Walking into the new Ignacio Early Learning Program is like entering a miniature world where everything is knee-high and comes with nap time and a snack. Its residents are bed-head, fresh-face toddlers munching on PB&Js and running around a classroom equipped with a mini indoor playground.
The school opened on Feb. 7 at 535 Candelaria Drive. Division director Melanie Brunson and Assistant Division Director Lisa Ruybal started IELP with the help of Southern Colorado Community Action Agency (SoCoCAA), a nonprofit that supports multiple community programs. Brunson and Ruybal decided to launch the preschool after the Southern Ute Head Start, a free preschool program that started in 1968, lost its funding and closed in December.
“That was a huge loss to this community, so to be able to work with SoCoCAA and provide early learning services for children and families is a great benefit,” Brunson said.
She said because Head Start was around for so long, there has been some confusion. Some parents think the Ignacio Early Learning Program is an extension or reopening of Head Start, but it is completely separate.
Brunson and Ruybal are aware of only one other home day care in Ignacio, so preschools are a much-needed resource. In January 2018, Early Childhood Council of La Plata County determined there is only enough child care for 44 percent of kids in the county. Ruybal said this sometimes means older kids have to stay home from school in order to take care of their younger siblings due to lack of options.
“Early childhood care not only provides an important foundation for young children, but it also provides valuable support to families,” Brunson said.
Because SoCoCAA is a nonprofit, IELP operates off of some grants as well as tuition, which is $36 per day for pre-K kids and $38 per day for toddlers. Tuition is prorated on a bi-weekly or monthly basis. There are 48 total spots, and only a few are still available.
IELP is located inside an old adult learning center which was renovated with grant money received from the Tribal Child Care Development Fund as part of a quality improvement initiative to increase the amount of child care in the community.
“We tailored it to little people,” Ruybal said.
Other than adding tiny sinks and toilets, renovations were minimal – the center was painted, new flooring was put in, and a fence surrounding the playground was installed. There are two pre-K classrooms – each can hold 16 kids – and a toddler room that holds 14 children. IELP were able to use materials from Head Start to furnish the building. Brunson and Ruybal recruited four full-time teachers from Head Start as well.
“Not to brag, but we brought the best of the best with us,” Ruybal said.
IELP teaches Creative Curriculum, which is an evidence-based system and includes such topics as insects, building, recycling and others.
“We touch on the calendar and reading and the alphabet, but we believe preschool (kids learn) from embedded learning – the things that you integrate into their play is what’s helping them learn,” Ruybal said.
While IELP has been open for just a month, the business is considering transforming the current office space into an extra classroom and offering after-school programs for kids younger than 6, who are not old enough to join the Boys and Girls Club.
Brunson and Ruybal would also like to work with the school district to support kids’ transition into the public school system. They also want to set up a program to allow high school students interested in early education get volunteer experience at the preschool.
“We are doing good and we have a great support system,” Ruybal said. “I’d like people to understand we are starting from scratch. We are starting from the bottom up.”
Ignacio Early Learning Program is open from 7:30 to 5:30 Monday through Friday and follows the Ignacio School District’s nine-month schedule. However, it will offer camps in the summer.
IELP is hosting an open house on March 15 at 5:30 p.m. for anyone in the community who would like to view the space and find out more.