By Cherisé Forno // Illustrations by Julie Millard
As both Teton County, Wyoming, and Teton County, Idaho, continue to face a shortage of child care options, parents, providers, and community leaders are thinking outside the box. Local parents jockey to plan their child care schedule around school holidays and visiting family members. And community leaders lobby to find solutions to provide for families with children, while also retaining a workforce. It’s all in an effort to make it work. Somehow. Someway. And in the best possible interest for our kids.
For parents, quality solutions usually involve a level of creativity that requires pairing traditional daycare or preschool services with a part-time nanny or a resort program.
Anna Cole, associate marketing director for Bank of Jackson Hole, and her husband Eric Cole, who owns PEI (Powers Excavation Inc.), use multiple options for their three-year-old daughter.
“With both of us being working parents, we need child care five days a week,” says Anna. “We live in Wilson, so Pumpkin Patch Preschool has been a great option for us three days a week [Monday, Wednesday, and Friday], and then we’ve made it work the other two days with a nanny share with another family in our neighborhood. Signe loves the school environment, but it’s also nice to have those days in between where she can be at home and just have a little more flexibility.”
Pumpkin Patch follows the Teton County School District’s calendar, so the Cole family employs a nanny several days a week and on a regular basis, to fill in the gaps.
“Pumpkin Patch does have seasonal closures, like other schools, so having our nanny, who’s so lovely and part of our family, is really helpful because she can sometimes pick up extra days when school’s out of session,” says Cole.
Cole’s parents, who visit regularly, also help watch their daughter when they’re in town.
“I love importing family members to come help us,” she says. “The other great thing about Jackson is there are other options, such as drop-ins at Axis Gymnastics or summer camps.”
This year, Cole’s daughter attended ski school one day a week at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, which is available Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. during the winter, for children who are three and older and potty trained. Weekend options at the resort include care for children ages five and older.
Cole’s advice to other parents?
“Ask for help,” she says. “You’re not alone. Ask for help when you need it, and then return the favor when you can.”
Calling in the Troops
Jackson Hole Nannies, LLC, provides a variety of services for families and tourists throughout the valley. Owner Renaye Notzka explains the company’s two different types of services: “One is our short-term babysitting services, and the other one is our long-term placement of nannies for families. The business is kind of split in half between the babysitting and the nanny placement.”
Babysitting is often used for people visiting Jackson, but it can also be helpful for families looking for an occasional sitter for a date night, a ski day, or when their child’s daycare is closed. Jackson Hole Nannies’ years of experience finding qualified nannies with education degrees, solid background checks, and certifications, like CPR and First Aid, provides assurance for families looking for a part- or full-time nanny, afterschool care, holiday travel help, or someone to help with household errands and chores.
“We also help with nanny shares, so I think that’s a good option for a lot of local families when daycare doesn’t work, but they can’t afford a personal nanny on their own,” Notzka says.
Nanny shares usually involve placing two to three children around the same age with one nanny to make it more affordable.
Notzka realizes that having only one care option may not fit every family, so Jackson Hole Nannies helps families figure out what works best for them. This can include a combination of traditional daycare or preschool, combined with a part-time nanny, or even a last-minute babysitter.
“We have a couple different families that have children that go to daycare, and maybe they just need a nanny two days a week,” she says.
No matter what child care option a family lands on, Notzka says to diligently research the facility or individual chosen.
“Definitely vet whoever you decide to hire,” she says. “Call the references and do background checks.”
Meeting the Needs of Families
Fiona Wilson and Sara Dolentz, co-owners of Little Acorns Academy in Jackson, provide care for children three months to five years old. As working mothers themselves, Wilson and Dolentz make it a priority to be available as many days and hours as possible for families. Little Acorns is open 52 weeks a year—offering care from 7:45 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday—and only closes on January 1, July 4, Thanksgiving, and December 24 and 25.
“A lot of people who work and live in Jackson don’t have an option but to work on holidays, so they need full-time care,” Wilson says.
This commitment to families was evident in 2020 when Little Acorns reopened as quickly as possible after a mandatory seven-week closure during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We opened as soon as we could because we felt we really needed to do that for our parents,” Wilson says.
In June of 2020, and amid uncertain times, Dolentz and Wilson also decided to take a risk and expand their child care center by adding space that became available in their building.
“It was a really hard decision not knowing which direction COVID was going to go, but we decided—it’s now or never,” Wilson says. “We spent six months remodeling, a lot of which Sara and I did ourselves. It kept us going during COVID. We were still running the business and expanding it.”
The new space that houses the center’s preschool classrooms and indoor play area opened in January 2021, raising Little Acorn Academy’s capacity to 70, almost tripling the 25 spots previously available when they opened in 2019.
“We pretty much filled up straight away,” Wilson says.
Wilson encourages people to get on the waitlist as soon as possible.
“Even if you’re not sure what you want to do—stay at home, or work part-time or full-time—get on the waitlist because you can always turn an available spot down,” she says. “With us, there’s no registration fee. You are only asked for a deposit when you accept a spot.”
As Little Acorns works to provide affordable daycare options, it is also committed to employing and retaining high-quality teachers, offering many benefits, including paid maternity leave, a 401K plan, annual bonuses, and a positive work environment.
