This article was co-published with EdSurge, a nonprofit newsroom that covers the future of learning through original journalism and research.
In a valley renowned for its world-class ski resorts and unrivaled outdoor recreation, with 14,000-foot peaks that pierce the horizon, five-star hotels, designer storefronts, and multimillion-dollar mountainside mansions, there is a fleet of short, white buses stamped with geometric shapes.
Parked in the lots of schools, churches, and community centers, the buses are inconspicuous. Most passersby would overlook them, distracted by the natural beauty of their backdrop.
But inside, day after day, small wonders are unfolding. Gutted and retrofitted to look like traditional preschool classrooms, these mobile spaces host 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds in the valley who, otherwise, likely wouldn’t see a formal learning environment until kindergarten, by which time many of their peers are already steps ahead.
The El Busesito “little bus” preschool is run by Valley Settlement, a nonprofit that delivers free early childhood and family engagement programs to Latino immigrant families in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley. The 40-mile region stretches from the red rock cliffs and geothermal pools of Glenwood Springs to the luxury resort town of Aspen and is marked by wide social and economic disparity. El Busesito operates four buses that travel to five neighborhoods to provide bilingual preschool education for nearly 100 children in the community.
Launched in 2011 as a project of the Manaus Fund, a local social justice organization, and later established as an independent nonprofit, Valley Settlement now has a half-dozen programs that serve children and families in concert, including those for infants and toddlers, pregnant and postpartum women, and caregivers.
The organization—and its two-generation approach to programming—was born out of conversations with more than 250 of the area’s low-wage immigrant families, a population that ballooned at the turn of the century and undergirds the very attractions and amenities that draw tourists and billionaires to the valley year-round. What did they need? What were their hopes for themselves and their children? What did they wish for their futures?
Only 1 percent of families with children eligible for preschool had actually enrolled them in it, organizers learned. What they needed most, what they hoped for their children, was early education.
In the parking lot of a community center in El Jebel, an unincorporated town halfway up the valley, children arrive one at a time and climb the three steps up into their 22-foot-long mobile classroom, which fills their vision with bursts of primary colors from the moment they cross its threshold.
Once on the bus, after 30 minutes of free play, in which the kids flit between activities involving paint, dress-up costumes, and building blocks, lead teacher Sarai Ramirez plays music to cue the transition to cleanup, followed by circle time.
Seated on the rug and speaking in Spanish, Ramirez gives each child a circle time job. She passes a reading pointer to Andrea, who is first up, to count the number of children in class.
Long pigtails bouncing, Andrea points the wand and counts, uno, dos, tres.
Then she passes it to Felipe, who counts the number of people on the bus, teachers and journalists included, uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco, seis, siete, ocho.
Finally, Francisco gets the pointer and is asked to count the days of September, using a calendar on the wall, starting with the first of the month.
The children glide through questions on shapes and letters, then sit down on the floor, “crisscross applesauce, spoon in the bowl,” with legs folded and hands in their laps. They take turns doing deep breathing exercises with a “breathing ball” that, in sync with their own exhalations, expands and contracts.
Then Ramirez asks each child, one by one, how they are feeling today, readying a handful of clothespins. She will clip these onto a laminated sign at the back of the bus labeled “¿Cómo se siento? Emociómetro” under the emotion each child calls out: feliz (happy), rabia (angry), miedo (scared), tristeza (sad) or calma (calm).”
Proudly, dramatically, thoughtfully, they each announce they are feliz, then pull out the snacks they brought from home while Ramirez reads from a book about colors and feelings.
The goal of El Busesito Preschool is to expose children to a formal education setting. “It’s not child care,” says Sally Boughton, Valley Settlement’s director of development and communications. “It’s an early learning intervention.”
The program is as much designed to support social and emotional development, establish routines and help kids learn to follow directions as it is to teach them math and literacy skills, adds Karla Reyes, the preschool’s manager. And according to last year’s assessments, it’s working. Children attending the program have shown significant developmental progress as well as improved school readiness.
“In order to work on the academic piece—letters and numbers and all that—the other stuff comes first,” explains Reyes, who started as an assistant teacher at El Busesito in 2015.
“Working on that heavily at the beginning of the year sets us up for success at the end of the year. There’s a big difference [from] the beginning of the year to December.”
Similarly, El Busesito teachers usually speak more Spanish in their classes at the start of the school year, allowing children to gain confidence and build a foundation in their native language.
“Little by little, teachers start introducing English” as the school year progresses, Reyes adds.
