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Teacher Hannah Halferty leads her preschoolers in an activity at Shawsheen Elementary in Greeley on Thursday, December 12, 2019. (Valerie Mosley, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Miss Hannah’s morning preschool class at Shawsheen Elementary School in Greeley is full of chatty 3- and 4-year-olds, full of moments gathered in a circle on the floor for storytime, and full of as much laughter as learning.

It’s also just plain full.

Hannah Halferty’s class is at capacity — as are all preschool classes in Greeley-Evans School District 6 — and yet only about a quarter of district students eligible for funding from the Colorado Preschool Program are enrolled in it, according to estimates from the Colorado Department of Education.

“We know we are not serving the need for preschool in our communities,” said Theresa Myers, chief of communications for Greeley-Evans School District 6.

That district is far from the only one struggling to reach all students. Data from the Colorado Department of Education shows that in 68 districts plus the Colorado Charter School Institute, fewer than half of 3- and 4-year-olds who are eligible can get a seat in a free Colorado Preschool Program class.

Preschool teacher Hannah Halferty measures Wyatt Glover at Shawsheen Elementary in Greeley on Thursday, December 12, 2019. (Valerie Mosley, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Statewide, less than half of the kids most at risk for not being ready for school are able to access publicly-funded preschool.

About 76,000 3- and 4-year-olds are eligible to enroll in free preschool through the Colorado Preschool Program, some of whom may also be eligible for federally-funded Head Start, according to Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood and policy initiatives at the nonprofit Colorado Children’s Campaign.

Across Colorado, 27,530 kids are currently enrolled in free preschool through the Colorado Preschool Program with some of them also likely enrolled in Head Start, according to Conor Cahill, spokesman for Gov. Jared Polis.

The gap worries Jaeger.

“That should concern us,” Jaeger said. “We have other states, some that border us, that are serving 80-plus percent of 4-year-olds, and so we are at risk of falling behind the pack.”

But how do you serve more students when you don’t have physical classroom space for them?

Kalvin Newbanks and Alaric Lower read books in their preschool classroom at Shawsheen Elementary in Greeley on Thursday, December 12, 2019. (Valerie Mosley, Special to the Colorado Sun)

It’s a question that school districts in places like Greeley and Fountain are grappling with as Polis has continued to promote the importance of early childhood education — so much so that in his budget he has proposed investing $27.6 million into adding 6,515 half-day preschool slots, which would translate to about 6,000 children.

Eligibility for those slots is based on 10 risk factors, including whether students are from low-income households or living in foster care, or whether they need language development.

In the 2017-18 school year, the program served 26,650 children, most of whom attended half-day classes, Jaeger said.

The proposal trails Polis’ victory this past legislative session in securing free full-day kindergarten for Colorado public schools. Lawmakers approved $185 million to fund the program,  approximately 80% of what he asked for.

Under Polis’ proposal, districts that apply for and are awarded additional Colorado Preschool Program slots would be able to open their doors to more children, but it also would cause some districts with waiting lists to scramble to reach more kids at a time their classrooms can’t hold any more.

Polis has included one possible solution in his budget with a proposal: Dedicate $10 million from the BEST Grant Program to preschool-facility needs, according to a written statement provided by Cahill.

Ava Golian plays with a dollhouse in her preschool classroom at Shawsheen Elementary in Greeley on Thursday, December 12, 2019. (Valerie Mosley, Special to the Colorado Sun)

“The funding will help to construct, expand and renovate early childhood education facilities to serve more children,” the statement said.

The state’s Building Excellent Schools Today, or BEST, program gives capital construction grants to districts needing to build new schools or update and renovate existing ones.

Through Polis’ proposal, community-based preschool providers, including those that are for profit and nonprofit, would be able to access BEST Grant dollars to address their facility needs, according to Aaron Ray, deputy director for education, workforce, and environment at the Colorado Office of State Planning & Budgeting.

