“There’s not a database. They’re not connected to any system,” said Liz Houston, the executive director of the Early Childhood Colorado Leadership Alliance.
This under-the-radar existence has meant little public awareness or support for such providers—and by extension the thousands of children in their care. But with the growing push to make sure children are ready for school no matter what kind of childcare they get, that’s changing.
The training session in Longmont is one example. It’s part of a program called Providers Advancing Student Outcomes, or PASO, run by the Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition. Funded mostly by grant money in four communities within Colorado’s Front Range, it’s received national notice and represents one of the few initiatives targeted to Spanish-speaking providers. “There’s not another program that’s as intensive as PASO out there,” said Valerie Gonzales, the director of operations for the Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition.
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While the women in the church classroom got ready to break for lunch, Maria Perez, a PASO graduate, recounted her own experience in the program six years ago. She was caring for her aunt’s three children as well as two of her own at the time. “We didn’t know anything when we started,” she said. “It’s true. The first day I came I was like, ‘Wow, we know nothing about early education.’”
But she stuck with it, earning a perfect-attendance certificate and coming to appreciate how each class connected to the last like a series of train cars. Today, Perez, who arrived here from Mexico 11 years ago, heads the team that provides childcare in the church nursery during PASO classes. She seeks out other PASO graduates to assist her because she knows they’re well-trained.
Perez is an enthusiastic evangelist for the program and the parent empowerment it promotes. Since she took the course, which is led by instructors known as “tías” or aunts, she’s referred 10 other women.
She also urges parents of her young charges to get involved in their kids’ schools and in the community. She points to her 17-year-old son—a responsible boy who’s helpful with his younger siblings and is taking Advanced Placement classes at school. “This is thanks to the fact that I am always involved,” she said. “And I am always trying to learn in any program … I always tell that to the parents: ‘Go to the classes and pay attention.’”
Flor Marquez, the community-engagement coordinator for Denver’s Early Childhood Council, found the same kind of enthusiasm in the training sessions she led in northeast and southwest Denver over the summer. Participants, who learned about topics such as child-abuse prevention, nutrition, and discipline, saw the power in educating themselves, she said: “They didn’t want the group to end.”
In fact, the southwest Denver group didn’t end. The women in it decided to keep meeting weekly even after its official conclusion. There’s no more grant money to support it, but Marquez helps out when she can.