Rural after-school program runs afoul of Colorado rules
One by one, a dozen kids — girls in their best sparkly clothes, boys in clean T-shirts — stood behind a lectern in the Wiggins Fire Hall, clutching pieces of paper like lifelines, and delivered essays they had worked on for weeks.
In front of family and strangers, they spilled their secret hopes for fame and their plans to achieve world peace. They described their fondest dreams of adopting poor children and feeding homeless families, trying all the while to remember the gestures they’d practiced and the direction they’d gotten not to talk too fast.
The speech contest, complete with ribbons and gift-card prizes, was designed to build confidence in kids who need it, to make them think about a future beyond the corrugated-wall confines of this fire hall. To make them shine.
And technically, none of it’s legal.
When she launched her free after-school program in this struggling Eastern Plains town two years ago, Jodi Walker didn’t set out to thumb her nose at state regulations. Kids at Their Best was supposed to be something for kids in the grip of poverty to do in the afternoon besides sit at home alone or roam unsupervised. The goal was to expose them to a little art, help them find something to aspire to. Walker said she never imagined that doing all that in a rural setting would make accomplishing her goals and following state rules seem so mutually exclusive.
That’s because, she said, child-care licensing rules “are all based on metro areas.”
State officials don’t agree. They say Walker hasn’t made much effort to comply with regulations that protect kids from unsafe conditions and keep convicted felons away from them.
Still, David Collins, the state’s interim director of child care, concedes one point: “It’s hard to have programs for children in rural communities, for a lot of reasons. It’s expensive; there are not enough children. ”
Yet rural communities have some of the greatest need for those programs.
Morgan County, where Wiggins lies, is a perfect 36-mile-by-36-mile square where sturdy German pioneers forged ranches out of rippling buffalo-grass prairie and where a teenage Glenn Miller practiced his trombone. Today, that slice of prairie heartland is second only to Denver as the toughest place in the state to grow up, according to this year’s statewide Kids Count report.
In a side-by-side comparison of the state’s 25 most populous counties, the report, released by the Colorado Children’s Campaign, found that Morgan County leads the state in the rate of births to mothers who don’t have a high school diploma. It also, along with Logan County, has the highest rate of obese children.
“Where a child lives does substantially impact access to health care, quality education and food access and safe places to play,” said Chris Watney, executive director of the children’s campaign.
There are jobs in Morgan County, thanks to the Cargill Meat Solutions plant and several dairies. But a lot of those jobs are part-time shift work, and often they don’t pay enough to boost a family into the middle class.
“The number of people we have coming in our office certainly increased a couple of years ago,” said Mary Gross, executive director of the Morgan County Family Center. “And we’re seeing families who had never accessed services.”
And there’s the teen-pregnancy problem.
“Morgan County has had a high teen-pregnancy rate for some time,” said Fort Morgan School District Superintendent Greg Wagers. Years ago, the school district started looking at ways to combat that, “and we also wanted to look at factors that impacted our dropout rate.”
To accomplish both at the same time, the district launched a day-care center on the high school campus. The teenage moms don’t have to leave school, and they — and the dads — get parenting classes.
“We’re also trying to get the infants and toddlers off to a better start by providing an enriched environment, good nutrition, a stimulating environment,” he said.
The dropout rate in the district has declined to about 2.3 percent, well below the state’s worst showing of 6.4 percent — in Denver.
All that is what Walker wanted to combat. She’s found herself combating the state as well, and she’ll be the first to admit she’s been pretty obstinate about it.
She doesn’t want to be licensed as a child-care provider. Child-care providers have to comply with a litany of rules, all designed to keep kids safe, regarding staffing levels, building design and hygiene.
But with a budget of about $25,000 a year from private donations and grants, Walker can’t afford paid staff. She relies on volunteer help, such as her 18-year-old daughter.
Care regulations also are designed for toddlers and preschoolers; the 20 to 25 kids who show up in her barnlike center every afternoon range from about 5 years old to 12 or 13.
Two years ago, state officials largely agreed that she didn’t fit into any licensing category. They envisioned a potential solution, though, in legislation creating a new category: neighborhood youth organization.
Now, as that 2010 law is being implemented, it turns out it won’t help much, because of a single provision inserted by lawmakers. As Collins explains it, “Parents aren’t allowed to pick up and drop off kids.”
The law was passed at the behest of Boys and Girls Clubs, which operates clubs that kids drop in and out of on their own.
It’s possible that Walker could get an exemption, Collins said, but she has not applied for one.
The state allows kids programs to get by without a license if they are providing mainly religious instruction or if they are engaged in one activity only, such as soccer or painting, or if they are designed to watch kids very briefly, such as in a shopping mall.
None of those applies to her, Walker said.
She and her board chairman/lawyer will sit down with the state this week to try to work something out.