Other options touted by the governor: partnering with community-based preschool providers, including Head Start, and applying for different types of facilities grants through the Department of Local Affairs.

Shawsheen Elementary School Principal Jill Barnes backs Polis’ expansion proposal.

Greeley-Evans School District 6 has a lot of students who needed services and support before stepping into kindergarten and who would have benefited from starting school sooner, Barnes said.

“They needed services a long time ago, and it would’ve helped them if we could have caught things sooner,” she said.

But in order for that proposal to be truly helpful, districts like Greeley-Evans will need more funds for infrastructure. Tapping mechanisms like the BEST program, Barnes said, “is a great way of thinking outside the box.”

Octavio Vazquez, Cameron Beina and Tucker Anderson play with a mailbox for letters to Santa at Shawsheen Elementary on Thursday, December 12, 2019. (Valerie Mosley, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Otherwise, neither the school nor the district will have space to accommodate additional students, though that could change with a bond issue passed in November. The bond will help increase capacity at some of the district’s schools and will help pay for a new PK-8 school, Myers said.

Additionally, Madison Elementary School in Greeley will be rebuilt and could have space for additional preschool. Currently, the school has portables housing some Head Start classrooms. Head Start programs are available in the area but are not operated by the district.

“In the future we’ll try to add class seats and space for preschool programs,” Myers said, “but right now that would be cost prohibitive to retrofit our schools to try to provide preschool.”

In total, Greeley-Evans School District 6 educates 835 preschoolers, 63 of them at Shawsheen Elementary School. The rest are in classes at five other sites run by private vendors — primarily ABC Child Development Center — but overseen by the district’s preschool program.

The district leans heavily on private vendors because of how expensive it is to operate preschool programs and because of how limited the district’s space is, Myers said.

Fountain-Fort Carson School District 8 faces similar space constraints.

The district’s preschool program is housed in classrooms at the Conrad Early Learning Center in Fountain and classrooms at Weikel Elementary School on Fort Carson Army Base, with additional classrooms for Head Start at Aragon Elementary School and the Conrad Early Learning Center in Fountain as well as at Mountainside Elementary School in Colorado Springs.

First graders Zoey Schaller, left, and Daniella Madrid read together in Katlyn Smith’s First Grade classroom Wednesday, January 23, 2019 at Aragon Elementary in Fountain-Fort Carson School District 8. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

This year, 320 students are in preschool classes offered by the district, with a waitlist of 53. Another 128 kids attend Head Start.

The district’s preschool program has grown in the past year as the district has pumped money it once used for full-day kindergarten into preschool and received additional slots through the Colorado Preschool Program, district spokeswoman Christy McGee said.

Classes have reached capacity, and extra space is in short supply. There may be a “tiny bit of wiggle room,” but not a lot, McGee said.

If the governor’s expansion proposal succeeds, the district would welcome more preschool slots and figure out a way to make it work, she said. “But the way the physical spaces are designed now, there’s not a ton of room for growth.”

How does the Colorado Preschool Program work?

The Colorado Preschool Program, voluntary for districts, was created in 1988 and provides state-funded preschool to kids “considered to be at-risk for later school failure,” according to CDE’s website.

Currently 175 of the state’s 178 school districts have preschool slots through the state initiative.

Lawmakers have expanded the number of available slots multiple times since the inception of the program, including at times through the state’s Early Childhood At-Risk Enhancement, or ECARE, program. Those slots are more flexible than those under the Colorado Preschool Program as there is no limit on how many slots can be combined to create full-day schooling opportunities.

Funding for full-day kindergarten freed up at least 5,200 ECARE slots that were being used for kindergarten, according to Jaeger.

The CDE handles allocating additional slots across districts through a competitive application process. The department also considers a range of factors when dispersing new slots, including the districts’ dropout and graduation rates, achievement scores for standardized tests, and the number of students eligible for free and reduced lunch, a measure of poverty. CDE then uses similar criteria to determine districts’ relative at-risk populations and ranks districts from there, according to Heidi McCaslin, state preschool director with CDE.

