intervening early

Life in a child care desert: What one Denver neighborhood can teach us about solving a national problem

PHOTO: Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Olga Montellano, an informal child care provider, says goodbye to Mateo Casillas, 2, after caring for him for the day.

Olga Montellano is kind, patient and doesn’t flinch when small children shout excitedly in her face.

On a recent afternoon, her calm demeanor was on display as she watched over her 3-year-old daughter and her next-door neighbor’s 3-year-old son as they frolicked on her front lawn in north Denver’s Elyria-Swansea neighborhood.

When the ponytailed mother of four heard what sounded like gunshots a street over, she ushered the children onto the porch, past a giant reading nook she’d crafted from cardboard, and into the house.

Montellano has been taking care of kids in her home for five years, ever since her next-door neighbor got a job at a factory and needed someone to watch her older child, now a kindergartener. In late November, Montellano added a 2-year-old boy to the mix, the son of a friend who’d just landed an office-cleaning job.

This kind of informal, mostly unregulated child care is a lifesaver in Elyria-Swansea, where train yards, Interstate 70 and large industrial plots share space with residential pockets that, as of now, are home to many poor and working-class families.

Licensed child care — particularly for children 3 and younger — is hard to come by here. The problem is so pronounced, the neighborhood has won an unwelcome designation: Child care desert. Put simply, it’s a place where the number of small children far exceeds the number of licensed child care slots.

But a slate of recent efforts could help Elyria-Swansea shed the label — and hold implications for other communities grappling with the problem.

The initiatives, which use both public and private money, include training for informal providers like Montellano, efforts to better match home-based child care slots with families and attempts to bring new child care centers to the area.

The idea is to ease the child care scramble that plagues many working parents in the largely Hispanic neighborhood and help set up young kids for future academic success. Currently, more than half of neighborhood children — many of them English learners — aren’t reading proficiently by the end of third grade.

Together, the projects represent an ambitious undertaking that could bring much-needed attention to a long-neglected neighborhood. But they’re also separate efforts with different leaders, missions and geographic reach — all unfolding as locals brace for big changes in the neighborhood.

On the horizon are a massive expansion of Interstate 70, which splits the neighborhood, and a billion-dollar overhaul of the National Western Stock Show complex. And as Denver’s breakneck growth continues, the neighborhood is showing signs of gentrification.

To those invested in transforming child care in this Denver neighborhood and similar urban areas across the country, all the changes raise an uncomfortable question: Will the families who need help still be around when the work is done?

“That’s a fear that we all have,” said Nicole Riehl, director of programs and development at Denver’s Early Childhood Council, one of many partners in an initiative called United Neighborhoods doing work in Elyria-Swansea.

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Olga Montellano gets a hug from Juan Pablo Ordoñez, 3, as she picks him and her daughter Milagros Santos, 3, left up from preschool.

Scope of the problem

Nine of Denver’s 78 neighborhoods, including Elyria-Swansea, are classified as child care deserts, according to data from a recent Center for American Progress report. Parts of more than a dozen other neighborhoods also earn that designation.

The report found that half of the people in the 22 states it examined live in a child care desert, which it defines as neighborhoods or small towns with either no child care options or so few that there are more than three children for every licensed child care slot.

In Elyria-Swansea, parents cope in various ways. Some rely on nearby relatives or neighbors to watch their children. Others, if they have cars, drive their kids to child care centers or preschool programs outside the neighborhood. Some, fearing child care will eat up their whole paycheck, leave the workforce altogether to stay home with their kids.

Martina Meléndez, a single mother of four who lives in the neighborhood, illustrates the extent to which families cobble together care when affordable, flexible options aren’t available.

She works at night so she can be home during the day to handle school and preschool pick-ups and drop-offs for her younger three children. When she heads to her office-cleaning job, she enlists her college-age son to watch his siblings. On the weekends, when she waitresses full-time and her oldest son goes to his part-time job, she pays a babysitter $200 to stay at her house with the kids.

Meléndez worries about the toll the arrangement takes on her eldest son.

“I would like to be able to take care of my kids myself so that he doesn’t have so much pressure,” she said. “I know he’s going to have to concentrate more on school.”

Meléndez’s experience isn’t unique, but it is a reminder that market forces alone don’t ensure an adequate supply of child care in many communities.

That’s why quality child care needs to be understood as a public good — one that requires the same kind of public investment that pays for roads, bridges and schools, said Rasheed Malik, co-author of the Center for American Progress report.

