A new preschool will open in early January in Ignacio after the planned closure of Southern Ute Head Start.
The Ignacio Early Learning Program will open in the former Pine River Community Learning Center on Candelaria Drive and serve about 50 children between the ages of 3 and 5, said Eileen Wasserbach, executive director of the Southern Colorado Community Action Agency.
The Ignacio School Board owns the building and recently approved a lease with SoCoCAA,, she said.
The building will also house the nonprofit's administrative and transit offices, she said.
SoCoCAA was formerly called Southern Ute Community Action Programs and was largely funded by federal grants the Southern Ute Indian Tribe passed on to SUCAP. The Tribal Council decided in August to end all funding to SUCAP by Dec. 31 because grants intended to benefit Native Americans "were not being used for that purpose," according a news release issued by the tribe. The tribe also decided to end its leases with the nonprofit.
SUCAP and SoCoCAA never spent federal funds on individuals who did not meet the eligibility criteria for the program they were participating in, Wasserbach said.
"Accountability is one of our highest values and something we pay a lot of attention to," she said.
SUCAP ran six social programs, including a preschool, transit service, employment- and job-training programs, the senior center, drug treatment and youth services. Each service will see different levels of change.
Southern Ute Head Start served more than 100 children and will operate through December.
The preschool was a priority service for the nonprofit to preserve, Wasserbach said.
"Taking that many slots just felt like it was going to leave a big hole," she said.
SoCoCAA plans to provide care for about 50 children and about half will be paid for through the Colorado Preschool Program.
The Ignacio School Board approved a contract with SoCoCAA to provide full-time preschool for 16 children and half-day preschool for 10 children through the Colorado Preschool Program - a free service for families who qualify, Wasserbach said.
Depending on demand, SoCoCAA may open a room to serve children younger than 3 years old, she said.
The new learning center plans to prioritize child care for employees of SoCoCAA and the Ignacio School District. Enrollment information for the general public is now available, she said.
The closure of Southern Ute Head Start eliminates child care in a county that is already facing a shortage.
In January, the county had enough child care for about 44 percent of young children in the county, according to the Early Childhood Council of La Plata County.
Heather Hawk, the council's executive director, was pleased by the efforts of SoCoCAA to open a new preschool, she said.
"It's a relief to me that there are plans to continue care within that community. ... It's a really important resource, and a valuable tool for kindergarten readiness," Hawk said.
Southern Ute Head Start and Tri-County Head Start staff also worked together to find care for children with special needs, particularly those younger than 4, she said.
However, it will not meet all the needs in the community, and there is an opportunity for new businesses or for those who run licensed child care businesses in their home to expand, she said.
Friends, neighbors and family members are also likely to help to fill the need for child care, Hawk said.
"We know there is a lot of informal care taking place in the state of Colorado," she said.
It is legal for an unlicensed adult to care for children they are not related to as long as they are not caring for more than four kids at a time, she said. No more than two of the children may be younger than 2 years old, according to state law.
Informal caregivers are also welcome to contact the council if they have any questions about the laws around informal child care, Hawk said.
More information about the Early Childhood Council can be found at ecclaplata.org.