Ruth Ann Ortiz wants every child care worker in New Mexico to be trained and certified in infant mental health.
More than a quarter of the children in the state live below the poverty line, where they’re often exposed to trauma from hunger, isolation or homelessness. Knowing how to support children who have been through trauma is essential for those in the field, said Ortiz, an early childhood social worker in Las Cruces and president of the New Mexico Association of Infant Mental Health.
“When we talk about a high-quality workforce, this is what that means,” she said.
Building a stronger child care and preschool workforce — in quality and quantity — is a top priority for the state’s new Early Childhood Education and Care Department. After more than a year of preparations, the agency on Wednesday took over an array of statewide services for children from prenatal to age 5 that previously were spread among several agencies.
Ortiz is one of 40 members of an advisory council that is offering recommendations to the department.
Department Secretary Elizabeth Groginsky and providers across the state have said they’re hopeful the new agency can improve the workforce that cares for the state’s youngest residents.
For thousands of children, improvements can’t wait. Last week, the Annie E. Casey Foundation released an annual survey on child well-being and for the third straight year, New Mexico ranked last in the nation.
“This is truly a watershed moment for New Mexico to really change that trajectory of being 50th in child well-being and put families on a more positive track,” Groginsky said.
The Colorado native, who was hired in November to lead the agency, previously worked as assistant superintendent of early learning for the Washington, D.C., schools.
New Mexico is now the fourth state with a Cabinet-level department focused on early childhood education and care, she said.
Along with day care and prekindergarten services, the department will oversee home-visiting programs in which social workers help educate pregnant mothers and parents of new babies and connect them with financial assistance, health and nutrition programs and other resources. Home visitors also inform parents about the federally funded Family Infant Toddler program, which offers early intervention services for children under 3 who may be at risk for developmental delays. The new department also will administer that program.
One of the main goals of the early childhood department, which has about 265 full-time employees, is to unify the standards and improve the quality of the state’s child care centers, Groginsky said. These range from public school-based prekindergarten classrooms to federal government programs to privately run operations, many of which are partially funded through the state’s child care assistance program for low-income families.
“We need to find common practices and metrics that we all agree are important and figure out how we can share them across all our different providers to ensure children are acquiring the knowledge and skills they need,” Groginsky said. “We need to set clear goals and objectives and use those indicators to tell us where our new department is making a difference.”
The early childhood department will collaborate with the Public Education Department to ensure programs in public and private settings are receiving the same level of professional development, coaching and technical assistance, she added.
The launch of the new department comes as the state’s child care capacity is down about 38 percent since early March due to the temporary closure of nearly 23,000 slots amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.
It also comes as providers continue to struggle to keep jobs filled in a low-paying field.
According to a Santa Fe Community College report on early childhood education, released last month, the median earnings for kindergarten teachers in New Mexico was $25.87 per hour compared to just $16.45 per hour for preschool teachers. The report also found a monthly average of 17 job postings for preschool teachers across the state between March 2019 and February 2020; those postings led to an average of only six monthly hires.
Groginsky said she plans to find ways to draw more workers to the field. “Improving the compensation system and the quality of our workforce, those are two things I’m very excited about,” she said.
State Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, who founded a preschool program in Sierra County, also said the department must focus on building the state’s child care and pre-K workforce.
She said she supports offering scholarships to early education students and tax credits for workers.
Currently, many pre-K teachers in state-funded facilities work in classrooms while pursuing their degrees. After they graduate, providers say, such workers often seek higher pay and better benefits in pre-K programs run by public schools.
“We have frequent vacancies. We have a lot of students who come to do observations here,” said Michelle Rosen, director of the Kids Campus at Santa Fe Community College. “The challenge for us is really maintaining those students in our program because there are other programs that pay better, like Santa Fe Public Schools.”
The early childhood department’s mission of attracting more professionals would be a wise investment for the state, according to a new legislative report.
The June report by the Legislative Finance Committee found New Mexico receives of a return of almost $6 on every dollar it invests in pre-K.
The study focused on the high school class of 2019, which was the first group of students to attend state-funded pre-K, according to the report. It found low-income students and English-language learners who attended high-quality pre-K programs had a graduation rate 11 percentage points higher than those who did not.