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Early Childhood Educator I Cathy Hayes talks with a group of 4- and 5-year old children at the University of Colorado Boulder Children’s Center on Nov. 11. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)
Early Childhood Educator I Cathy Hayes talks with a group of 4- and 5-year old children at the University of Colorado Boulder Children’s Center on Nov. 11. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)

University of Colorado Boulder Children’s Center has seen marked improvements in staffing, pay and morale in the months since the center was cited by the Colorado Department of Human Services for safety violations and employees raised concerns about the quality of care.

A student checks out the sensory table and science area at the University of Colorado Boulder Children’s Center on Nov. 11. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)

Teacher Bella Tracey, who spoke to the Camera this summer about lack of staff compromising the safety of children at the center, said she was blown away by support from parents after the article’s publication and surprised by how quickly things changed, including bonuses and new hires.

“Most importantly, all of us could feel this sense of calmness which hadn’t happened for months and months,” Tracey said. “People were talking about it, parents were very active, we had meetings — so yes, changes were happening that were very visible and very welcome.”

The center now enrolls 39 children with 10 full-time and seven part-time employees, including three student employees, and is hiring one more full-time teaching staff member, according to CU Boulder. In July, the center was enrolling 64 children and had 12 staff members.

The center already was looking into pay raises for all employees, said Brian Groves, executive director of auxiliary services. The center also implemented retention and hiring bonuses and put a pause on enrollment.

Early Childhood Educator II and Infant Nursery Supervisor Merritt James comforts a baby in a crib at the University of Colorado Boulder Children’s Center. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)

“Child care education shortages are not just in this county but also statewide and nationwide, and we are very sensitive to that so we can support our staff and make sure they have the resources they need,” Groves said.

The state inspection in June was prompted by a complaint about the center not following state-mandated ratios of teachers to children, and staffing shortages were at the heart of a letter sent by center staff to CU Boulder human resources detailing how teachers couldn’t take breaks, even to go to the bathroom, because there weren’t enough employees.

Teacher Emilia Pollauf was looking for other jobs this summer because she was worried about the quality of care.

“It felt like we were being told we needed to function with fewer resources, and it was hard,” she said.

But Pollauf said she has since seen changes at the center, and things like Groves coming in to wash dishes, put together play equipment and talk with teachers about their concerns has raised morale.

“As much as I felt the message was extremely important to get out when the article came out, I do want the public to know that this is not just happening at the Children’s Center but a lot of places are facing staffing shortages in early childhood education,” she said.

“We’re still here; we’re coming back stronger from this and the support from parents and the community has made a huge difference,” Pollauf continued.

Parent Nathan Schneider said he knew about issues at the center, but reading the accounts from teachers helped crystallize and clarify there was a problem and that teachers felt strongly enough about it to come forward.

Schneider, along with other parents, community members and teachers, wrote a letter to CU Boulder administration in August expressing their concerns and support for the center staff.

“For the most part our kids are very excited to go every day and in some ways that was what made the problems such a surprise and so distressing because that was not a normal part of our experience there,” he said.

Schneider’s children have been enrolled in every classroom at the center and his family has come to deeply trust the teachers.

“When they raised an alarm, we took that seriously,” he said.

Parents and community members requested a meeting with campus leaders in their letter, which Schneider said was a positive experience.

“One of the teachers who had been expressing concerns earlier expressed that she felt real change had happened, so that was a very moving thing to hear,” Schneider said. “To hear that people who were most frustrated felt that things had improved was, to me, very powerful.”

The center is planning to increase its enrollment in January, Groves said.

“I feel like we’re positioned well for the future,” Groves said. “We have tremendous staff, not just new staff, but staff that have chosen to remain. We’re going to ensure that we have the resources needed before we begin to increase enrollment.”

Tracey said she feels good about the center’s current path and hopes that there will continue to be enough employees, particularly if and when the center enrolls more children.

“If that happens, everything should be OK,” she said.

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