Eagle County Schools Receive Grants to Improve Early Years Capacity in the Valley

Eagle County Schools recently received grants to begin design work on a potential new early learning center as well as outdoor learning centers in Gypsum.
Eagle County Schools/Courtesy Photos

The need for additional child care options has increased alongside recent population growth in lower valley communities such as Dotsero, Gypsum and Eagle. To meet growing demand, the Eagle County School District sought and recently received grants to address capacity issues.

At the district school board meeting on Wednesday, July 13, the board discussed the terms of the first grant recently awarded for the construction of a new early learning center in Gypsum.

Sandy Farrell, chief operating officer of Eagle County Schools, said the grant would allow the district “to address early care and learning capacity in the gypsum area.”

The grant – which was awarded by the state of Colorado – would provide just over $1 million for the district to pursue the center. According to Farrell, $800,000 of that amount comes from the state, with the county and district matching $125,000.

Due to the parameters of the grant, the board had to approve an attestation to the district leadership in the continuation of the Valley Early Learning Center. This certification states that if the district intends to use grant funds for design work at the site, the award of the grant is “subject to the passing of a ballot measure to fund the construction of the building,” according to a report to council.

If the ballot measure did not pass, the district would be responsible for reimbursing funds received from the state. The attestation states that the district has three years to raise funds for the building. Once the center is built, the district is also required to keep it operational for five years.

“They want to make sure that once they give an organization a large sum of money, it goes to keep it going, they don’t just open it up and sell it and move on. something else,” Farrell said.

The proposed early learning center would provide approximately 35,800 square feet and serve 290 children through:

  • 12 preschool classrooms that can accommodate 180 students;
  • Seven toddler rooms that can accommodate 70 children; and
  • Five children’s rooms with a capacity of 40 children.

That tally includes not only the current eight preschool classrooms at Red Hill and Gypsum Elementary — which Farrell said would move to the new center, freeing up space at those schools for additional K-5 classes — but also rooms to help meet growing demand. With the center, the question isn’t whether the district will be able to fill those 290 spaces, but rather “Is it going to be big enough?” said Farrell.

“Additional classrooms have been added for children we have on waiting lists and students who are not attending preschool due to location. So we would like to be able to get them back,” she said. “It also comes from data and information that we got from the county and from surveys of how many families are going without preschool because there’s nothing there.”

According to the board’s report, priority enrollment would be given to school district and Eagle County government employees with additional spaces provided and funded through the new statewide universal preschool, Head Start and Early Head Start. This, Farrell said, would allow the site to encompass children ages three to five as well as toddlers.

The site in question is located adjacent to Red Hill Elementary School and Gypsum Creek Middle School, with the district looking to use the site for both the center and employee housing. The design work, Farrell said Wednesday, would include work for the early learning center and living quarters.

The design costs, she added, will likely exceed the grant amount “to make them clear in the construction documents,” but they are necessary.

“It’s a process we would go through anyway because we so badly need early learning centers in the west end of the valley and more housing. Even though we are unable to secure capital funds for this, we would want and need to pay for them directly from our budget in order to bring these facilities into operation,” Farrell said. “We need to do this and the more work we can do now to prepare for this funding, the better off we will be and able to secure the capital funds and open the center.”

With the board approving the attestation on Wednesday, Farrell said the worst-case scenario would be for the district to spend all state grant funds through the design process, get as deep on the project as possible, have to go voters for a bond to build the facility, the voters decline the bond, and therefore the project will not be capital funded for the next three years.

“If that happens, we’ll repay the $800,000 to the state for the grant from our capital reserve, which would be transferred from our general fund,” she said.

Ideal scholarship

The district also recently received an additional $22,800 from Early Milestones Colorado and Trust for Learning. The district – along with five other recipients – received funding from the Expanding Ideal Learning Environments in Pre-K Through Kindergarten grant initiative in its first year.

According to a press releasewinners were selected based on projects “that center educators and their continuing professional development as essential components of the successful implementation of ideal learning approaches and primarily serve historically marginalized communities.”

The proponents of “ideal learning” are defined by Early Milestones Colorado as “an approach that focuses on all aspects of a young child’s development, including physical, academic, and social-emotional growth.”

The Eagle County School District will use the grant funding to “strengthen the alignment of a new preschool classroom with ideal learning principals,” according to the release.

Specifically, it says the district will establish new outdoor learning centers at Gypsum Elementary School. Additionally, it will “create a classroom environment that authentically represents, embraces and celebrates the different languages ​​and cultures of children and their families.”

Shelley Smith, director of early childhood education for the district, said the money “will help fund classroom materials for the classroom that we are adding to Gypsum.”

The two grants, according to Matt Miano, the district’s director of communications, help Eagle County schools “make incremental progress toward additional preschool options and greater resources and access to classroom materials downstream and we will continue to look for opportunities as they present themselves.”

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