Preschoolers at Young Scholars Academy weren't sure who Reggie Bicha was, but they figured out one thing: he's a good reader.
"That's a funny book," squealed a 4-year-old in the advanced pre-kindergarten program.
Bicha, executive director of the Colorado Department of Human Services, high-fived the 20 students who had listened, answered questions and giggled along with him Wednesday, as he read "Mouse Mess," by Linnea Riley.
Each child then received a copy of the book to take home.
Bicha's visit to the center, off Tutt Boulevard in northeast Colorado Springs, was part of an annual statewide literacy tour to promote the importance of reading at an early age.
He also talked with teachers and others in the field about the state of early childhood education.
The topics on their minds are familiar but pressing.
Preschool teacher Michaela Rowcotsky said she'd like a little respect.
"We're looked at as baby sitters," she said. "We're not baby sitters. We're growing these young minds. We are trained how to reach your child."
Bicha said research proves that youngsters who attend high-quality childcare and preschool are better prepared for kindergarten and more likely to read proficiently in the third-grade.
He touted several programs that have started under Gov. John Hickenlooper's administration, including Colorado Shines, a rating and improvement system for licensed early-learning facilities.
The state also in recent years has funneled more money into childcare subsidies for low-income families, professional development for teachers, new certification routes and microgrants and microloans for industry to invest in early childhood education. Also, there's now an Office of Early Childhood within DHS and a statewide kindergarten entry assessment.
Getting businesses to support early childhood education and encouraging workforce development are keys to moving forward, Bicha said.
More help is needed, teachers said.
Middle-class families struggle to pay for childcare, teachers aren't involved in decision-making at the state level, and licensing violations aren't supported with coaching, they ticked off.
The teacher shortage plaguing the K-12 public school system also has permeated childcare and preschool centers.
Fewer students are enrolling in early childhood education programs at Pikes Peak Community College, said department chair Michelle Bender.
Compensation is one problem she cited.
There is about a $3 per hour difference between someone with entry-level qualifications and someone with a bachelor's degree in the infant to 5 year olds field, Bender said.
Industrywide, 40 percent of hourly childcare and preschool workers qualify to receive public assistance, Bender said.
"As a workforce, they're paid well below where they should be," she said.
The locally owned Young Scholars Academy serves 211 children from infants to early teens and has a nine-month waiting list, according to center director Jenn Winters.
She offers perks above the norm to attract and retain her 39 teachers. Incentives like a fully stocked breakroom with breakfast, lunch and snack foods, a television with Netflix and Hulu, monthly team outings, paid days off from the get-go, staff discounts for childcare, and plenty of support and tools to help teachers with their jobs.
"The millennial workforce is different - they're going to hop on you if you don't take care of them," Winters said.
Jessica Lloyd, who with her son, Steve, runs Busy Little Hands Early Learning Center in Centennial, said it's hard to balance reasonable tuition and fair pay with staying competitive in the market.
"We have to butter teachers up with other stuff, but it's the pay they really want," she said.
She estimates it costs about $3,000 to replace a teacher who leaves.
"We're always giving them something - today it's sweatshirts - because if the teacher's happy, everybody is happy," Lloyd said, who was visiting from south Denver.
Jackie Florendo, coordinator of the Alliance for Kids, an early childhood council for El Paso County, said she would like to see a statewide campaign to promote the profession.
"Here's a unified message, and it's going to everyone: we educate on the importance of the early years," she said.