Paulina Lopez (second to left) poses with her family for a photo. Courtesy photo

This school year, the Roaring Fork School District hired a new director to coordinate the early childhood program at Crystal River Elementary School (CRES). Paulina Lopez has happily stepped into the position to help create a school environment that meets the needs of all the students and staff. Lopez was 3 years old when she and her family moved to Carbondale from California. Growing up in Carbondale area schools, Lopez was in third grade when she realized that she wanted to be a teacher. It was always her dream to have a classroom of her own, but now, as director of the early childhood program, she has more than plenty.

“I get to be in all of the classrooms every week, so it’s a lot of new work and new things that I’m learning,” Lopez said. “There are just so many pieces, like communicating with the staff and with the parents. If there are any issues with any children or any extra support needed, they always come to me.”

Lopez began working in education at Carbondale Middle School as a paraprofessional for students with severe needs. Later in her education career, Lopez moved toward preschool education. This year marks her 15th year working in a preschool setting. 

“Ten years ago, I got my own classroom and got to lead my own classroom. That was when I was like, yeah this is where I need to be and this is where I want to be with the kids,” Lopez said.

With her time in education and being involved in the Carbondale community, Lopez has been able to step into the role knowing that she has a great relationship with her staff and students. As a director, that has been important in terms of communication and in making decisions that she knows will help the program.

As a child, Lopez only knew Spanish and learned English by attending school. Being bilingual is one of the many ways that Lopez helps the program, ensuring communications reach all parents including those who don’t speak English. 

“Having a bilingual staff is really important to me because we have so many kids that don’t speak English. We have two kids this year who are from Brazil and speak Portuguese and we have a teacher that speaks Portuguese. It’s amazing,” Lopez said. “Anything I send home to anybody is always in English and Spanish because I know that we have many parents that need that, and I feel that it’s important for them to be able to have the communication in both languages.”

The director position also means facing new challenges. One of the issues that Lopez has dealt with is being understaffed. According to the Colorado Department of Education, a state-wide survey was done to help identify solutions for the 2022-23 educator shortage. While there has been improvement in filling vacancies, it still isn’t enough to provide full support to schools across the state.

“If I have two people call in, then I’m in trouble because it’s really just me that I have to cover the classrooms,” Lopez said. “We did start off the year with two support people but because we were already short in two classrooms, those two people are in classrooms, so it’s really just me.”

Lopez remains optimistic that within the next week they will be fully staffed. One of the ways that the state has helped with teacher shortages is through transfers across districts or schools and preparation programs. Lopez mentioned that CRES receives support through Colorado Shines, a program that helps professionals receive training for early childhood education.

Regardless of the challenges, Lopez continues to show up for her staff and students. Recently, she has been preparing for a fundraising event, Halloween Happening. Lopez said she is excited that the event will be more inclusive than previous years in regards to staff participation.

“That’s going to be a huge accomplishment, because we’ve done it the past couple of years but the staff, the teachers, we were not really a part of any of the planning,” Lopez said.

Lopez’s overall goal as director is to involve the community more. Whether that’s by welcoming parents to come volunteer in classrooms or having staff and teachers help with events such as Halloween Happening, Lopez wishes to bring the community together to support its schools and students. This comes as no surprise, as Lopez is a mother of five and emphasizes the importance of family and community in her personal life.

“Being available to parents and staff and the children is the biggest part for me. I want to be there to help anybody that I can and I think that’s why I knew I would be able to do this, because I’m the kind of person that will offer help to anybody,” Lopez said.