Most of the kids will attend kindergarten in a school where they are expected to speak English, but there are now two bilingual elementary schools in the valley, she notes, a recognition of the demographic shift the area has experienced in the last couple of decades, as more families immigrated here from Mexico and Central America. The residential population of the Roaring Fork Valley is about one-third Latino, but among the school-aged population, it’s more like half.
In El Jebel, just before the afternoon preschool class begins, a Latina woman approaches the bus with four young children in tow—the smallest on her hip, and the other three linking hands and walking alongside her. The woman is a “family, friend, and neighbor” (FFN) provider, meaning she cares for children to whom she is either related or knows through her community. FFN care, which is the most common child care arrangement in the US, is often provided in caregivers’ homes. Programs are typically unlicensed and not regulated by the state.
Many parents whose children attend El Busesito rely on these arrangements for child care when their kids are not on the bus. Children have class two days a week, and at some sites like El Jebel, the preschool offers a half-day program, which runs two-and-a-half hours in the morning or afternoon. Elsewhere there is a full-day option, which runs five-and-a-half hours. Both arrangements leave working parents with significant gaps in care throughout the week.
Most parents of children at the preschool have long commutes up the valley to Snowmass or Aspen, followed by long work days. Many work in hospitality—in restaurants or hotels near the resorts—or construction, according to Valley Settlement staff.
Licensed childcare programs in the valley are often unsustainable alternatives for these families. In addition to being costly and in short supply—there are far fewer licensed child care slots than children eligible in the Roaring Fork Valley—licensed programs rarely stay open during the non-traditional hours many resort workers need.
The FFN provider in El Jebel drops off one of the kids to the preschool, signs him into class, then walks just a few minutes to return home with the other children. She lives in a nearby mobile home park. With more than 300 homes, it’s one of the largest in the valley, and it’s where many of the families with kids attending El Busesito live.
In 2017, as Valley Settlement grew and adapted to meet the needs of the Latino community, the nonprofit launched a new program for FFN providers, whom staff recognized were playing an important role in the care infrastructure in the area.
“We knew from the beginning that informal child care was something that existed in our valley, and that it was a backbone for families who don’t have traditional hours and who work up in the resorts in Aspen,” explains Kenia Pinela, the manager of the FFN program for Valley Settlement.
Pinela and her team identified high demand for quality training and support among FFN providers. The next step, then, was to do what Valley Settlement staff had always done: listen.
Pinela, who first joined Valley Settlement in 2012 as a babysitter for parents participating in the Parent Mentor program—another prong of the organization’s approach—spent nine months meeting with and observing about a dozen FFN providers, visiting their homes while they cared for children, trying to understand what their work looked like and what support they would benefit from.
Many providers wanted to learn about the different developmental milestones for kids, since they were caring for mixed ages. They wanted someone to model for them what good care and education looked like, Pinela recalls.
The outcome of that listening phase was the creation of a 24-month training and home visiting program for FFN providers, with opportunities to attend Saturday training sessions covering subjects and certifications such as CPR and first aid, mandatory reporting, infant mental health, and nutritious meal preparations. Participants are joined by a home visitor on staff at Valley Settlement twice a month and work through a curriculum that begins with basic health and safety protocols for their home and moves on to cover gross and fine motor skills, language acquisition, social and emotional development, and more. The program also provides FFNs with monthly materials to fill out their spaces: blocks, books, bouncers, art supplies, snacks, and safety products.
The woman who approached the bus in El Jebel has participated in the FFN program with Valley Settlement. The organization works with 32 in-home, informal caregivers every year, who in turn serve up to 160 children in the valley.
“In the beginning, everyone was taken aback that we were going to work with informal providers,” Pinela explains. “There’s this narrative that it’s not safe, that it’s illegal. And that’s not true.”
Indeed, family, friend, and neighbor care, though popular in the US, has a stigma, says Ai Binh T. Ho, a fellow at the Better Life Lab, a program at New America. That’s partly because it’s difficult to measure the quality of FFN care, since it’s not monitored or tracked in the same way as licensed care, Ho explains.
“It’s definitely not normalized, and it’s definitely not valued the same way [as licensed care],” says Ho, who has worked with immigrant and refugee communities for the last two decades. “When people talk about the brain development that happens due to quality care, they’re talking about centers. There’s a little bit of a taboo around” informal care.
Valley Settlement’s FFN training program aims to improve the quality of care that FFNs provide. “They’re not seeking licensing, they’re seeking professional development,” Pinela clarifies. But there is an optional third year of the program, a track for providers to earn the nationally recognized Child Development Associate credential.
The improvements among FFNs in the valley are evident, according to Pinela and findings from a quality rating tool administered by Valley Settlement.
