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These applicants want to run Colorado’s universal preschool program at the local level

Two sets of hands, one belonging to a teacher and one belonging to a child, play with colorful tiles

About three dozen groups have applied, some jointly, to run Colorado’s universal preschool program at the local level.

Carl Glenn Payne II for Chalkbeat

Inside Colorado's free preschool initiative

Early childhood councils, school districts, and nonprofit organizations are among the three dozen groups that have applied to run Colorado’s universal preschool program in local communities when the initiative launches next year.

There’s a single application for the job in 31 of the state’s 32 zones, which generally cover one to six counties. Douglas County, where both the school district and health department have been roiled by politics and leadership changes, is the only zone that had no applicants. State officials say additional groups may apply and that some zone boundaries may change. 

The groups eventually selected to serve as so-called local coordinating organizations will provide the infrastructure for delivering on one of Gov. Jared Polis signature goals: offering 10 hours a week of free preschool to 4-year-olds statewide starting in the fall of 2023. The coordinating organizations will also be instrumental in helping state officials achieve priorities outlined in the state’s preschool law, including providing easy access to families and ensuring that both public and private preschools participate. 

A spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Early Childhood said state officials have not reviewed the applications but hope to make selections by mid-July. The application deadline was June 24, but the state is still accepting applications on a rolling basis, she said. 

About two-thirds of applications are from early childhood councils, which are regional groups that offer training and other support to child care providers. Some employ just one person, while others have several staff members. 

The state’s decision to invite such organizations to administer universal preschool is a switch from Colorado’s current preschool program, which is for children from low-income families and who have other risk factors. That program, which will end after the 2022-23 school year, is administered locally by school districts. 

In many communities, school districts will remain closely involved with public preschool discussions even if they aren’t serving as the local coordinating organization.

For example, in Denver, a nonprofit group that provides preschool tuition assistance — the Denver Preschool Program — is the named applicant. But Ellen Braun, the organization’s Chief Operating Officer, said a coalition of groups supported the application and will continue to provide input, including the Denver school district, the city’s Office of Children’s Affairs, and Denver’s Early Childhood Council. 

Braun said the Denver Preschool Program, which has a $24 million budget and currently works with 260 preschool providers in the city, is well-positioned to take on the coordinating role.

In Adams County, which has portions of several school districts within its boundaries, Westminster Public Schools is the lead applicant. Mat Aubuchon, the district’s executive director of learning services, said a consortium of local groups partnered on the application.  

If the state approves it, the Westminster district will serve as the fiscal agent for preschool money and lead hiring of a director for the effort. The consortium, which includes other school districts, the local early childhood council, and community-based preschool providers, would create a board of seven to eight members who would oversee the new director, Aubuchon said. 

While most of the applicants to coordinate preschool cover at least one county, there is one exception. That’s in Eagle County, where the local school district and a nonprofit group jointly applied to run universal preschool in only part of the county. 

Shelley Smith, director of early childhood education for the Eagle County district, said the application excluded about 17% of Eagle County because that area is geographically more aligned with a neighboring county and school district. 

That small section of Eagle County would be covered by a different pair of joint applicants that would oversee universal preschool in nearby Lake, Pitkin, and Garfield counties. 

Smith said Eagle County Schools and a nonprofit called Early Childhood Partners joined forces in applying because they both currently offer some of what will be needed to run universal preschool. She said coordinating organizations must be prepared to launch universal preschool right away next year. 

“I think families and providers, if it doesn’t hit the ground running, they’re going to walk away,” she said. 

In Douglas County, an affluent area just south of Denver, a perfect storm of factors prevented any applicants for the local coordinating role, one local early childhood leader said. 

Melissa Ingalls, executive committee chair for the county’s early childhood council, said the creation of a new county health department after the previous tri-county department was dissolved, turmoil in the Douglas County School district, and the retirement this week of the early childhood council’s director all played a part. 

“Our council is in enormous transition, so is our health department, arguably so is the school district a little bit,” she said. “The [county] department of human services couldn’t lift it by itself.” 

Ingalls, who manages the child care subsidy program for the county, said she hopes Douglas County will be able to find a local coordinating organization applicant soon, maybe at the end of the summer. 

“We embrace the governor’s new direction, but we haven’t been able to find anyone to own this.” she said.  

State officials have said the state will coordinate universal preschool in any community that doesn’t have a local coordinating group.

Here is a list of local coordinating organization applicants. 

  • El Paso County: Joint Initiatives for Youth and Families
  • Arapahoe County: Arapahoe County Early Childhood Council
  • Archuleta, La Plata, Dolores, Montezuma counties: San Juan BOCES
  • Delta, Montrose, Ouray, San Juan, and San Miguel counties: Bright Futures early childhood council 
  • Broomfield County: Broomfield Early Childhood Council
  • Chaffee County: Chaffee County Early Childhood Council 
  • Cheyenne, Kowa, and Lincoln counties: Genoa-Hugo Special Needs Preschool
  • Moffat and Rio Blanco counties: Connections4Kids Early Childhood Council and Moffat County School District (joint application)
  • Custer County: Custer County School District and Custer County Kids Council (joint application)
  • Denver: Denver Preschool Program
  • Summit County: Early Childhood Options and Summit County Government (joint application)
  • Yuma, Washington, and Kit Carson counties: Early Childhood Council for Yuma, Washington and Kit Carson
  • Boulder County: Early Childhood Council of Boulder County
  • Larimer County: Early Childhood Council of Larimer County
  • Logan, Phillips, and Sedgwick counties: Early Childhood Council of Logan, Phillips and Sedgwick
  • Alamosa, Conejos, Costilla, Mineral, Rio Grande, and Saguache counties: Early Childhood Council of the San Luis Valley
  • Fremont County: ECHO & Family Center Early Childhood Council 
  • Adams County: Westminster Public Schools
  • Elbert County: Elbert County Early Childhood Council
  • Routt County: First Impressions of Routt County early childhood council
  • Grand and Jackson counties: Grand Beginnings early childhood council
  • Gunnison and Hinsdale counties: Gunnison-Hinsdale Early Childhood Council
  • Huerfano and Las Animas counties: Huerfano-Las Animas Counties Early Childhood Council
  • Mesa County: Mesa County Partnership for Children and Families early childhood council and Mesa County Department of Human Services (joint applicants)
  • Morgan County: Early Learning Ventures
  • Weld County: United Way of Weld County
  • Pueblo, Bent, Otero, Crowley, Prowers, and Baca counties: Children First Department of Pueblo Community College
  • Eagle River Valley: Eagle County School District and Early Childhood Partners (joint applicants)
  • Eagle, Garfield, Lake, and Pitkin counties: Rocky Mountain Early Childhood Council and Mountain Valley Development Services (joint applicants.) 
  • Teller and Park counties: Teller Park Early Childhood Council
  • Clear Creek, Jefferson, and Gilpin counties: Bright Futures (This is not the same organization that applied in Delta, Montrose, Ouray, San Juan, and San Miguel counties.)
  • Douglas County: no applicant

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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