“There’s starting to be discussions with state legislators and people on (Capitol) Hill in D.C. who are beginning to take up that mindset,” he said.

According to the report, 30 percent of Colorado residents live in child care deserts, but the problem is more acute in some communities — including those with higher Hispanic populations.

That’s the case in Elyria-Swansea, where more than 60 percent of residents are Hispanic, according to census estimates. The same is true in several other Denver neighborhoods classified wholly or partly as child care deserts, including Valverde, Athmar Park and Ruby Hill.

click on the map to enlarge

No local space

In Elyria-Swansea, a variety of factors contribute to the lack of child care — ranging from poverty to the neighborhood’s industrial roots. Amidst its train yards, warehouses and marijuana grow houses, there’s little suitable space for commercial child care — a high-cost, low-margin business.

Only Swansea Elementary School and a tiny nearby Head Start program offer formal child care in the neighborhood — a total of 81 full-day seats, mostly for 4-year-olds.

Even the federal government has picked up on the problem — earmarking the ZIP code for special consideration in grant awards for certain child care slots.

“Our challenge is facilities out there,” said Lance Vieira, chief operating officer of Rocky Mountain Service Employment Redevelopment, which runs the Head Start program in Elyria-Swansea.

Some local families send their kids to another Head Start center three miles away in the Sunnyside neighborhood. Special busing was provided for the youngsters through last year, but that ceased for a variety of reasons, including because the program switched from half- to full-day.

In a bid to help satisfy the demand for child care, Focus Points Family Resource Center, a longtime nonprofit serving families in Elyria-Swansea and Globeville, used grant money to open up a 30-seat preschool in the fall of 2016. With no space available in the two neighborhoods, leaders settled on a facility in the nearby Cole neighborhood.

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Olga Montellano walks with her daughter Milagros Santos, 3, right, and her neighor’s son, Juan Pablo Ordoñez, 3, after preschool in their neighborhood.

Quality varies

Yadira Sanchez, a mother of three in Elyria-Swansea, knows what it’s like to struggle with child care. She still remembers sending her oldest child, Ruben, now 17, to a neighbor’s house when he was a little boy and she was working as a home health aide.

Culturally, she and her neighbor had a lot in common, and she felt confident Ruben would never be abused. Still, the boy spent most of his time on the couch and was regularly asked to share the meals Sanchez packed for him with the neighbor’s young daughter. The woman, who sometimes watched soap operas during the day, was anxious about the children getting hurt and discouraged active play.

The kind of informal care Sanchez used for Ruben — often called family, friend and neighbor care — is common in Elyria-Swansea and many other communities. Often, parents like it because they know the caregiver well, hours are flexible and it’s usually inexpensive or free.

Still, such unlicensed care is mostly unregulated by the state and quality varies widely.

Sanchez’s neighbor, who’d eventually added Ruben’s sister and a couple other children to her child care roster, stopped offering care after a few years.

“She felt like, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, maybe I shouldn’t be doing it,’” Sanchez said.

From there, Sanchez tried a licensed home and two licensed centers outside the neighborhood but didn’t like those options, either. At two of them, the providers were cold, strict and the kids were often in trouble.

Sanchez wishes there was a child care center in the neighborhood.

Nothing fancy, she said. “Just a safe place … with people who actually love to work with kids.”

Rosemary Alfaro, who lives in Elyria-Swansea and works as a clerk for a home visiting program, yearns for the same kind of thing.

Over the years, she’s made various child care arrangements for her children. Her husband’s aunt helped out for awhile and the two older girls attended Head Start in the Sunnyside neighborhood and later the Highland neighborhood — a short drive to the west.

Today, her 3-year-old son attends morning preschool at the Focus Points center in the Cole neighborhood and her mother-in-law takes care of him and another youngster in the afternoons.

“She is my right-hand woman,” Alfaro said. “If I didn’t have her, I wouldn’t know what to do.”

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
Members of the PASO class practice CPR and first aid during a session in July.

Expanding the pipeline

One day last summer, two-dozen Spanish-speaking women practiced first aid and CPR on rubber dummies at a Catholic church in north Denver. An instructor in pointy cowboy boots walked them through the proper responses to various emergencies — discovering an unconscious child on the ground or handling a seizure without knowing the child’s medical history.

