DENVER — Colorado is at a critical crossroads for early childhood education. Last month, Governor Jared Polis signed a bill to create a new department of early childhood education.
The department, a result of HB21-1304, will be up and running by next July and will be tasked with figuring out how the state will implement universal pre-k by 2023.
However, all this change comes as the state is already facing a critical teacher shortage.
“We have a massive educator shortage in many of our positions across the education spectrum, but it’s particularly high in art or early childhood classrooms and those preschool classrooms,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, the president of the Colorado Education Association.
Part of the reason for the shortage stems back to pay. Often times, these positions are not considered certified teaching positions, so they do not require a bachelor’s degree.
As a result, the educators earn less and there is a higher turnover rate. A 2016 study found that only 17 percent of preschool educators in Colorado have a degree in early care and education.
Brenda Perry has been an early childhood educator for more than 30 years. At first, she was able to teach after obtaining a Child Development Associate Credential or CDA but eventually earned her associate’s degree.
For years, Perry has been wanting to earn a bachelor’s degree, but as a single mother of three, working full-time and earning just enough to get by, the dream of earning a degree seemed out of reach.
“It’s impossible for me to be able to go back to school and get my BA without having the funding. I just don’t have it. It’s enough to be able to pay you know your daily needs,” Perry said.
Perry is working as a lead teacher at Clayton Early Learning but needs a bachelor’s degree to keep pace with her fellow lead teachers in the field.
The University of Colorado Denver is now working to help these educators remove the barrier to be able to earn their degrees. CU Denver has teamed up with Clayton Early Learning and several other schools to offer a place-based bachelor’s degree pilot program to a handful of students.
Perry is among the first wave of these students.
“I was so grateful to have the opportunity to go back to school so that I can maintain my position at work,” she said.
The program was made possible through a grant from Early Milestones Colorado.
CU Denver was also recently awarded a $2.3 million grant from the Early Educators Investment Collaborative.
The school was one of six to receive such a grant from the foundation and has been tasked with coming up with education reforms to improve access to early childhood education degrees.
“In early childhood, state policy reform and higher education innovation rarely intersect. This grant provides an unprecedented opportunity to bring together multiple IHEs, including the entire community college system, to collectively focus on improving early childhood teachers’ access to meaningful, credit-bearing pathways,” said Dr. Kristie Kauerz from CU Denver in a press statement.
The funding will bring together a group of universities and colleges around the state over the next two years to come up with innovative ways to meet educator needs.
Without these statewide initiatives, Baca-Oehlert says she doesn’t think the state would be able to meet the education needs of young learners.
“That is going to be a game changer for many people who are wanting to get that degree to go into early childhood education,” she said.
However, Baca-Oehlert believes there is still a lot of work ahead for the state to make sure there are enough educators by 2023. She pointed to the pandemic as proof for how critical of a role teachers play in the overall economy.
“This is not just babysitting or daycare this is truly teaching and learning,” she said.
Perry is hoping to graduate by next December and is planning a big graduation party for the day her decades-long dream finally becomes a reality. She hopes the degree will result in higher pay.
Now, Perry says her biggest challenge isn’t figuring out how to pay for the college courses but getting through her math class and remembering how to write college papers.
“It’s crazy going back to school now. This summer I have two classes and oh my goodness I just did not realize how much work I had to do. It’s just been so long since I wrote a paper in AP style,” she said.
Still, it’s a challenge Perry has been waiting years for and one she says she’s not going to let pass her up.