Early Learning Core

New Mexico targeted early childhood education as a solution to learning gaps. How far can it go?

August 14, 2023, published in the Santa Fe Reporter.

Written by Mo Charnot


Last year, Isabella Jefferson enrolled at Santa Fe Community College to pursue a career as a physical therapy assistant. After registering, she got a job as an administrative assistant at the school’s Wellness Center as an additional way to support herself and her 3-year-old son.

“I wanted to set an example for my child,” Jefferson tells SFR. “I had never really thought about going to college until after I had my child.”

Yet an obstacle stood in the way of her aspirations: Who would care for her son while she worked and went to classes?

After a four-month wait during which her son tagged along to work and school, he landed in an empty slot in the school’s Kids Campus—a bilingual early learning center that prioritizes enrolling the children of students and staff.

Now, Jefferson can focus on her learning and her son can get started on his formal education.

Early learning is a time developmental experts identify as critical for kids. New Mexico has been putting extra energy into this end of the school spectrum, and officials hope the attention can make a dent in the state’s large education gaps.

The state’s newest cabinet agency, the Early Childhood Education and Care Department, has focused on building capacity in early learning programs and strengthening the early childhood workforce while providing extra support for parents.

Although the community college program ended up with room for Jefferson’s son, many working families have a difficult time accessing child care programs due to a lack of capacity. There just aren’t enough available spots for kids. According to the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Child Care Gaps Assessment from 2019, New Mexico’s child care capacity fell 23,042 licensed slots short. In 2024, the state predicts, more than 37,000 children aged 3-4 in the state will lack access to pre-K.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham elevated the topic to a cabinet-level agency with the help of the Legislature in 2019 and appointed Elizabeth Groginsky as its first secretary, then pushed for a constitutional amendment to send more money to its programs. The state also used federal pandemic relief money to increase pay for early childhood educators.

Voters agreed with the priority, adopting a ballot measure in the 2022 election that made New Mexico the first state to guarantee a right to early childhood education and allocated nearly $150 million per year from the state’s Land Grant Permanent Fund—one of the largest educational endowments in the country— to early childhood education and care.

“With the passage of the constitutional amendment, we were able to make a massive expansion of pre-K in the state, reaching thousands of more children,” Groginsky tells SFR. “But, even more importantly, reaching them with longer days and more weeks in the year.”

Elizabeth Groginsky was named the state’s first secretary of the Early Childhood Education and Care Department. (Courtesy Office of the Governor)

The efforts show progress so far: Between 2021 and 2022, the ECECD reports an increase in the number of childcare centers in the state from 648 to 717, with the capacity for children expanding from 54,372 to 58,151.

With extended day programs and state-supported childcare now offered year-round, children will have more instruction time and working families will have access to more support services, says Groginsky, who also testified to a US Senate committee to show progress in the state’s child care system in May and was featured in late 2022 in The Washington Post in a story about the department’s approach.

The numbers are set to continue rising. Last month, the ECECD finalized regulations giving families who earn up to 400% of the federal poverty level child care assistance, increasing that figure from 350% previously. For a family of four, the income eligibility cap rises to $120,000 per year.

“When you think of the burden, the cost of accessing high-quality childcare, it can be upwards of 30 or 40% of a family’s income to pay for that care out of pocket,” Groginsky says.

This change has already impacted thousands of families. Since expanding eligibility, the ECECD reports it went from serving 20,017 children with child care assistance in April 2022 to 28,154 in June 2023—a 40% increase in just over a year. Compared to August 2021′s numbers, 12,589 more children now have access to child care paid for by child care assistance.

“Being able to support New Mexican families with that financial relief, [so they] also know that their child is being cared for and educated while they go to work, school or pursue their goals for their families,” Groginsky continues, “That’s been a big help for our families.”

Jefferson’s experiences at Santa Fe Community College are possible in part because of that kind of monetary support for parents.

They’re also possible because the school has made a concerted effort to prioritize students’ children as part of the college’s dual-generation education model, which builds family well-being by simultaneously working with children and their parents.

