the workforce — left the field during the last two years. They hope to add back more than 1,000 workers by June.

Melanie Gilbertson, who teaches the Monday night class, believes the free coursework has been instrumental in helping students earn qualifications they might not otherwise have been able to afford.

“You don’t make a lot of money in this field,” she said. “And so to ask somebody to go spend $6,000 on a couple of college courses just doesn’t seem right when they’re going to turn around and only make $15 an hour.”

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Ann Schimke

Senior reporter — Chalkbeat Colorado. Email: aschimke@chalkbeat.org Twitter: @annschimke