Lisa Roy knows what it’s like to be a young mother who can’t afford child care. Now she’s set to lead the Colorado Office of Early Childhood. | Content reserved for subscribers
In May, Governor Jared Polis announced that Lisa Roy was the only finalist to lead the new Colorado Office of Early Childhood.
Her most recent roles included roughly three years as executive director of early childhood education for Denver Public Schools, where she ran the state’s largest preschool program, and a stint of more than two years in Nebraska as Director of Program Development for Buffett Early Childhood. Institute.
Roy is back in Colorado and tasked with setting up the state’s Department of Early Childhood, which lawmakers created in 2021 with the passage of HB21-1304. A law passed this year, HB22-1295, called for the department to become a “one-stop shop” for early childhood and family support programs. The goal is to streamline services and make it easier for families to navigate the system.
Some of the department’s biggest initiatives include supporting the administration’s full-day kindergarten policies and rolling out universal early childhood education by 2023. Universal early childhood education is expected to save Coloradans 4 $300 per year.
Roy spoke to The Denver Gazette about the life and work experience she brings to the job and how she plans to fulfill the department’s mission. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Could you tell us about your background, your work experience and what you bring to the position? And under that umbrella, what part of your journey do you think best prepared you for this role?
Absolutely. There’s a lot. My great-grandfather was superintendent of schools. My grandmother was a teacher, but my mother ended up being a teenage mother. During her senior year of high school, she and my dad got pregnant with me, and 20 days before I was born, they got married. And had a lot of stressors. So I would start with that.
My grandmother was my kindergarten teacher. I had no formalized preschool. I was very prepared for school, I would say academically, not socially and emotionally. My grandmother was old school. You mispronounced a word, you got hit with a ruler. That sort of thing. But I felt like I was prepared, like I said, academically.
Many years later, I’m married, I’m 21, my ex-husband at the time was 29. He was what they called a traveling teacher. I married him when he was a preacher, but he became a teacher and we couldn’t afford child care. We had three children under 4 and I had decided to go back to school to graduate.
I tell this story because I still feel it, and that was 33 years ago. My eldest was 3 years old and I was trying to go back to school. When I was 4, I had him at Head Start in the mornings and babysitting in the afternoons – and I was trying to babysit my other kids. My ex-husband was making $5 too much to qualify for child care subsidies. I was at my wit’s end and just thought, ‘How am I going to get out of this? I can’t afford childcare.
My brother-in-law at the time had finished medical school, and because my mother-in-law had helped us financially, he said, “You have to go back to work. And I said, “But I can’t afford to work because by the time I pay for childcare, there’s nothing left. There is nothing.” So I needed to finish my studies.
Mile High Childcare, now called Mile High Early Learning, brought me here. The woman still works there to this day. She said, “Fill out the paperwork. No problem. United Way will help you. So I did my associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
My first official role was leading homeschooling for parents of preschoolers, but most of my career has been spent in preschool education. Even when I worked in philanthropy, it was to support early education. I ran a home visitation program. I have provided comprehensive services similar to Head Start for Catholic Charities with the Operation Jumpstart program. I did technical assistance and training for Head Start Region 8. Then I was in philanthropy for a long time, but that philanthropy included working on the Denver Preschool Program initiative.
I was chairman of the Welfare Reform Board for five or six years when we were developing policy for Denver after the initial passage of welfare reform. So, my voluntary, professional and personal background prepared me for this.
What obstacles would you say you overcame to get here?
Being a mom and a stay-at-home mom made childcare unaffordable for me. Not having my diploma at the age of 22 had repercussions. I would say that was my preliminary challenge.
Then I was working, going to school and raising three children at the same time. So it was a challenge, but it didn’t stop me from moving forward and it made me even more determined to pay it off for other families.
When I think of what we intend to do with this ministry, I have experienced it. I can honestly say, “Hey, I know what it’s like to have to work and go to school and I know what it’s like to struggle with everything. From transport to accommodation.
My family had a dollar house. We were not eligible for child care, but we were eligible for this program. You could buy a house for a dollar and renovate it. I have had different resources throughout my life that have helped me get to where I am.
I think a lot of people in education and social services went straight to school. They have these middle-class values and perspectives and don’t always understand what it’s like to struggle. Everyone struggles, but not all in the same way.
What challenges do you think you will face as director of the new early childhood department?
Well, there are the day-to-day challenges of leadership — there’s culture development, there’s hiring staff.
The Governor has done an amazing job, and everyone who has worked on the legislation, in establishing the safeguards for this. But again, let’s look at how we’re going to set the rules around the standards, and also lay the groundwork for what the payment structure and the costs will be, the true costs of care for pre-K.
I am delighted that we have a Rules Development Advisory Council (RAC), which provides people to advise me. People who are actually parents or providers or people who work in a school district, helping us work out what will ultimately be my responsibility – setting the rules for what we’re going to do in the future.
I bring a lived experience, but it is my lived experience. I need to understand what is happening in rural Colorado and also in resort communities. Because what happens with them is very different. Even in the metro area, living in Commerce City is different from living in Denver or Boulder. I have to consider those elements when we make rules and try to make them apply to all children in the state of Colorado.
I would say that our staff does not reflect the diversity of the state in different ways. We want to hire more people out of state. Working with coordinated local organizations to have people who are out of state, who know the communities in which they work and live, will be great. We also do not reflect ethnic and racial diversity in our departments. It will therefore be a challenge to find and retain personnel who reflect our beautiful state. So the labor itself is important.
I alluded earlier to market failure, but the way we calculate the cost of care does not guarantee that we are paying a living wage.
We have to attract people to the field. Just as I need to attract people to the department, we also need to attract people and create different pipelines to get into the field. We have an interagency working group that will help us develop and implement workforce readiness, support, compensation and communication strategies.
As for child care capacity, we’re going to need more slots, especially with pre-kindergarten on the horizon. We have $39 million in stimulus funds to support these programs, and that’s everything from furniture to equipment to materials. We do not cover capital with this financing. We have emerging partnerships that will allow us to open child care centers in government buildings. When I heard that during my interview, I was over the moon. There’s no way to be financially able to afford child care if you have to invest in capital assets, so having the state ready to use some of its buildings is going to be a huge plus.
You mentioned that it is one of the only early childhood departments in the country and the “jewel of our government” in Colorado. How do you, in your opinion, ensure that this department is properly launched and becomes a national model?
One of the things I intend to do in the bill is to look at best practices, nationally and locally. We have a lot of good practices locally.
Structurally, we must be sound. We have to make sure our house is in order. It means hiring the right people, making sure everyone is focused on our goals, mission and vision. That they understand their roles and how they support the work. And that there is cohesion, that we work together across all departments of the state.
But again, we’re looking at best practices. We listen to the voices of our stakeholders as we develop policies. We are reactive if we have made a decision that, from what we have heard, does not quite meet the needs. That we can quickly pivot. That’s what’s exciting about having the ability to set rules is that I don’t have to wait an entire year to make a change if it doesn’t work. I can do it right away.