The Santa Fe Community College prioritizes students’ children for enrollment at the Early Childhood Center of Excellence. (Anson Stevens-Bollen)

“If we want parents in New Mexico to get their education and their degree to increase the economic mobility of their families, having on-campus childcare is essential to that,” Catron Allred, the college’s director of the Early Childhood Center of Excellence, says.

Yet, as exemplified by Jefferson’s four-month wait for enrollment, the center can’t accommodate all the need.

“For most families, early childhood education is now free,” Allred notes. “But the problem is, we don’t have any space, and so we’re kind of in the same situation that we need more slots, we need more classrooms, more schools.”

The school plans to continue its role in shoring the workforce for child care. Its innovative Aprende Early Childhood Teacher Apprenticeship program—the first early childhood education-focused apprenticeship program in the state—offers accelerated learning for students.

“We are very concerned about the rebuilding and growth of the early childhood workforce, especially after the pandemic,” Allred says. “In Santa Fe, we lost a number of early childhood centers, a number of family child care providers, and many classrooms were unable to open because they didn’t have teachers.”

The grow-your-own approach created a “pre-apprenticeship” designed for people with no previous experience in early childhood education. By the end of the “pre-apprenticeship,” these students can receive a child development certificate from the state and get several hours of experience working with children under 5.

Last year was Aprende’s pilot year, with 35 students joining the pre-apprenticeship program, 17 in the fall, 18 in the spring. This fall, the Aprende program will host between 20 to 30 pre-apprentices, and about 10 students will join the registered apprenticeship.

Allred emphasizes the need for more teachers in early childhood programs to help children under 5 with “school readiness,” telling SFR, “We think about school readiness as just being able to learn your ABCs and read, but school readiness has a lot more to do with executive function and how your brain responds to stress or new experiences.”

Across town at the former Kaune Elementary School, the organization Growing Up New Mexico expects 120 students this fall from infancy through pre-K. That’s an increase of about 30 students from last year, thanks to its new infant and toddler program. But Rhonda Montoya, the director of early learning, says Kaune has struggled to hire early childhood educators for several years.

“It has been a little difficult coming out of the pandemic,” Montoya says. “We’re waiting for a full teaching team. I want to make sure we’re fully set up.”

Groginsky notes that’s among reasons the state agency has tried to push wages higher for child care workers through means such as its Competitive Pay for Professionals grant, which offered pay boosts for early childhood educators and increased the wage floor to $15 an hour for entry-level workers and $20 an hour for lead teachers.

“We have to pay our early childhood professionals the wages that reflect the value of the work they’re doing in order to attract and retain high-quality talent,” she says.

The Early Learning Center at Kaune has expanded to 120 students this year, a number that includes new programs for infants and toddlers. (Mo Charnot)

The department used $77 million in pandemic relief money to pay for the grants and distributed the cash to child care centers that applied. But this month marks the last payments under the program.

“It was a big life-saver,” Groginsky says. “We heard directly from providers, ‘I finally filled these positions that allowed me to open another classroom to serve more children.’ It’s all connected.”

Even as the grant ends, the state hopes to offset the loss by paying higher subsidy rates to child care providers for child care assisted students by 20% to 30%, with the state paying the providers “a little more than $1,000 per child” each month, according to Groginsky.

Kaune’s program has accessed state funds to expand over the past year, having recently adopted extended days for students, as well as year-round child care. At its helm is Kate Noble, president of Growing Up New Mexico and member of the Santa Fe Public Schools’ Board of Education. Noble says while expansions made by ECECD provide stable funding, she believes the department still needs to tackle recruiting and retaining a workforce.

“My perspective is this has been an unstructured industry that has been largely based on women’s work being free,” Noble says. “We don’t pay women properly. Education has that a little bit too, the teaching profession has always been [underpaid]. But, this [early childhood education] is the unorganized end of it…even though the evidence is that it has the most impact, based on brain science.”

The school is still hoping to hire a handful of educational assistants to open its two new infant and toddler classrooms.

In addition to planning for the right number of teachers and aides in each classroom, the school also tries to support staff by targeting parents with more services. Its Bridges to Opportunity program spans several parent needs. Coaches offer parents guidance, community resources—and even funds when families are in crisis.