Many providers have established daytime routines similar to what is seen in traditional early childhood programs, featuring circle time, play time and story time to offer children consistency. With a deeper understanding of child development milestones, the providers regularly refer children in need to specialists for evaluation or intervention.
Alumni of the Valley Settlement FFN program often call Pinela to request an Ages and Stages Questionnaire, a screener to gauge possible developmental delays, or to tell her that there’s a child who isn’t saying much yet but probably should be by now.
“A lot of them come from an elementary or middle school education back in their country,” Pinela explains. “They want to learn. They want to do best by these kids. They really take ownership of the kids they care for.”
Just down the road from El Jebel is the town of Carbondale, home to a handful of golf courses, a charming Main Street, near-inescapable views of a towering mountain peak and an FFN provider who is in the second year of the training program with Valley Settlement.
The provider, Rosa, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, lives on the second story of a commercial building that has been converted into a makeshift dwelling. A staircase is all that divides a workspace on the main floor with Rosa’s residential space above; for now, she lacks a solid wall and door. In the interim, she improvises with a gray fabric couch, sliding it back and forth across the floor, to block little ones’ access to the stairwell.
Rosa, age 28, cares for seven children between the ages of 2 and 4 each day in her home. One of them is her 2-year-old son. She moved to the U.S. from El Salvador in 2019—following her sister, whom she says fled domestic violence in their country—hoping to establish a better life for herself and her husband before starting a family.
Rosa, her husband and their son lived in a mobile home shared with that same sister, her husband, and their three children until recently. But overcrowding led her to seek out this new space.
Valley Settlement brought Rosa into its programming in summer of 2021. Pinela was knocking on doors in the community and left a pamphlet at Rosa’s house. She later agreed to the FFN training.
In the first year of the program, Rosa says, she learned a lot. The safety measures were helpful, as Valley Settlement staff helped her childproof her space with additions like outlet covers. She had a child who was biting other kids, until a staff member modeled for her how to communicate to that child why it was wrong and how he was hurting others. That problem has been resolved.
Rosa has learned what to expect from kids of different ages—where a 2-year-old’s language skills should be versus a 4-year-old’s, for example—and how to talk with kids about their emotions. It’s made her a more confident caregiver as well as a better mother, she says.
Most licensed child care providers in the valley charge multiples of what Rosa and other FFN providers do. She asks for $20 a day for the 4-year-old she cares for and $25 a day for the younger kids.
“It’s a lot of responsibility, a lot of work,” she says of caregiving, via an interpreter. “Especially with different ages—to play with them, change diapers, feed them.”
Empowered by what she’s learning and how she’s progressing, Rosa says she is interested in raising her rates once she finishes the second year of training with Valley Settlement.
The mobile preschools can each accommodate eight children, yet in El Jebel and Carbondale, some slots remain open this year. The under-enrollment is a symptom of a larger condition plaguing the valley—an affordable housing crisis that has pushed families “farther and farther west,” explains Boughton, the director of development and communications.
When El Busesito Preschool launched in 2011, the “valley” in Valley Settlement referred only to the Roaring Fork Valley, that 40-mile stretch that acts as the main artery to jobs, education and opportunities in the area, most of it flowing upward toward Aspen.
But more recently—and particularly since the start of the pandemic—the immigrant community has been forced to relocate west of Glenwood Springs, to more affordable towns along the Interstate 70 corridor, in the Colorado River Valley: New Castle, Silt, Rifle and as far west as Parachute.
The housing crisis in the valley reflects a larger, national dilemma, though in the resort towns of Colorado, the gap between the highest and lowest income earners tends to be even wider. The year-to-date median sales price of a single-family home in Aspen through September was $12.4 million, according to the Aspen Board of Realtors, compared to $1.6 million in Carbondale, $852,000 in Glenwood Springs, $665,000 in New Castle and $449,000 in Rifle. The national median sales price of a single-family home in September was $391,000.
Historically, housing in “down valley” towns such as Carbondale and Glenwood Springs provided a more affordable alternative for those who commute up to Snowmass and Aspen for work. But with inventory low and out-of-state demand sky-high in recent years, many deep-pocketed homebuyers began looking to the towns outside of Aspen, forcing prices up and creating an untenable situation for lower-wage residents. Less than a decade ago, for example, homes in Carbondale sold for a price comparable to what those in Rifle go for today: $496,000, compared to $1.6 million. The difference is Rifle sits 70 miles away from Aspen, compared to Carbondale’s 30.
Valley Settlement staff have seen many families migrate to New Castle, Rifle and Silt, but others have opted to prioritize proximity to Aspen for a shorter commute over more space. Reyes, the manager of El Busesito, says that it’s common for multiple families to share a single dwelling, as Rosa did with her sister. She knows of cases where up to four families occupy a double-wide trailer.
