Three things to know about Colorado’s plan for Universal Kindergarten

By Ann Schimke, Chalkbeat Colorado

For Colorado parents with 2-year-olds who are deep in the ‘no’ phase, striking against naps, or otherwise living their best lives by testing limits, here’s some great news.

At 4 years old, they will be able to go to kindergarten for free.

That’s because Colorado is on the cusp of providing a free universal preschool for families starting in fall 2023 using the proceeds of a voter-approved nicotine tax. The program will provide at least 10 hours of preschool instruction per week, with some children receiving additional hours and services according to their needs.

There’s still a year and a half to go until the program launches, but early childhood leaders earlier this month unveiled six draft recommendations to guide what will be an unprecedented preschool expansion funded by the State within State. Themes include providing families with a variety of preschool choices, ease of application, and using local agencies or groups to administer the program.

Currently, the state-funded Colorado Preschool Program serves about 23,000, or about a quarter, of the state’s 4-year-olds, especially those who come from low-income families or have other factors. risks such as language delays or poor social skills. The program also serves approximately 7,000 3-year-old children with risk factors.

The state’s Early Years Leadership Commission will approve the final preschool recommendations next month and then forward them to Governor Jared Polis and the Legislature. Here are three key takeaways for families.

More options

Currently, more than three-quarters of children in Colorado’s preschool program attend kindergarten in public school classrooms. This is likely to change with the start of universal preschool. Besides the fact that most school districts will not have the space to double or triple their preschool enrollments, heads of state have repeatedly emphasized that families will be able to send their child to preschool in a variety of settings. settings, including schools, private centers, and licensed home locations.

Nicole Riehl, President and CEO of Executives Partnering to Invest in Children, said providing a universal preschool in many settings will help working families who may have non-traditional schedules or other needs. .

It’s “definitely something that we really appreciate a lot,” she said.

Corinne DePersis, a mother of two daughters aged 4 and 7, is also optimistic about the possibility of having more preschool choices and more clarity on options, especially for families with children with disabilities. She still remembers being turned away from a popular private daycare because her eldest daughter Madeleine, who was almost 2 at the time and had Pitt-Hopkins syndrome, couldn’t walk yet.

“It’s so embarrassing and heartbreaking,” she said, choking as she recalled the incident five years ago.

DePersis was part of the special education subgroup that helped inform universal preschool recommendations. She is also part of the Early Childhood Braintrust, a group that aims to uplift parents, providers and diverse communities in conversations about early childhood policy.

DePersis said she wanted to make sure children with disabilities can be included in community preschool classes – not just public school classrooms.

“You won’t have to feel like a parent, if I reach out to school I’m going to be turned down,” she said, “because it’s overwhelming.”

Easy to apply

The leaders who are developing Colorado’s new preschool curriculum – and the new early years department that will lead it – aim to create a straightforward application process for parents. They envision a user-friendly digital or paper form available in multiple languages ​​that will serve as an app for the Universal Kindergarten and a host of other programs such as the Head Start Federal Kindergarten and the Child Care Assistance Program. state children.

DePersis, who also participated in a working group focused on preschool application, said that by the time she applied for preschool for her daughters, she was unsure what financial assistance her family was entitled to.

“You don’t know what you don’t know,” she said.

Under the new preschool application process, families will be able to determine their eligibility for a variety of early years programs or services without having to sift through the fine print on multiple websites, filling out the same ones. information on many different forms or to feel the stigma of asking for help.

Christina Walker, who is involved with Braintrust and is director of policy and advocacy at Clayton Early Learning in Denver, said she appreciates the vision, but wants to see the details fleshed out.

“Getting this app to work is really important,” she said.

More help for those who need it

While the existing Colorado preschool program will be integrated with the state’s universal curriculum, leaders of the new effort still want to prioritize young children with the greatest needs, including those from low-income families, with high needs. delays or disabilities, or are dual language students.

In part, they will do this by paying preschool service providers more to serve these children using a weighting system for different categories. In addition, some children will have access to full-time preschool slots, and the funding system will take into account factors such as regional cost differences, preschool quality and provider qualifications, among other criteria.

While Colorado’s Universal Preschool Program will primarily serve 4-year-olds, state officials recommend that the program continue to serve 3-year-olds with certain risk factors, as does the current preschool program at the Colorado. State.

Finally, leaders of the Colorado Universal Preschool Initiative are well aware that infant and toddler care, which is more expensive to provide than preschool, can be decimated when state-funded universal programs roll out. . That’s why they recommend incentives for child care providers who continue to serve infants and toddlers in the state.

Riehl, from Executives Partnering to Invest in Children, or EPIC, said his group also wanted more emphasis to be placed on the physical infrastructure needed at the universal preschool so that the existing space for infants and children is needed. toddlers will not simply be converted to preschool rooms when the universal program launches. .

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