“We’re able to connect with our coaches and say, ‘Here’s what’s happening with this family,’” Montoya says. “Then, they step in and offer that support, which allows our teachers to continue focusing on the classroom, and that family’s still getting the support that they need beyond the classroom.”

In the past year, Kaune’s Bridges to Opportunity program served 118 families for various needs, and 11 families even secured housing with the program’s help.

When it comes to supporting families, housing might seem like a big ask for a child care provider. But kids who are homeless are the least likely to receive early childhood education. In 2019, only 5% of homeless children under 6 did so.

Santa Fe public schools’ Adelante program has provided students with tutoring, school supplies, shoes, clothes, food, household goods and even financial assistance.

Adelante program coordinator Noemi Sanchez tells SFR, “When kids are experiencing homelessness, they don’t have stability.”

Toddlers enrolled at Cuidando Los Niños in Albuquerque get the opportunity to make friends during outdoor playtime. (Mo Charnot)

The Adelante program does not limit itself to helping just homeless students enrolled in SFPS, but their entire families. Last year, 907 children were enrolled in the Adelante program, with roughly 100 to 150 of these children being under 5 years old. When any of these families include a child under 5, Adelante staff assist parents in finding pre-K or other child care programs suitable for the family’s needs. If a SFPS student has a sibling under 3, Adelante staff can enroll them and supply the family formula, diapers and clothes.

“If there’s even one child in the public schools,” says Adelante assistant coordinator Loretta Fernandez, “we help the family with the children ages 0 through 21.”

In Albuquerque, the Cuidando Los Niños program provides a free, five-star pre-K program to homeless children from infancy to age 5 and offers temporary housing to families enrolled.

According to Executive Director Jeff Hoehn, approximately two-thirds of the children enrolled in the program have developmental delays in literacy and math, a common result of families lacking stable housing.

“When you’re homeless, you don’t have Sesame Street,” Hoehn says. “You just miss so much.”

The nonprofit also takes a dual-generation approach, helping parents find stable work, housing and education for their families upon exiting the program. Its workers all receive trauma-informed training due to the high level of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) the children enrolled typically have.

“Our average [ACEs] score is a 6 out of 10, so that’s a pretty high level of trauma,” Hoehn tells SFR. “Because of the rate of poverty, domestic violence and substance abuse in New Mexico, many of our children come to childcare centers with a high level of trauma, and trauma makes learning difficult.”

Hoehn says the program has managed to maintain the necessary staff, in part because of the Competitive Pay for Professionals grant and the recent increase in state subsidies. But at the moment, 52 children are enrolled at Cuidando Los Niños, leaving the nonprofit at full capacity.

The City of Albuquerque has agreed to seek legislative capital outlay funds to construct a second building with three more classrooms, a community room and cafeteria, more housing and additional support offices in a plan that could double the number of children enrolled.

“Over the last couple of legislative sessions we have amassed about $2 million in capital outlay for this project, this [next] session we will ask for an additional $4 million,” Hoehn says.

The future for New Mexico’s youngest learners and their families depends largely on the state’s continued ability to fund its strategy, Groginsky says.

The department has already received its initial disbursement from the Land Grant Permanent Fund for the fiscal year of 2024—$140 million—and the money is paying for its core programs and services, according to spokesman Micah McCoy.

Another major funding avenue for the ECECD that launched in 2020 and began supporting early childhood programming in 2022, The Early Childhood Trust Fund, will be supplemented when there are surplus oil and gas revenues, and by federal mineral leasing. Last year, the Legislature appropriated about $100 million from the trust fund to support the increase in subsidies paid to child care providers.

“[The Early Childhood Trust Fund] has helped tremendously, and it’s also good that it’s growing, because the need for child care is also continuing to grow,” Groginsky says. Since the land grant fund transfers are tied to the fund’s larger balance, the department expect an estimate for the the 2025 fiscal year transfer at the Legislative Finance Committee’s Aug. 23 meeting at New Mexico Highlands University’s Student Union Building in Las Vegas.

“We’ll need to continue to tap into these resources and other resources to make sure families who need child care have access to it,” she says, “and that the quality of that care is at the level that we need it to be.”