“It’s important for Sara and I to build a great environment for our teachers,” Wilson says. “A lot of our employees have been with us for years.”
Even though Little Acorns makes its employees a priority, Wilson said finding teachers is difficult because of a lack of housing in Jackson.
“Last summer we had to make the really difficult decision of reducing our infant care from seven babies to four,” she says. “Our biggest challenge is finding teachers.”
Enlisting the Village
Driggs Mayor August Christensen brings her decades of experience in early childhood education, and a desire to help her community provide adequate child care options, to her city position.
“It’s my passion, and I want to continue to help serve our community and families in need,” she says.
After three preschools in Driggs closed in a year and a half, Christensen and other community leaders formed the Collaborative for Early Learning. The organization created a comprehensive plan to assist Teton Valley providers, as well as parents caring for their children at home. Twenty-one other cities in Idaho have also formed early child care collaboratives.
“Before the schools closed, our valley was already in desperate need of child care, so with the closures, it really has put our community in a child care desert,” Christensen says. “Without care, we have no workforce.”
At the same time, Building Blocks Early Learning Center, LLC in Driggs—a licensed provider serving infants through children up to five—found out they had to find a new location, as their lease was expiring in May 2023.
“It threw us into fast motion, and we decided to start this collaborative,” Christensen says. “Within a week’s time, we were able to put together a group of community leaders to determine options of how we can support providers in our valley.”
Christensen learned of the “Gambal House,” a 4,000-square-foot home available near the Big Holes for potential donation. When she saw the house and its large open spaces, she knew it would make an ideal child care center.
“I started connecting with various providers and trying to match them up with the owner,” Christensen says. “There were limitations with availability and cost of land, so nothing was really coming to fruition.”
In December 2022, the Teton County School District #401 board approved the donation of the house. Providers will soon bid for the space, and the school board will decide if multiple providers will share the moved and renovated house, or if one provider will occupy the entire center, which will be equipped to accommodate more than 70 children.
Since the Gambal House will sit on school district property, one consideration is giving school district employees first preference of care.
“I would love to be able to see essential workers that work in Teton Valley also getting priority, so that we can ensure that our workforce is being supported,” Christensen says.
While Building Blocks is the sole licensed facility in Driggs for infants, The Learning Academy of Teton Valley is a licensed provider for children ages two through five. Dani Wilson, director of the school, strives to offer the highest quality care at a reasonable price, with low student to teacher ratios. She says it’s expensive to hire highly qualified teachers and maintain the school’s large campus (which includes a farm with pigs, donkeys, and miniature horses), but she works to keep her rates affordable.
“We’re as cheap as we can be, while paying our overhead costs,” say Wilson. “I help families as much as possible.”
This assistance includes offering scholarships for the school’s daytime programming, after care, and summer camp. Funds granted from the Idaho Child Care Program (ICCP) are also available for families with children at The Learning Academy of Teton Valley.
“ICCP really does help,” she says, especially for single-income households.
Wilson offers her staff competitive wages with benefits, and currently has two teachers on staff who have been there for almost 20 years. This consistency helps the Learning Academy offer much more than a traditional daycare facility and instead operate as an early childhood development center, complete with age-appropriate curriculum.
“We’re skilled at knowing what is developmentally appropriate at each age, and applying programs at the right time for children,” she says.
Kristi Meston, project manager for the Collaborative for Early Learning, says, “We appreciate all our providers, and we hope to support them and keep them, and we need to extend accessibility for more families in the valley that is affordable.”
“The Gambal House is a part of it, but the greater aspect of this collaborative is coming together to be able to help support all providers in many different ways,” she says. “That could mean offering trainings and workshops, educating parents, offering support, and really just trying to figure out what, specifically, does our community need in regard to child care.”
Financial Assistance for Child Care in Idaho
The Idaho Child Care Program (ICCP) assists families with children under the age of 13, or children over 13 with a disability. The program provides child care assistance for qualifying families by paying a portion of child care expenses.
Child Care Facilities in Teton Valley, Idaho and alta, wyoming
Building Blocks Early Learning Center, LLC
Grand Targhee’s Kids Club
The Learning Academy of Teton Valley
Mountain Academy of Teton Science Schools, Victor Campus
Financial Assistance for Child Care in Wyoming
The Department of Family Services’ Child Care Subsidy Program uses a combination of state and federal funds to help low-income families pay for the cost of child care for a parent who is employed or attending school or training.
Child Care Facilities in Teton County, Wyoming
Bright Beginnings Episcopal Preschool
Children’s Learning Center
Happy Kidz Day Care Center
Jackson Hole Mountain Resort Kids Ranch
Jackson Hole Nannies, LLC
JH Discovery Preschool
KidVentures Early Learning Center
Little Acorns Academy
Little Lambs Preschool
Little Learners Academy
Mountain Academy of Teton Science Schools
Pumpkin Patch Preschool
Rocky Mountain Kids Childcare Center
Sweet Spirits Preschool & Childcare
The Montessori School of the Tetons
Teton County, Wyoming
Teton County, Idaho