Olga Montellano — the caregiver who ushered the children inside after hearing the gunshots — was there. So was Dolores Alfaro, Rosemary’s mother-in-law.

The four-hour session was part of an intensive course for family, friend and neighbor providers called Providers Advancing Student Outcomes, or PASO.

The initiative is just one part of United Neighborhoods, a Mile High United Way project focused on education, housing, health and workforce development in Elyria-Swansea and neighboring Globeville. It began last year and is expected to last three to five years.

The course leads to a common entry-level child care credential and represents a key strategy in the United Neighborhoods plan to address the problem of child care deserts.

The Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition, one of several partners in the United Neighborhoods work, has run PASO classes in several Front Range communities for years, often enrolling mostly undocumented immigrants and paying for the program with private funds.

The course in Elyria-Swansea is a bit different. The City of Denver’s Office of Economic Development — another United Neighborhoods partner — kicked in $130,000 to cover the cost of 14 participants, all of whom are legally in the United States.

City officials say the investment was a chance to help residents climb up the first rungs of the career ladder and improve child care quality at the same time.

Once PASO ends in mid-December, more than $5,000 in federal funding will be used to shepherd some participants through the arduous licensing process that will allow them to offer state-sanctioned child care in their homes. Leaders at Denver’s Early Childhood Council, which will provide that assistance, say they’ll create eight new Early Head Start slots for children birth to 3 in the 80216 ZIP code by next fall.

Other initiatives unfolding now or launching in the near future could eventually help boost child care offerings in Elyria-Swansea, too.

One, funded partially by Gary Community Investments and set to start in spring of 2018, relies on a nonprofit called WorkLife Partnership. The group operates across Colorado, charging employers a membership fee to get help with services — such as child care or housing — that help employees stay on the job.

Liddy Romero, executive director of WorkLife Partnership, said to increase child care along I-70, where soon hundreds of construction workers and other kinds of employees will be needed, the group will award $5,000 mini-grants to licensed in-home providers. The idea is to help them buy new curricula or equipment, and figure out how to offer more slots or expand into overnight care.

WorkLife Partnership is also partnering with the national online marketplace Care.com to ensure those providers — once they expand their capacity or hours — get efficiently matched with families that need child care.

Using money from another source, Romero said the group is already working with 17 in-home providers along I-70. None of the 17 are in Elyria-Swansea or Globeville, but providers from both neighborhoods, possibly some who are not yet licensed, could be included in the future.

Liliana Flores Amaro, an Elyria-Swansea resident and community activist, said with some residents leery of outsiders pushing in solutions, it’s important for leaders of all the projects underway or planned to avoid a “deficit mindset.”

They should approach the work “really honoring and respecting the experience and knowledge of child development and child-rearing that is in this neighborhood,” she said.

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Olga Montellano, seated on floor, plays with her daughter Milagros Santos, 3, right, as friend and neighbor Berenice Morales watches.

Changing city, changing neighborhood

Residents and civic leaders all see signs that gentrification is coming to Elyria-Swansea — and sending residents to Adams County, Aurora and Edgewater.

For leaders at Focus Points, one indicator was the gradual disappearance of waitlists for parenting programs that were once over-subscribed. At the Valdez-Perry library branch, it’s near-daily goodbyes staff bid to patrons who are moving out of the area.

And, of course, there’s skyrocketing real estate prices.

“The reality is these families will be offered so much money for their houses they’re not going to stay,” said Vieira, of Rocky Mountain Service Employment Redevelopment. “It’s going explode in Globeville and (Elyria) Swansea will be very close behind.”

So what will come of efforts to fix the child care desert if the families — and the kids — move away? No one expects all current residents to leave, but the demographics will surely change. Some observers expect fewer large families and an influx of middle-class residents.

One check on gentrification could be new affordable housing planned for a large new development to be built on a six-acre parcel at the corner of 48th Avenue and Race Street. Leaders at the Urban Land Conservancy, which owns the land, say there will be hundreds of affordable housing units included, but the exact number will be determined when a developer is chosen in early 2018. The development will include space for local nonprofits at below-market lease rates. The first phase of construction could start in 2019, with completion four to five years later.

Sheridan Castro, the interim executive director of Focus Points, said the group will apply for some of that space for a childcare facility there. The idea is to move the organization’s preschool in the Cole neighborhood to the new development and add care for infants and toddlers.

“It would be an economic opportunity as well for members of our community and our staff who have been working toward becoming certified early childhood educators,” Castro said.