The strain of rising housing costs has also had a material impact on Valley Settlement staff, says Boughton. Nearly 40 percent of the organization’s 35-person staff—which is overwhelmingly Spanish-speaking Latina immigrants—now live west of Glenwood Springs. Reyes, the director of El Busesito, is one of them. She was living in Carbondale when she started working for Valley Settlement in 2015, but a few years later she was pushed out to Glenwood Springs and, eventually, to New Castle, where she lives today.
“People are moving west because they can afford the housing there. The jobs aren’t moving west,” explains Rob Stein, a long-time Valley Settlement board member and recently retired superintendent of the Roaring Fork School District.
Stein explains that the hub for work is still Aspen, but the spokes continue to stretch farther and farther out for housing. Some families are moving to the town of Parachute but still commuting to Aspen, despite the 85-mile distance. Parachute is only 45 miles from the city of Grand Junction in western Colorado, but the work in Aspen pays that much better.
This shift has been top of mind for folks at Valley Settlement since most of their programming is centered around the towns from which the immigrant community is quickly moving away. In October, the organization wrapped up strategic planning and made a decision to expand its geographic reach by nearly double. The team is prepared to offer programming as far west as Parachute, depending on desire and demand from communities in the area.
“We have people calling us all the time, saying, ‘When is El Busesito coming to New Castle? When is El Busesito coming to Silt?’ They know. They’re ready,” says Maria Tarajano Rodman, executive director of Valley Settlement.
“We are still deeply committed to the Roaring Fork Valley. There’s still work we’re doing that’s evolving. [But] the trends are too noticeable,” she says of the migration.
The decision to expand comes at an opportune time. Colorado’s free, universal preschool initiative is set to launch in fall of 2023. For the first time, the state is granting full preschool licenses to mobile classrooms, which will allow El Busesito to access the universal pre-K funding and double the number of hours available to the children it currently serves. And recently, Sen. John Hickenlooper of Colorado helped secure federal funding for Valley Settlement to purchase and retrofit three new buses—an expense that can run up to $100,000 per bus—bringing its fleet up to eight.
The majority of staff at Valley Settlement came to the nonprofit first as participants. For example, the family educator who works with FFNs was herself a home-based provider who went through the two-year training program before joining the team.
If Pinela, the manager of the FFN program, has it her way, she will eventually be replaced by one of the FFNs she’s worked with over the years.
“That’s the vibe here,” says Tarajano Rodman, the executive director, who adds that she, too, hopes her successor comes from within the community. (Tarajano Rodman moved to the valley from Farmington, New Mexico, to step into the role in early 2021).
Valley Settlement has made painstaking efforts to be in—and become—the community it serves, knocking on hundreds of doors, giving families a window into their kids’ education experiences, and then empowering them to play a bigger part.
“It takes so much time and trust. It is the hard, heavy lift of the work,” says Tarajano Rodman. “But once you have done that, it changes everything. I can say that in earnest, having worked in organizations that don’t. We take that approach with everything. Everything is about building trusting relationships and connecting people in all of our work.”
She adds: “We are very rooted in listening, pausing, reflecting and taking action, and then going back to listening. Because you’ve got to go through those steps. It’s so important.”
To mark its first decade in operation, Valley Settlement conducted a 10-year listening tour in summer 2021, talking with more than 300 families about their experiences. This style of engagement can go a long way toward building trust and relationships in the community, and it makes a difference for families. In a survey administered last year to families involved with El Busesito, parents rated the school climate as highly positive, with a score of 31 on a scale of 7 to 35.
That ethos echoes around the valley. Stein, the superintendent of the local school district, who held the position from 2013 until earlier this year, says that when he moved to the area from Denver, he was struck by not just what Valley Settlement was doing, but how.
“They start by listening, knocking on doors,” he says. “They develop programming based on people telling them what their needs are. It’s super collaborative, very participatory and the opposite of top-down, in terms of approach.”
School districts, on the other hand, don’t have a great track record of listening, he notes. They don’t make a habit of asking families what they need or want. But when he became superintendent of the Roaring Fork School District, he decided to adopt Valley Settlement’s approach of “leading by listening.”
“I started listening, too, and that’s how the district operated over the last nine years,” he says.
Stein would meet with parents every year, sometimes twice a year, and ask open-ended questions: How are things going? What do you need? What do you wish for your children and their futures?
“Overwhelmingly, year after year, I heard from parents who participated in Valley Settlement programs that they valued the connectedness, how it helped them integrate into U.S. society and understand U.S. schools,” Stein recalls. “I heard that over and over.”