These days, however, those lengthy waitlists seem to be a thing of the past – at least for now. The region’s early childhood education centers have been experiencing a collective drop in enrollment in recent years, indicating that the country’s economic downturn may have precipitated a county-wide deceleration in the heretofore vigorous baby boom. Empirical evidence further suggests that many families have moved away in recent years, due to decreasing employment opportunities.
Accurate birth numbers are hard to come by since the majority of children born to San Miguel County families are actually birthed in hospitals in Montrose, Grand Junction, or Durango. So enrollment numbers at local child care facilities are a better indication of how many new babies there are in San Miguel County. With enrollment numbers significantly down in recent years, some are wondering if Telluride’s daycare dilemma is a thing of the past.
Dwindling Numbers During Recession
According to Kathleen Merritt, director at Mountain Munchkins daycare and preschool in Mountain Village, their infant and toddler programs have not been full for two years. The infant program just reached occupancy (six babies per day) in December but the program’s toddler numbers still remain below capacity. Mountain Munchkins is currently accepting enrollment for children between the ages of one to three, which represents a significant departure from their previous wait lists.
“In the past we have always had a substantial waitlist to pull from if enrollment dropped, but that has not been the case over the last two years,” Merritt says. “When families have to drop out of the program all together or drop days, it is much more difficult to fill that spot, and often times it doesn’t get filled.”
A similar scenario has been taking place at Telluride Preschool. Director Stephanie Baye says the program has seen “a big drop” in enrollment the last two years, and although enrollment is full at the moment, 16 of their 32 students will be moving on to kindergarten this fall.
“I really have no idea if we will fill all 16 spots in the fall,” Baye says. “In the past I worried about whether or not I would have room for everyone, and now I worry whether I will fill the spots and have employment for all of my teachers.”
Telluride’s Mountain Sprouts Preschool will see similar drops in enrollment come the fall, when 14 of its 20 students graduate to the public school system. The school hosted an open house this week, and Director Cathy Barber is hopeful the event will help the school begin to build up its enrollment numbers.
The picture that seems to be taking shape suggests that local families either moved away or stopped having kids right around two years ago, just as the country’s economic crisis was reaching its peak. What the early childhood education centers are seeing fits that equation, with current enrollment in the 2-4 year-old range running lower than in recent history.
Kathy Reagan is the Director at Toddler Town, one of only two licensed daycare facilities (with Mountain Munchkins) in the Telluride-Mountain Village region that accepts infants under the age of one year. She says the school has seen a significant drop in numbers in the older toddler age range. “It goes back to two years ago, when families were either moving away or less people were having babies,” Reagan says, noting however, that there is currently a waitlist for the school’s infant program. (Toddler Town is licensed for 12 toddlers but only three infants.)
Gold Run Childcare Still Slated to Open
Before the full burden of the recession was completely known, San Miguel County Commissioner Elaine Fischer and other local childcare proponents planted the seed for a new childcare facility to be included in the plans of the then in-the-works Gold Run affordable housing development, located on the east end of Telluride.
At that time, a permanent local childcare facility seemed essential, not only because of the ballooning local population of young families, but also because few of the existing facilities own their buildings.
The idea was that the Gold Run facility would be dedicated as a “forever childcare center,” explains Cathy James, executive director at Bright Futures for Families and Children, the regional nonprofit that focuses on early childhood education. This was important, she says, because so many local facilities rent the spaces in which they run their programs, making them vulnerable for closure if they lose their lease due to the sale of the building or another circumstance. Although no local facilities currently appear to be at-risk of such a closure, James says Bright Futures and the local governments felt it prudent to dedicate a permanent facility for childcare purposes.
The Gold Run child care facility was made possible by the donation of a lot at the development by the Town of Telluride and San Miguel County, while Bright Futures raised $150,000 to fund the facility’s construction. The town and county still need to secure upwards of $250,000 in loans to complete the project.
According to James, the Gold Run daycare project represents an important community investment. She says that existing programs are encouraged to submit a Request For Qualifications application for the space, but any potential childcare provider who fulfills the application requirements will be eligible to operate the Gold Run Childcare/Early Education Facility.
The need for a permanent early childhood center still exists, she says, despite recent evidence suggesting Telluride’s baby boom is waning.
“The situation goes back to the economic downturn, when a lot of young people had to move away… But infant spots are still few and far between right now,” she notes, which indicate that local toddler numbers are rebounding.
“There’s an ebb and flow in this town. So waiting lists may not be quite as long as in the past, but who’s to say that couldn’t totally switch?”
According to Mountain Munchkins’ Merritt, the recent uptick in infant enrollment is a good sign, but the real indicator of future rebounds in daycare enrollment ultimately depends on a vigorous local economy. “I hope that the increase in infants is an indication that our toddler room will again be at capacity when our infants turn one, but it is hard to project in this economy with parents work hours being cut or parents being laid off of work altogether. When this happens these families often not only have to drop out of childcare; they leave town altogether,” Merritt says.
The Gold Run childcare facility will not be able to accept infants, as it will be licensed for between 20 and 25 one to five-year-olds only.
Bright Futures is currently accepting RFQs. Requirements for application include being a nonprofit childcare provider organization with a Colorado license in good standing, or in the process of becoming licensed, and be Qualistar rated, or able to obtain a rating within one year of the award date, if selected. Applications can be viewed online by going to brightfuturesforchildren.org.
RFQs are due to Bright Futures by Monday, March 19. The organization will select its preferred operator by mid-April, with the execution of the lease slated for May 15.
Construction could commence soon thereafter, with the facility opening for business in the fall.