Christi Smith, the conservancy’s operations and communications director, said the need for child care in the neighborhood is well-known, but there’s also interest in using the nonprofit space for a medical clinic, a fresh food market or job training. As with the affordable housing units, the developer will make the final decision, she said.

But even if the new development does include a child care center, some observers expect families who can afford to pay for the care will scoop up many slots.

All the changes bring both hope and uncertainty for long-time residents like Olga Montellano.

She already believes the PASO program has made her a better caregiver. She gets the children in her care outside more and has learned skills and activities to help get her neighbor’s 3-year-old son, who used to be silent, talking.

But whether she stays in the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood is an open question. Her landlord has raised the rent, but not much, she said. She would like to buy a home, but homes that used to be affordable and small are now unaffordable and small.

“My preference would be to stay here because I’ve already lived here 15 years,” she said. “I don’t know … it seems strange to leave.”

new perks

Can in-house child care keep young teachers in the classroom? These districts want to find out.

PHOTO: westend61 | Getty Images

When Sheridan Brull and her husband moved to Durango from Kansas a couple years ago, finding care for their 1-year-old daughter was “unimaginably hard,” she said.

“I think I Googled and called about 20 different places and left messages, and got no calls back,” said Brull, who was starting a job as an English teacher at Durango High School.

Although a neighbor eventually helped her find a spot at a local child care center, Brull’s initial dead-end search illustrates just how tough it can be for working parents to line up dependable child care, especially for infants and toddlers. Such predicaments can have wide-ranging consequences for schools, forcing young teachers to look for jobs elsewhere or quit altogether, and leaving students with a revolving door of instructors.

School districts in Colorado and the nation are increasingly trying to solve such problems by offering in-house care to district employees. While not free, the programs are convenient — aligned to district calendars and often located down the hall or down the street from teachers’ classrooms.

Both the 5,000-student Durango district in southwestern Colorado and the 31,000-student Boulder Valley district in the state’s populous Front Range will open child care programs for infants and toddlers in the next two weeks — both to be housed in district high schools. Leaders in the tiny West End district in western Colorado plan to launch an infant and toddler program at the district’s elementary school sometime this fall.

Last fall, a fourth district, the rural 750-student Dolores district in southwestern Colorado, opened an infant and toddler program in the same location as its preschool, a half a block away from the district’s main campus.

Together, the four district-run child care programs could soon produce about 80 full-time slots for infants and toddlers in Colorado. It’s a relatively small number in a state lacking licensed care for about 93,000 of 244,000 young children being raised by two working parents or a working single parent. Still, the programs help beef up local child care ecosystems, and represent a promising piece of the state’s teacher recruitment and retention puzzle.

Like non-salary benefits such as district-provided housing or loan forgiveness, child care could give some Colorado school districts a competitive edge in attracting staff. The state’s average teacher salary is about 15 percent below the national average of $59,660 and a recent report on teacher shortages found that 95 percent of rural districts paid average salaries below the local cost of living.

But some observers say that statewide solutions are needed to fix Colorado’s school funding crisis, not individual district investments in things like employee child care.

Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, said in an email, “While CEA is very appreciative of those school districts using innovative approaches to attract and retain quality teachers, the state should not keep putting districts in the unenviable position of meeting student needs with stopgap funding solutions.”

A persistent problem

The creation of district-run child care for staff often starts with a nagging need — then a brainstorm. That’s what happened in the 317-student West End district near Colorado’s western border with Utah.

“Being in a rural area specifically … we had just been going through hard times being able to keep and attract qualified people,” said Hank Nelson, principal of Naturita Elementary School.

Starting salaries in the district are about $30,000 a year.

Nelson knew of a handful of respected teachers who were scrambling to find workable care for their small children. Christine Harty, the high school science teacher, was one of them.

The Norwood child care center she settled on for her now 2-year-old son — one of the few options in the region — was 40 minutes from her home and a half hour from her classroom at Nucla High School.

“It’s an expensive daycare and it’s a lot of gas to get there, but it’s just what you do to have peace of mind,” said Harty, who will start her 4-month-old daughter at the Norwood center this week.

Nelson said his idea of the perfect school has long included child care, a natural preface to district-run preschool and then kindergarten.

Learning, he said, “doesn’t start at 5 years old, it starts much younger.”

