Oftentimes, the ability to keep a classroom open for the day at the Family Learning Center in Edwards boils down to whether someone is available to help oversee it.
In the past month, that person has repeatedly been “Mr. Joe.”
He’s a looming figure at the early childhood education center, a 6-foot-4-inch man with gray hair swept back into a ponytail underneath a baseball cap who previously spent 26 years as a police officer.
Now, wearing gold-rimmed glasses and denim shirts that are soft to the touch, Joe Russell shows up to the Family Learning Center one day a week to crouch down with kids, gliding toy dump trucks across the floor and helping them rinse their hands before meals, cheerfully prodding them as he says, “rub-a-dub-dub, let’s get those hands washed.”
“They need somebody to just make them feel special and just to play with them and just to be with them, help them to understand their emotions, help them learn to talk, use their language and just to validate them,” said Russell, 64, who lives in Eagle.
The substitute teacher clocks a weekly 10-hour day at the learning center, splitting his time between the kids who have come to peer up at him with adoration — calling him “Mr. Joe” — and his job as an Eagle County deputy coroner. Russell began filling in as a sub earlier this month after completing training through the Early Childhood Service Corps, a Denver-based nonprofit that prepares older adults for critical teaching jobs in preschools across the state that often barely have enough staff. The nonprofit is ramping up recruitment for its fourth cohort of older adults-turned-preschool teachers, assistant teachers, subs and educators who drift between classes.
The organization aims to bring on as many newcomers as it can throughout April, May and June — at least 24 future educators known as “encore subs” and another 10 to 15 volunteers who can take charge of all kinds of behind-the-scenes tasks at preschool sites, including serving lunch and setting up libraries.
It’s a way to pair together generations separated by decades of age, and help early childhood education centers find more reliable staff members as many grapple with workforce shortages while preparing to roll out the state’s expanded preschool program known as “universal preschool.”
It’s also become a key part of combating loneliness for some of the state’s older residents.
“They love the kids,” said Lisa Armao, executive director of the Early Childhood Service Corps. “They love to have a reason to get up in the morning and feel needed. All of them say to me, ‘They need me. The schools need us so much. It just feels so good to be needed.’”
Armao began tapping older residents through her nonprofit in September 2020 and since then has built up a cadre of 56 encore subs now working in classrooms across Colorado. Another 14 volunteers aid early childhood education sites in whatever ways they need. The organization has expanded to 19 counties, with most partner centers and encore subs in metro Denver and Boulder and others in more rural stretches, including at the Family Learning Center in Edwards.
There, director Whitney Young Keltner has battled staff shortages for about two years. While her facility can serve up to 123 children, it now cares for about 80 kids from 8 weeks old to age 5. A dearth of early childhood educators has left three classrooms empty for now and scaled her hours of operation back to four days a week from five.
The Family Learning Center has 30 staff members — all of whom are women except for Russell. With four on maternity leave, and just enough staffers to cover their absences, Young Keltner often comes close to shutting down a classroom for a day. On the days she is down an educator, she has to make that difficult call.
“It definitely can come down to one person,” she said.
Enter Russell, not that the kids mind.
“They very much attract to him and will go right to him and really enjoy being with him,” Young Keltner said.
The sub, who also has a doctorate degree in clinical psychology and used to serve as a therapist to young kids exposed to trauma, has “made the difference between whether we’ve had to close down a classroom or not,” she said.
Encore subs, like Russell, who train for the classroom through the Early Childhood Service Corps and become qualified as early childhood educators can ultimately be hired in full-time teaching roles, Armao said. Many of the corps members end up spending a few hours a day at a school darting between classrooms to cover for teachers as needed.
While on the path to certification, encore subs complete 22 hours of training with the nonprofit, covering everything from early childhood compliance rules to anti-bias and cultural sensitivity in early childhood education, brain development and intergenerational programming. They advance to a semester of two courses offered by the University of Colorado Denver — free to the participating adults — that focus on an introduction to early childhood education and guidance strategies, Armao said. Many of the program’s encore subs also intern or volunteer in a classroom during their semester of courses, she noted.
Once fully qualified to educate and care for children, most encore subs commit to between five and 20 hours a week while others extend themselves even more, arranging their hours and their compensation with the center that hires them.
Meanwhile, volunteers who the Early Childhood Service Corps prepare to deploy to preschools also complete 22 hours of training with the organization. Those individuals aren’t certified as early childhood educators but can still read to kids and play with them, often stepping in as “an extra set of hands for a really overwhelmed director,” Armao said. Some volunteers help dish up meals at school sites or look after gardens on the grounds while others, called volunteer business advisers, use their professional expertise to write grants, help manage payroll or update a parent handbook.
Russell’s days tending to infants, toddlers and preschoolers exhilarate him as much as they exhaust him. The sub, who is always paired with a co-teacher and has racked up 60 hours this month, follows a well-charted routine with the toddlers, stepping into a rhythm of playtime, meals and snacks, enrichment projects and an afternoon nap. But sometimes Young Keltner and her staff draw him in other directions, sending him to cradle infants and cover for educators needing lunch or a break.
The small moments are often the ones that stick with him: a little girl addressing him as “papa,” a boy zooming past him for another ride down the slide or three children hanging on his legs.
“Those are the little pearls,” said Russell, who earns $21 per hour. “Those are the things that tug at my heart, and those are the things that I’m hoping someday down the road will have made a difference.”
And, after having also worked as a psychologist for the Colorado Department of Corrections, he sees an opportunity to intervene in kids’ lives during their earliest years.
“By the time they get there, it’s not that it’s too late, but it’s way harder to fix the problem,” Russell said of his corrections work. “So my thought process was, if we can work with little kids and help them and give them the tools and the support and the care that they needed on the front end, then maybe somewhere along the lines when all the cogs and tumblers fall into place, maybe it will help not only them down the road for their personal lives, but maybe it will help society as well.”