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Lisa Roy named sole finalist to lead Colorado’s new early childhood agency

A woman with short brown hair who is wearing a dark blazer and a necklace stands in front of a bulletin board with drawings and photos of children on it.

Lisa Roy in 2017 when she led early childhood education for Denver Public Schools.

Ann Schimke for Chalkbeat

Lisa Roy, who previously served as executive director for early childhood education in Colorado’s largest school district and has held leadership roles in several philanthropic organizations, is the sole finalist to lead the state’s new Department of Early Childhood.

The new department, in existence since March 1, will oversee a host of early childhood programs now housed in the state’s Department of Human Services and the Department of Education. It will also manage Colorado’s new universal preschool program, an ambitious effort to provide tuition-free preschool to 4-year-olds statewide starting in the summer of 2023. 

Roy will take on the new department’s top job at a pivotal time for early childhood in Colorado. In addition to a major preschool expansion, she will oversee ongoing efforts to help the hard-hit child care industry recover from the pandemic and a major effort to streamline early childhood applications and cut red tape for parents and providers. 

“We are thrilled to have a sole finalist in our search for an executive director for the new Department of Early Childhood who shares our passion for education and our commitment to ensure every Colorado kid can thrive,” Gov. Jared Polis said in a statement. 

Roy is currently the director of program development at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska. She led early childhood education programming in Denver Public Schools from 2016 to 2019. Before coming to the district, she was the executive director of the Denver-based Timothy and Bernadette Marquez Foundation and did consulting for Grantmakers for Education, a national network of education grant-makers. She’s also worked for two other Denver-based foundations: the Piton Foundation and the Daniels Fund. 

Roy has a doctorate in leadership for educational equity and a master’s degree in counseling psychology and counselor education from the University of Colorado Denver. She has a bachelor’s degree from Metropolitan State College of Denver. 

Advocates proposed a cabinet-level early childhood agency in 2021 as a way to elevate early childhood issues and better coordinate programs for young children. Colorado created an Office of Early Childhood within the Department of Human Services in 2013, but that office hasn’t had as much clout as a stand-alone agency and doesn’t include Colorado’s existing preschool program, which is housed in the education department. 

While many early childhood advocates are excited about the new department’s potential, there are also questions about whether reorganizing related programs under the one roof will be enough to untangle longstanding structural and logistical problems in the early childhood sphere.

For example, the new department will be charged with creating a single user-friendly application for universal preschool and a host of other publicly funded early childhood programs. But many of these programs, including a state preschool program for children with certain risk factors, have existed for decades and little has been done to simplify the process of multiple applications or redundant questions. 

The Department of Early Childhood will be Colorado’s 20th state agency, the maximum number allowed under the state constitution. Roy will be part of Gov. Jared Polis’ cabinet. 

As the new director, Roy, will have the authority to make rules without getting approval from a board. This plan is controversial, with some early childhood leaders arguing that it will allow the agency to be nimble and others concerned that it will put too much power in one person’s hands. About half the state’s agencies have directors with rule-making authority, while the other half, including the Education Department, have boards with that power. 

Ann Schimke is a senior reporter at Chalkbeat, covering early childhood issues and early literacy. Contact Ann at aschimke@chalkbeat.org.

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