Nelson floated the idea of an infant and toddler center to the West End superintendent last year. He was game, so with the help of the local early childhood council and economic development corporation, the project slowly took off.

The new program — called Colt Care after the elementary school mascot — will enroll 13 youngsters and be housed in a portable classroom at Nelson’s school. The district’s preschool program is in an adjacent portable.

While the district is still working to raise money to finish outfitting the new center, Nelson hopes it will open by October.

“We’re very confident that we’re going to have a waiting list,” he said.

Once it’s up and running — and equipped to accept the state child care subsidies — Harty said she’ll consider moving her kids to Colt Care.

“The fact that they’re only five minutes from my work is very appealing,” she said. “We haven’t had a daycare facility in the community for I don’t know how many years.”

Preparing to launch

For districts adding on-site child care programs, one commonality is extra space.
In the Dolores and West End districts, which are about 85 miles apart, there were portable buildings available. In Durango, a larger community in southwestern Colorado, there were free classrooms across from the high school’s welding shop. In Boulder Valley, district officials repurposed nursery space previously earmarked for the children of students in the district’s dwindling teen parent program.

Perhaps tougher than finding space is undertaking renovations or equipment purchases to ensure new child care centers and playgrounds adhere to the slew of state rules governing child care facilities. It’s not cheap.

Vangi McCoy, a Dolores school board member and coordinator of the Montelores Early Childhood Council, said the district’s 15-slot infant and toddler center — part of its Teddy Bear preschool — was a community effort. Local contractors provided plumbing and electrical services for free, gravel and fill dirt were donated, and town officials waived permit fees. The district also used about $25,000 in grants to get the job done.

McCoy, who calls the new center a godsend, said, “It’s a great way to show district employees that you appreciate them, to align educational goals from the very beginning … It was really worth the effort here in Dolores.”

In Boulder County, there’s not the same dearth of child care that plagues rural communities like Dolores, but district officials say the new center, called Early Connections, will benefit staff.

“The advantage, of course, for teachers is it’s only open and you’re only charged for the days you’re here,” said Joan Bludorn, principal of the Arapahoe Campus where the nursery is located.

Tuition at the 40-spot center is similar to local market rates — $1,550 a month for toddlers and $1,600 for infants. But district officials say teachers will save about $3,000 annually by not having to pay for child care during summer and school breaks. While Boulder Valley has some of the highest teacher salaries in the state, the cost of living is also high there.

While district-run centers like the one in Boulder are designed around the needs of teachers and other district staff, community members will be able to use them too if there’s space.

In Durango, where work crews are scrambling to finish the new infant and toddler center before its August 13 opening day, Sheridan Brull, the high school English teacher, is looking forward to having her 10-month old son just one floor below her second-story classroom. (Her daughter, now 3, will stay in the child care center she’s attended since the family first relocated to Durango.)

It doesn’t surprise Brull that more and more school districts are providing child care to staff.

“I think it’s smart,” she said. “When I look at where education is in our country right now, something is going to have to give in order to keep teachers, who are primarily women, in the career.”

Nature's classroom

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
A girl plays during a Worldmind Nature Immersion School class at Matthews/Winters Park in Jefferson County.

A 2½-year-old boy named Ben was ankle-deep in a Jefferson County creek when suddenly he lost his footing and plopped onto his bottom in the cold shallow water. The fall didn’t faze him. Neither did his dripping shorts. He got up and kept playing.

About a dozen children frolicked in or near the creek that day — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, building dams with sticks and mud, or inspecting bugs that flitted nearby.

It was a typical day at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, one of a growing number of programs where toddlers, preschoolers, and kindergarteners spend all their time outside — no matter the weather.

“When children look like they’re playing in nature, huge amounts of learning is taking place,” said Erin Kenny, founder of the American Forest Kindergarten Association and the co-founder of a pioneering outdoor preschool program in Washington state.

Established first in Scandinavia, such “forest schools” occupy a steadily expanding niche in the American early-childhood landscape. But even with the movement’s popularity, advocates wonder if it can reach beyond the homogenous slice of families — mostly middle-class and white — it now serves.

Advocates like Kenny lament the academic push found in many traditional preschools and say that young children thrive outdoors — developing independence, resilience, and other valuable social-emotional skills.

Parents say their kids like the expansive space, non-stop play, and dearth of rules in outdoor classes. And as long as they’re dressed for the conditions, they take rain, snow, or frigid temperatures in stride.

