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Ann Yager leads a group of 3-year-olds looking for grasshoppers at Heritage Park Preschool on Aug. 17 in Steamboat Springs. (Joe Mahoney for The Colorado Trust)

Colorado has added more than 6,000 child care slots in two years, thanks to a grant program the state legislature created in 2020 using state and federal pandemic relief funds. 

The new openings for infants, toddlers and preschoolers are at 262 child care providers across the state, from in-home day cares run by one caregiver to multiclassroom centers for dozens of kids. 

More than 80% of the money went to parts of the state considered “day care deserts,” where there are more than three children for every one child care slot. More than 1,600 of the new spots are for infants, which are the hardest kind to find in Colorado. Most of the 6,000 slots are already open, although a few hundred are awaiting construction or licensing.

The Emerging and Expanding Child Care Grant Program received 447 applications from 47 counties, and state officials at the Colorado Department of Early Childhood approved 262 applications in 37 counties, totaling nearly $11 million, according to data provided to The Sun. The program was for people who wanted help opening a new child care center or expanding an already existing one. 

“It ran the gamut,” said Karen Enboden, manager of the early learning access and quality unit at the Colorado Department of Early Childhood. “People said, ‘I want to add an infant room because it’s needed in my community’ or ‘I want to add a preschool room because I have a waitlist that’s a year long.’

“We had providers who were in the middle of building a center apply. We had providers who were moving into the state and who were just getting at the very front end of looking for property, or bought another site with a building that was just sitting empty.”

The department, which is responsible for licensing child care facilities, sorted through two rounds of grant applications in the past two years. People interested in applying worked through their local early childhood councils as well as state licensing specialists to first assess what their communities needed most, Enboden said. 

While more than half of the money went toward expansions, the funds also helped create 50 new in-home day cares and 45 child care centers, including a Tiny Tykes opening next month in Frederick. 

The Weld County area of Frederick, Firestone and Dacono is one of the most dire day care deserts in the state. For every day care slot, there are eight children who need it. 

A $51,000 grant is helping John and Jen Jaquish expand their child care business from Firestone, where they care for 20 kids, to Frederick, where they will open space in April for 50 infants through school-age kids. Enrollment at the second location for Tiny Tykes is already half full, even before the couple has closed the purchase of the new building. 

“The demand in this area is crazy,” John Jaquish said this week, in between meeting with families interested in enrolling in the new center. “The grant is definitely helping us out. It’s a huge need to have proper equipment, curriculum and toys.” 

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Jaquish is buying a building that was recently used as a Montessori school and, before that, was a library. The grant is paying for upgrades that include a new furnace, paint and playground equipment. The Frederick center will have space for 10 babies, 10 toddlers, 20 preschoolers and 10 kids who need after-school care. 

Through a second grant program, the state gave 14 government agencies and companies $7.5 million to create employer-based child care. Those funds helped support 100 new spots for Health Solutions in Pueblo, 89 for the City of Grand Junction, 35 for Steamboat Ski Resort’s new child care center, and 25 for Monte Vista School District. 

Of the 14 organizations that received funding, five are already open and licensed for a combined 259 slots. The rest are still under construction. The plan is that slots are offered first to employees, then to the community. 

Boosting child care options was among the goals of the state legislature and Gov. Jared Polis as he convened a special session in November 2020 to hand out more than $200 million for economic relief and coronavirus response measures. 

At the time, lawmakers noted that 10% of the state’s child care centers had shut their doors since March 2020, when the pandemic arrived in Colorado. Of those that remained open, 25% said their closure was imminent without financial intervention. 

The law signed by Polis that December came with three new employees for the state early childhood department, which released the grant application in early 2021. 

“It was remarkable,” said Emily Wengrovius, who was hired by the department in January 2022 to manage the grant program. “I continue to be amazed at how quickly people just rose to this opportunity, and we were able to make it work.” 

The department is now in the process of allocating a second round of grant funding. The program is expected to exist until 2026 so the state can work with child care centers as they complete their projects.

The grants weren’t intended to cover the entire cost of a new center, but as a kickstart for people who otherwise could not afford to pursue a new business. 

“We’ve been talking about infant shortages it seems like forever,” Enboden said. “And we have never had any infrastructure funding whatsoever, so it was completely on the backs of a provider to find funding. There are far-reaching issues around economic security within communities. If there isn’t child care, families can’t go to work.”

Jen is a co-founder and reporter at The Sun, where she writes about mental health, child welfare and social justice issues.

Her first journalism job was at The Hungry Horse News in her home state of Montana, before moving on to reporting jobs in Texas and Oklahoma. She worked for 13 years at The Denver Post, including several years on the investigative projects team, before helping create The Sun in 2018.

Jen is a graduate of the University of Montana and loves hiking, skiing and watching her kids' sports.


Email: jennifer@coloradosun.com Twitter: @jenbrowncolo