Getting the ball rolling on Universal Preschool

The state will soon select local coordinating organizations to oversee the program within communities

While a lot is still unknown about how Universal Preschool will be implemented in the state, the state’s selection of Local Coordinating Organizations may provide some structure to get answers.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily archive

Significant progress is being made toward ensuring that every 4-year-old in Colorado will be able to attend preschool at no cost. Last month, Gov. Jared Polis signed legislation establishing Universal Preschool into law. And now, it will be up to local groups to prepare to administer the program in local communities.

The universal preschool program is anticipated to launch in July 2023. It promises to provide access to 10 hours of tuition-free preschool for 4-year olds via both private and public preschool services. It will also provide the tuition-free hours to a smaller number of 3-year-olds that have certain risk factors of disabilities.

One of the programs main draws is that it also promises to simplify applications for families. As proposed, it would allow families to apply for preschool through a single application. This application would also determine whether the family is eligible for other early childhood services.

This program will be the first big launch from the newly-created Department of Early Childhood. And while the executive director of this new department — expected to be the sole finalist for the role, Lisa Roy — will oversee the program and make rules in partnership with an advisory committee, there will be local oversight and coordination of its implementation.

Earlier this month, the department opened applications for these local coordinating organizations as well as a proposed map of the catchment areas where these organizations should be.

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At the May 25 Eagle County School District Board of Education meeting, Shelley Smith, the director of early childhood education for Eagle County Schools, said that the state’s recommendation was for Eagle County to fall under the Rocky Mountain Early Childhood Council authority. The council, established in 2000, includes Lake, Pitkin, Garfield and Eagle counties.

However, Smith said that the school district is planning to submit a joint application with the Eagle Valley organization, Early Childhood Partners.

“We just felt that with the intention of providing supports for families and children, that was too big of a catchment area,” Smith said. “We felt that wasn’t in the best interest of the children and families in our community, so we want to present an application that will just have Eagle County and then the Rocky Mountain Early Childhood Council can have Garfield, Pitkin and Lake.”

Smith noted that the partnership between the district and Early Childhood Partners makes sense for several reasons. Not only have the groups collaborated previously on a number of local initiatives, but the joint application is more likely to be accepted as it would represent a partnership between public and private providers, something that Smith said the state department desires through the implementation of Universal Preschool.

“If we submitted just as a school district, our application would be seen as a school district trying to keep the dollars just in school district sites instead of partnering with the providers in our community. But with Early Childhood Partners, if we submit a joint application, I think it will be much more likely to be accepted,” Smith said.

As a local coordinating organization, the group will be in charge of assisting local families with the applications, recruiting local preschools into the universal provider network as well as managing funding for local programs, providers, families and governments.

There are still a lot of unknowns as to how the universal preschool program will be implemented and executed. This includes questions on ensuring staffing for early child care providers — something that local schools and providers have been struggling with — as well as maintaining high quality education, creating possible extensions past 10 hours for working families and how public providers will factor in.

Having these local groups selected, however will be a big step forward and will hopefully provide some structure for local families and providers to get some answers.

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