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Megan Patterson, the founder of Worldmind Nature Immersion School, pretends her preschool students are penguin chicks.

“I think it’s great to come in bad weather,” said Denver parent Tracy Larson, who has two children in the Worldmind class. “It makes us go outside when we’re at home in bad weather too … You’re not afraid of it.”

Forest schools nationwide face significant regulatory and logistical barriers to expanding their footprint — and serving students of color and those from low-income families.

“This movement is not going to move forward or it’s going to be stigmatized if we don’t rapidly move the needle from white middle-class to all-inclusive,” said Kenny.

Perhaps the most immediate problem is that states have no rules for outdoor-based programs that serve young children and thus, no way to grant them child care licenses. Besides signaling that programs meet basic health and safety rules, a license opens the door to state subsidies that help low-income families pay for child care.

In Colorado, the inability to get licensed means that forest schools can only have up to four young children in a class or, as is the case at Worldmind, must require parents to stay for each session. But licensing rules here could soon change. The same is true in Washington state, where there are dozens of outdoor preschool programs.

Government officials in both states are working with outdoor preschool providers as part of pilot programs that could lead to creating a child care license for outdoor preschools. The idea is to ensure children’s safety without stamping out the creek-wading, tree-climbing sensibilities that make the programs what they are.

Kenny said there are now around 50 forest preschools in the U.S. and another 200 “nature schools,” which put a major emphasis on outdoor learning but have buildings, too. Colorado and Washington are the only ones she knows of that are actively exploring special licensing classifications for outdoor preschools, but hopes their pilot programs will build momentum nationally.

“I used to feel I was riding the crest of a wave,” she said. “Now I feel the wave has crashed and it’s moving in ripples everywhere.

Testing the model

In Colorado, two providers — Worldmind and a Denver-based program called The Nursery School — are participating in the state pilot program. It starts this month for the Nursery School and in August for Worldmind. Both providers will be allowed to serve up to 10 children ages 3 to 6 during half-day sessions without parents present. The schools must adhere to a staff-student ratio of 1 to 5 — stricter than what is required in a traditional preschool.

They’ll also have to abide by other rules, including keeping tree-climbing children within arm’s reach and seeking indoor shelter in extreme weather.

In addition, both programs will track heaps of data, ranging from hourly weather changes to the circumstances behind any wildlife encounters or potty accidents. State licensing officials will also visit each program regularly. The pilot will run through February — to capture all kinds of Colorado weather — with a licensing decision possible in the summer of 2019.

Matt Hebard, a former preschool teacher and early childhood school district administrator, launched The Nursery School with Brett Dabb last fall at Denver’s Bluff Lake Nature Center. In recent weeks, the handful of children enrolled there have spotted newly hatched goslings and mule deer, and made “snowmen” with fluff from cottonwood trees.

The two men first conceived of the school in 2013 during their time in an early childhood leadership program and soon after discovered the long, bureaucracy-laden road to state recognition. There were waiver applications, denials, a hearing before the state attorney general, and even a look at whether state legislation would further the cause of outdoor preschools in Colorado.

“It’s been slow going,” but worthwhile, Hebard said. “It’s going to allow other practitioners to open outdoor preschools … It’s going to give parents another option.”

A child plays in the limbs of a tree at Matthews/Winters Park in Jefferson County.

Megan Patterson, a former elementary school teacher in Alaska and Colorado, launched Worldmind in 2015 — complying with state rules by offering “child and caregiver” classes at local parks and botanical gardens in Boulder County and metro Denver.

“I studied urban ecology in Boston and after that I realized … how important it is to connect kids to places around where they live,” she said. “I finally found the type of education I believe in 100 percent.”

State officials say they have been approached by other outdoor preschool providers interested in the pilot, but don’t plan to expand it beyond the two programs, and the roughly 40 children they’ll serve during the pilot period.

“We feel the model needs to be even more rigorous in the state of Colorado,” said Erin Mewhinney, director of the state’s early care and learning division in the office of early childhood.

She said while forest schools are popular in United Kingdom — where leaders of Worldmind and The Nursery School have both attended special teacher training courses — Colorado weather and terrain pose different challenges

“We all love the outdoors, but we all know how dangerous it is and we’re trying to strike a balance with that license type,” she said.

