More families in the Roaring Fork Valley need access to affordable early childhood education. That was the message from a panel discussion in Aspen Tuesday. Aspen’s mayor joined four others from the non profit and business sectors on stage at the Wheeler. Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen reports.
The group started by pointing out successes. The Aspen Skiing Company donates millions of dollars to the community. Some goes to early childhood learning. A county property tax helps fund similar efforts, as does a dedicated City sales tax. And, the non profit Aspen Community Foundation has funneled millions into programs. One initiative holds preschool in converted school buses in low income neighborhoods downvalley.
"We began serving 60 kids at first, with one bus and then we brought on a second bus a year later," says the Foundation's Valerie Carlin. "Now we have 120 kids who are showing marvelous improvement and are on par with their peers who have access to bricks and mortar preschool programs."
Still, more is needed. Pitkin County Health and Human Services Director Nan Sundeen says childhood education and care is out of reach for many families. Child care can cost half a year’s income and 20-percent of county residents make less than a living wage.
"So you add on top of that businesses that don’t have family friendly practices and, you have a system that’s not working together. I think we’re crazy about our rights as adults in this town and I think we’re crazy about resort and having fun, but I don’t think we’re crazy about our kids and we need to change that," Sundeen said
Yesenia Arreola was in the audience. She says she came because she's "really passionate about early childhood educational access." And she has a four year old child.
Growing up in Carbondale, her parents commuted to Aspen for service jobs. She says Downvalley, and particularly in the Latino community, options for early childhood education is limited.
"I see how my community is struggling to understand the importance (of early childhood education). And, also struggling to access it. It’s a problem that, I think, needs to change."
One audience participant suggested creating a Valley-wide funding system for child care similar to how the bus system is run. Communities across the Valley support and help operate the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority. Aspen Mayor Steve Skadron says the idea is on the table.
"We’ve discussed this at the City. The City makes a block contribution each year to the County’s health and human services and we’ve talked about how to better manage that. In our broad conversations, this model has been discussed."
The panel discussion was hosted by the City’s Kids First Program, which provides financial aid to about 50 families, so they can afford childcare.