Is Eagle County ready for the start of universal preschool?
Provider and family participation in the program was among the highest in the state, according to the local coordinating organizations
With only a few weeks left until the start of the school year, the Eagle County School District and local preschool providers are preparing for the inaugural year of Colorado’s Universal Preschool program.
The local rollout of the state program is being managed in tandem by the school district and Early Childhood Partners. Together, the two entities comprise the local coordinating organization for Eagle County.
While the rollout of any new statewide program comes with its challenges, this localized structure, according to both entities, has allowed Eagle County to mitigate some of the statewide concerns and angst, said Shelley Smith, the school district’s director of early childhood programs.
“I won’t say things have gone smoothly because it’s a new program,” she said. “But, we’ve had less (angst and concerns) because we are able to do it in just one county and are able to offer that individual outreach to families because the state-level communication has been challenging. So I think we’ve been able to mitigate a lot of what you might be hearing at the state level. It’s not been easy, but we have figured workarounds.”
A bill signed into law in April 2022 initiated Colorado’s Universal Preschool program, and in the past year, the state and local coordinating organizations have been working to prepare for implementation.
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The program will provide a monthly $600 tuition credit to families of 4-year-olds to attend preschool. The tuition credits are for 15 to 20 hours of care a week, and families still have to pay the remaining tuition balance. These credits will only be available during nine months of the year, running on a similar schedule to the K-12 school year.
The program will also provide a tuition credit for some 3-year-olds based on certain qualifications and high-risk factors. Additionally, some families were able to qualify for additional hours (up to full-day care of 30 hours a week) based on similar high-risk factors.
Julia Kozusko, the co-executive director of Early Childhood Partners, said that there is a sense of gratitude that the state of Colorado championed this program “so children have access to quality preschool at this crucial stage of development.”
“It is amazing that $221,000 will be credited to (Eagle County) families for preschool tuition starting in August and that this number will grow each month based on the number of 4-year-olds enrolled in preschool,” Kozusko said.
Providers step up
Family enrollment for universal preschool opened this January, so at this point in the year, the bulk of enrollment is already over. So far, there are 371 seats filled in Eagle County — 181 with private providers and 190 for the school district.
Not only is this enrollment above what the local coordinating organization projected last fall, but the county has among the highest percentage of participation in the state, Smith reported.
In total, 19 private providers are participating in universal preschool — which is all but one of the eligible centers in the county.
“We have actually surpassed our projected number of everything,” said Liz Costaldo, Early Childhood Partner’s director of operations. “We surpassed the number of programs we thought would be participating and families that we thought would be able to go ahead and get enrolled both in the private sites and the district.”
This, Smith noted, speaks to the dedication of local providers to meet local needs, even with the uncertainty of the new program.
“(Providers) so wanted the families to have access,” Smith said. “They (signed up for universal preschool) without having a lot of answers to their questions, but did so with a commitment to get this opportunity for their families. And they have been amazing.”
There are still some preschool spots remaining for families. As of Friday, July 28, there were 46 seats across the valley still available. Families interested in signing up should reach out to Early Childhood Partners or the school district to learn more about these available seats, Costaldo said. Both entities have bilingual Spanish-speaking staff to help families.
“It’s not like Universal Pre-K is starting and it’s done,” she said. “We want to encourage families to contact us throughout the year. If they come into our community and they have an age-eligible child, we should be able to help get them that UPK spot if one is available.”
Currently, the only local area that has some capacity concerns is Gypsum. Costaldo noted that as of July 28, two private sites in Gypsum had six slots still available.
“We definitely have more capacity upvalley,” she noted.
Overall, the high participation speaks to the demand and urgency for preschool and early childhood care in the community.
“This is such a relief,” Costaldo said. “We hope we’ll keep going in the right direction and there’ll be universal birth to 5 (years old) at some point — the sooner the better — but I’ve heard nothing really except for excitement from families.”
Staffing starts to recover
The rollout of universal preschool came at a time when across the state, providers and school districts were struggling to recruit and retain early childhood educators. While many of these challenges persist today — including insufficient pay, housing and benefits — things do seem to be moving in a positive direction.
Last year, the Eagle County School District had to close four preschool classrooms — and one infant classroom — due to inadequate staffing. This year, however, it will be able to open all its early childhood classrooms as “staffing is improving,” Smith said.
Costaldo said that there are still a handful of private providers with classrooms closed. Some programs remain open for four days a week, compared to their previous five-day-a-week schedules.
“The recovery is happening,” she said. “That being said, workforce in early childhood continues to be a very significant issue. Until we come up with some ways to recruit and retain our early childhood workforce, we don’t expect that to change. We’re not at full capacity of existing seats because if programs can’t fully staff, they don’t really have a choice. It is better than it was.”
As the state worked to get the new program up and running on a tight timeframe, there has been changing information, semantics and details that the local coordinating organization has had to sift through in order to minimize the impact to providers.
“There has been rapidly changing information as the system has been built so that at times creates a lot of questions,” Costaldo said. “I think for the most part (the providers) are trusting the process and are just so happy that families will be able to receive this tuition assistance that they’re hanging in there. Fortunately, we’re able to communicate as often as needed whenever new information comes out.”
This has included changes on what the program will support, including the additional hours. At first, Smith said they knew additional hours would be offered but didn’t know how they would be supported. However, less than 50% of the families ended up qualifying for additional hours, she added.
“Because this is the first year they have a budget they have to under-commit, but that’s been changing,” Smith said.
The first year of implementation will be an opportunity to discover what works and what doesn’t and hopefully work out any kinks.
One specific area the local coordinating organization will be keeping an eye on is the impact on three-year-olds.
“There is a significant shift in the way 3-year-olds are receiving support at the state level,” Smith said.
Previously, Colorado school districts received funding through the Colorado Preschool Program to provide care for 3-year-olds that qualified. However, universal preschool replaced this program. This year, Smith said the district was given a set amount of money to serve 3-year-olds based on last year’s enrollment, rather than the number of kids it needs to serve.
“We will be collecting data on how many fewer 3-year-olds are getting funding to access an early childhood setting than they did previously and I do think it’s going to be a significant impact,” Smith said.
Ultimately, the first year of universal preschool will be one of learning, growth and anticipation for the entire Eagle County early childhood community.
“All of the different organizations that work with children and families are working so closely together and that’s really exciting,” Costaldo said. “I think this will lead to more and more positive things in the upcoming months and year. So we’re really grateful for all the partnerships across the board — including our LCO, and that we can be there.”