A sense of freedom

The recent Worldmind class where 2-year-old Ben plopped in the creek took place at Matthews/Winters Park in Golden on a warm, sunny May morning. While Patterson offered some general structure to the dozen kids in attendance — a snack break, a brief discussion of a picture book they’d read, and a chance to feel animal pelts, the kids were mostly free to do what they wanted.

Their parents lingered nearby, chatting with each other, chasing after younger siblings, or joining their kids in the creek or on a green tarp laid out nearby. It felt like a big, free-flowing playdate in the woods.

To be sure, there were the usual little-kid frustrations. One small girl, after repeatedly scrambling up the bank of the creek without much trouble, was reduced to tears once her hands went from merely dirty to muddy.

Worldmind’s upcoming pilot program class will look similar to the child and caregiver class, though without the parents. It will take place at Denver’s City Park, with the adjacent Denver Museum of Nature and Science serving as a backup in case of extreme weather.

Several parents who attended the recent class at Matthews/Winters Park said they planned to send their children to the pilot program. They often used the same word to describe why they liked the outdoor classes: Freedom.

Brittany Courville, of Lakewood, said she brought her 5-year-old daughter Siena to her first Worldmind session after the family relocated to Colorado from Texas a few years ago. The move had been jarring for the then 2-year-old, but the outdoor class seemed to restore her spirits.

“She loved it … It was freezing and she didn’t want to leave,” said Courville. “You know, you go to library story times — ‘Sit down. Do this. Do that’ — and she came here and there were other kids she could play with and also be herself and just explore.”

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent “forest school” class.

Brit Lease, a Denver resident and the mother of 2-year-old Ben, has friends who are excited that their daughter’s preschool has pledged she’ll be reading on a first-grade level by the time she starts kindergarten. But Lease doesn’t want that for Ben.

“What social-emotional learning did they miss out on or interpersonal kinds of things did they miss out on because they were so focused on learning how to read?” she asked.

While she talked, Ben growled like a tiger and showed off his “sword” — fashioned out of two thin branches bound together with black cord.

“My theory right now is just let them be kids as long as they can because it does start sooner,” Lease said. “Kindergarten is no joke anymore.”

A bigger tent

While Patterson launched Worldmind with a primary focus on getting kids outside, she’s lately shifted her goals. The organization is revamping its mission to aim for racial and ethnic, socioeconomic, cultural, and ability diversity.

If Worldmind becomes licensed, she also plans to accept state child-care subsidies. Tuition for four half-days of forest school during the fall semester of the pilot project runs about $2,900.

But like other outdoor preschool providers, Patterson knows the typical part-day forest school schedule doesn’t work for everybody.

In part to accommodate working parents, Patterson hopes by the fall of 2019 to open a brick-and-mortar child care center that would still focus on outdoor learning, while enabling Worldmind to serve infants and toddlers, and offer full-day care for children up to age 6.

Megan Patterson, the founder of Worldmind Nature Immersion School, talks with two children while others play nearby.

Hebard said he doesn’t plan to accept child-care subsidies because they come with requirements he thinks don’t apply to an outdoor preschool model. These include evaluating students using a state-approved assessment tool.

Still, he would eventually like to raise money for a scholarship program. But with only a handful of tuition-paying families enrolled now and much of his extra time spent working nights at UPS Inc., that reality could be a ways off.

“It would be nice to have a broader demographic,” he said. “It’s a good opportunity for any child.”

Nationally, some forest preschools have come up with creative ways to open their doors to a wider slice of their communities. For example, the Forest Freedom School, based in Oakland, gives students of a color a 30 percent break on tuition. It’s billed as the “Struggle Is Real” discount.

Aside from financial obstacles, there can be cultural barriers that make outdoor preschools perplexing or unthinkable for some families. These may include worries that children will get sick if they spend time in the rain and cold or simply the sense that school isn’t an outdoor activity.

Hebard said a colleague at another organization told him about concerns voiced by parents about plans to replace the preschool’s brightly colored plastic play equipment with a nature-themed playground. Some of the parents worked outside all day and were put off by the idea of their children playing in the dirt at school.

Overcoming those perceptions will take parent education and outreach to local groups that work with communities of color, forest school leaders say.

Kenny said programs must be aggressive about serving all kinds of families. And it’s not just tuition help that’s needed, she said. Because children are outside in all kinds of weather, families may need help ensuring their children have access to high-quality clothing and gear.

“It’s incumbent on these schools to offer some kind of assistance because right now the government’s not doing it, nobody’s doing it,” she said.