Durango High School senior Kiley Ryan soothed a fussy infant to sleep at the beginning of her school day, one of many challenges expected to prepare her for a career in teaching or pediatric medicine.
Ryan is one of about 20 high school students taking early childhood courses at DHS. The students are learning how to turn the children’s cries into smiles.
“They can go from being so upset to totally fine in seconds,” she said.
Ryan is gaining hands-on experience this semester at the high school’s Early Learning Center, which serves mostly children of 9-R staff.
Some of Ryan’s peers are gaining similar experiences in preschools, where they can observe how fast young children learn and mature, said Kendra Bonnell, who teaches the early learning courses at DHS.
“They get to see what it’s like on a daily basis working with kids,” she said.
The college-level classes are meant to encourage students to become early childhood teachers, which could help fill the need for early child care in La Plata County, Bonnell said. Eventually, DHS students will be able to earn enough college credits to graduate high school with an associate’s degree in early childhood education, she said.
La Plata County has about 2,700 children who are 5 and younger, but it has only about 250 child care slots for children under 2 years old and 800 slots for children in preschool, said Heather Hawk, executive director of the Early Childhood Council of La Plata County.
Affordable child care can allow parents to return to work and increase their earning potential, she said. However, early child care centers struggle to meet demands because they struggle to recruit staff, Hawk said. Recruiting staff can be difficult because centers can’t offer competitive pay, she said.
Bonnell said she discusses the realities of low pay in the industry with her students. An early learning center aid earns $12 an hour and a lead teacher earns $16 an hour, Bonnell said.
“This is something that they have to have a passion for,” she said.
To address the workforce shortage, the Early Childhood Council is funding efforts to recruit and retain early childhood teachers through a $76,000 grant disbursed over two years from Early Milestones Colorado, a Denver-based nonprofit, Hawk said.
The funding helped supply the college-level courses at DHS with textbooks and robotic infants, pay high school students to intern in preschools and pay preschool teachers for mentoring, Hawk said.
To help retain teachers, the grant also supported continuing education for professionals in early learning by providing scholarships to allow early education professionals to take accelerated courses offered through Fort Lewis College Early Childhood Institute, Hawk said.
FLC’s classes on curriculum development, ethics, health and safety, and other topics allow teachers to earn college credits, take on additional responsibilities in centers and earn more money, said Kristine Greer, associate dean for the school of education at FLC.
The training also improves the quality of early child care available, which is important because if children enter kindergarten ready to learn, it sets them up for success, she said.
“If they develop a sense of love of school, that’s going to help them their whole life,” Greer said.
So far, 55 early childhood teachers have taken the accelerated courses, Hawk said. The courses for working professionals require a week of classes and a week of independent study, she said.
A career adviser at the Durango Adult Education Center is also available to work with adults interested in getting into early education or furthering their education through the grant, she said.
The grant funding that helped support classes for high school students and professionals will run out in April 2020. But Hawk said she expects the classes will be sustained.
Early Milestones Colorado is also collecting data about the success of La Plata County programs so they can be replicated elsewhere across Colorado, she said.
“We are excited to be an innovator with them,” she said.
Thus far, two DHS graduates have started work at early learning centers after taking college-level courses.
It’s a bit too early to tell if the accelerated courses are helping with workforce retention, Hawk said.
As for Ryan, the lessons she is learning will likely apply to pediatrics, teaching and life.
“I think I have learned to be a little bit more patient and to not snap as soon as I typically would,” she said.