A visitor driving down NM-128 to Jal would be forgiven for believing there were more people driving pickup trucks and material trucks on the congested national highway than living in the small oil town of just over 2,100 people.
Jal is an ancient ranching community – JAL was a brand used for the John A. Lynch herd, brought to the area by settlers in the 1800s – but today oil is its economic engine. And that engine purrs.
New Mexico’s most recent oil and gas boom has filled Heaven in a Cup, a retro burger-and-shake shack near Main Street, with starving oilfield workers. RV and camper encampments have sprung up around town, and the economic resurgence has helped fuel the small town that sits just across the border from Texas.
However, not all the energy is in the oil fields.
Over the past few years, Jal has built a new primary and secondary school, rebuilt its health clinic, and updated Jal Lake Park. And the influx of oilfield workers has led to an innovative new daycare that brings together two state programs under one roof in a way that has never been done before.
Teachers at Jal Elementary identified the need for high-quality child care for many of these oilfield workers and their families nearly five years ago – and decided they were just the people to do it. fill it.
“As an early childhood teacher, we got a lot of calls, asking for information about child care or programs their children could attend,” said Jamie Galindo, special education teacher at Jal. .
The school has had New Mexico PreK since its inception in 2005 – but it’s limited to 4-year-olds. Jal Elementary also offers preschool classes for 3- and 4-year-olds with developmental delays. Both programs only last half a day.
“Being a working mom myself, I really felt the need for child care to be essential for our area because there was none. There wasn’t even a regular door-to-door provider,” she said.
Some parents would be upset if their children were not classified with a learning disability, Galindo said, because they wanted their children enrolled in the school curriculum. And there was a teacher Galindo knew at school who drove more than 30 miles round trip twice a day to drop off and pick up her young children in Kermit, Texas for childcare.
So when a former superintendent called a meeting to ask for grant ideas, early childhood teachers came up with an unusual proposal: They’d like to open a daycare center at the school. The time was right because the small district was planning a new elementary school, so they decided to build a few more rooms.
Turns out that was the easy part.
It took four years from when these teachers had the idea until they opened the doors last fall of the Bright Beginnings Child Development Center with Galindo and DeAnna Ramos as co-directors.
They first had to get the grant for start-up costs and think about exactly what the center would look like. And then there was the bureaucracy.
Child care in New Mexico is funded and regulated by the Department of Children, Youth, and Families. Jal Elementary – as a public school – receives its money and supervision from the Department of Public Education. Jal had to figure out how to combine funding from both agencies for child care in a public school.
The state bureaucracy didn’t know what to make of Jal’s request. No one had ever tried to have a CYFD and PED program in the same place that served the public. The Rio Rancho School District, which provided guidance to Jal, has a daycare center, but it is restricted to school district employees.
“At first that was one of our struggles, trying to figure out how we were going to braid and mesh the funding. … We were actually kind of put off in the first place, saying that wasn’t an option. Can -be just the first conversation or two that we had, but then we started having more conversations (and) it started to be a possibility. Yes, we can do that,” Galindo said.
They got outside help from the JF Maddox Foundation, a Hobbs-based nonprofit that promotes education and community development projects in the southeast corner of the state. He provided a four-year grant worth more than half a million dollars to help set up the daycare – the purchase of materials and start-up equipment – as well as connecting teachers with early childhood education experts to develop programs.
Maddox Foundation CEO Bob Reid said the nonprofit wanted to help Jal Public Schools get the center started because it was something that didn’t exist in Jal.
“They’ve been pretty pivotal in creating the resource in this community,” Reid said. “They did a wonderful job.”
For its first four years, the Maddox Foundation also provides a financial cushion to Bright Beginnings. The assistance will decrease as she becomes more self-sufficient and the school district picks up the operating costs. Bright Beginnings is a private, not-for-profit daycare that shares a roof with a public school. It is licensed and regulated by the state, and parents pay for care. Almost half of the children’s families are eligible for childcare support, which is paid for by the CYFD, with parents co-paying based on their income.
This shared roof has other advantages.
Children in half-day preschool programs simply go to daycare when they are finished, making the transition easier for children and a convenient option for working parents.
And the early childhood education ethos and training they received as part of the New Mexico PreK bleeds into the child care rooms, Galindo said.
“Bright Beginning is a learning environment where they come in and see images, labels and language. To me, it’s more preK than babysitting,” said Melissa Cervantes, who put her daughter through Bright Beginnings before she was eligible for NM PreK.
This learning environment was a boon to Cervantes. She had driven more than two hours round trip, twice a week, to take her daughter for a 30-minute therapy session in Lovington to treat a speech delay. When the center first opened, therapists told Cervantes that her toddler had better spend a few days a week at Bright Beginnings.
“When we started therapy, she wasn’t saying words, she was just pointing,” Cervantes said. “After a week or two of taking her there, she started saying simple words. Then after three or four weeks, she would say two words together. Like, I eat.
Cervantes went from two days to four days a week, just so she could have the socialization and the practice of talking to her teachers and playmates.
Having a high-quality center also allowed Cervantes to return to part-time work, as she didn’t have to drive regularly to Lovington and work with her daughter as intensely.
He also helped other parents who wanted child care options. There are nannies in town — with a town as small as Jal, everyone knows who they are, Cervantes said. And many people rely on parents and grandparents for childcare, as she did with her eldest son. But for people who want a more social and structured environment for their kids, Bright Beginnings is something they couldn’t get just a year ago at Jal.
The demand was even greater than what Jamie Galindo and his colleagues imagined.
They started with three childcare rooms – one for infants, toddlers and children ages 3 to 5 – and fiveemployees before they open. They have doubled their number of workers since then and went to a maximum capacity of 50 children in the first year, with a waiting list of three for each room.
Galindo said she would like to serve all the children, especially because it seems so few, but said she wants to maintain the strict ratios that allow them to deliver high quality services. The center is working toward national accreditation that would upgrade it to a five-star rating by the state.
It’s a tricky balancing act, as she and Ramos want to provide high-quality early childhood education and care, pay their childcare workers better, and keep prices affordable. It’s one of the learning curves they’re trying to master as they go from teachers in a highly structured public school system to quasi-entrepreneurs opening a daycare center from scratch, with a model that never has been tried before in the State.
And the reaction to Jal?
Well, the local Chamber of Commerce recently announced its Teachers of the Year: Jamie Galindo and DeAnna Ramos.