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Rural after-school program runs afoul of Colorado rules

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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.

Karen Augé

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Comments
  • comment avatar HaDavis April 30, 2012

    So at a certain point you just tell the state to stuff it … they don’t have the lawful (vs. legal) authority to do what they claim they can.

  • comment avatar Adrian April 30, 2012

    We already are there. I could give you a myriad of reasons why, but why bother. In this case the State is inhibiting the growth of children in its normal way of saying “one size fits all”.Positive regulations and rules are perhaps necessary. Blind obstinancy is neither necessary or required. Typical. Sure hope she and her neighbors tell the state to stuff it where the sun doesn’t shine. If anyone knows who to contact I would like to donate some cash to her cause.

    • comment avatar K April 30, 2012

      Their contact information is:

      Kids At Their Best
      P.O. Box 305
      Wiggins, CO 80654
      Attention: Jodi Walker

      I am sure any monetary help would be appreciated

    • comment avatar Jodi April 30, 2012

      THANK YOU! We are always up for donations! 100% of the kids we serve live near poverty level.
      At little more background about what we do – In the summer’s we provide lunches through Hunger Free Colorado and Food Bank of the Rockies, since all of our kids are on the free and reduced lunch program and when school gets out there are no other lunch programs for them. We also bring out programs from the metro area for our kiddos – nobody wants to be seen as “the kid who needs lunch”. We have an enrichment activity like Denver Museum, painting classes or drama and then we have lunch. Its just part of the program and that way kids are stigmatized as being “poor”, they are just part of the group!

  • comment avatar Mike April 30, 2012

    Too many government regulations on way too many subjects.

    Government bureaucrats feel the need for more rules and regulations to justify their existence and to expand their power base.

    How about some sessions designed to trim rules from the books and to make the laws easier to understand? Never happen.

  • comment avatar Kathryn April 30, 2012

    Some years ago, when I was an educational assistant and with the support of the principal, I ran a once-a-week after-school book club for second and third graders at our local elementary school. It cost me about $100.00 a semester for the new paperback books (which the children would keep), about $10.00 a week for snacks, and less than an hour a week of my time. Although the main goal was to read and discuss the book we selected, after a child had completed three book reports on books she or he had read independently, s/he could select a free book (used, in good condition, which were selected either from places like Goodwill or from those books my own kids had outgrown and no longer wanted.) Anyway, the after-school book club was a big success — although partly because of the free snacks, I would guess! — and it grew from about ten kids the first semester to about double that in succeeding semesters. (I had to end it when we moved to another state because of my husband’s work.)

    The point is that I did not run into ANY problems with anyone. Whether it was because it did not cost anyone (besides me) anything or because it was held at a school or because I had the support of the school principal, I don’t know. But it seems to me that anything that encourages literacy should not be discouraged!

    And, BTW, what is the problem with parents not being able to pick up or drop off at Jodi’s program? That makes no sense to me at all. (Also, what is with the “one activity” rule as applies to Jodi? Is it because she combines writing and art? So what?!)

  • comment avatar Tom G April 30, 2012

    Now to the case at hand, it would appear that the hero of this piece has not been willing to try to reach much of a compromise. She might find that a bit of give on her part yields a lot of get. The rules she has run afoul of are designed to make sure that daycare centers meet minimal standards before children are left in their care.

  • comment avatar Mommybgood April 30, 2012

    Kudos to her. It doesn’t bother me much that she hasn’t bent over backwards to comply with ridiculous regulations designed for special groups (I’m looking at you Boys and Girls Club). The kids are safe. She’s doing a good thing for the community with private donations and grants. The government is once again overstepping. The state is acting in its own best interest not that of the children or community. They should keep out of it.

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