While 4-year-olds must experience at least one risk factor in order to qualify for program funding — such as living in poverty or struggling with language — 3-year-olds must demonstrate at least three risk factors, McCaslin said.

Preschool teacher Hannah Halferty reads to her class at Shawsheen Elementary in Greeley on Thursday, December 12, 2019. (Valerie Mosley, Special to the Colorado Sun)

The department estimates the total number of eligible 3- and 4-year-olds per district and calculates the percentage of qualifying students actually in district preschool programs.

CDE bases the estimates on historical data and data related to the population of students entering kindergarten since it doesn’t have access to information for every 3- and 4-year-old in the state, said Melissa Colsman, associate commissioner for student learning at CDE.

Those students who do attend preschool have an edge in their academic performance that has been proven with 30 years of data, according to Jaeger.

“It is a lot more costly to remediate the gaps than it is to prevent it from occurring in the first place,” Jaeger said, and right now the state is paying the cost of getting students up to academic speed in early elementary grades and into middle and high school.

Compared to peers who didn’t have access to the Colorado Preschool Program, students in the program are less likely to be held back a year and more likely to read on grade level, outperform classmates on standards-based assessments and graduate from high school on time, among other benefits, according to research from CDE.

Laying a foundation for universal preschool

Between two preschool classes at Shawsheen Elementary School, Halferty educates 32 children, 10 of whom have special needs. The rest qualify for funding under the Colorado Preschool Program.

She is hard of hearing and said she understands what it’s like to start school with challenges and believes in the value of the types of early intervention preschool provides. Helping students with special needs is part of what drew her to a career in education; she wanted to be the kind of teacher she needed when she was younger.

Preschool teacher Hannah Halferty leads an activity with students Johanna Martinez, Harrison Johhnston, and Kole Macias at Shawsheen Elementary in Greeley on Thursday, December 12, 2019. (Valerie Mosley, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Halferty, in her first year of teaching at Shawsheen Elementary School but her sixth year as a preschool educator, focuses on preparing her students academically and socially with a particular emphasis on developing a “strong social foundation,” she said.

On a recent morning, her class pivoted from activity to activity, starting by sitting in a circle on the carpet making music with jingle bells before diving into storytime and then moving into free time, when some wrote letters to Santa while others played with puppets and clay and blocks.

Preschool teacher Hannah Halferty laughts with student Kaiden Ferrero at Shawsheen Elementary in Greeley on Thursday, December 12, 2019. (Valerie Mosley, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Barnes stresses how important it is for young students to master the basics of succeeding in school — how to line up, walk through a lunch line, sit on the floor and transition between areas in the classroom and building.

Those skills are so critical for kindergarteners to have that Barnes and other principals in Greeley-Evans School District 6 have used summer school money to create a kindergarten jumpstart program in which kids learn those essentials in the summer.

While Barnes is grateful that Polis is looking to expand access to preschool, she’d like to see preschool become universal in the same way kindergarten has.

Preschoolers read books in their classroom at Shawsheen Elementary in Greeley on Thursday, December 12, 2019. (Valerie Mosley, Special to the Colorado Sun)

That would mean preschool would be more readily available to Colorado’s more than 60,000 3-year-olds and more than 60,000 4-year-olds, estimated by the CDE.

The governor’s proposal to grow preschool “will help build capacity and the foundation for universal preschool,” said a statement from Cahill, Polis’ press secretary.

Jeanette Baysinger, coordinator in Pueblo County School District 70, is just as eager for the state to take a universal approach to preschool.

Her district has 12 preschool classrooms serving 317 students in 10 schools. Most of its preschool classes are at capacity, though it preserves a few spots at schools in each part of the community in the event students in special education move into the district during the school year.

Head Start and private preschools present other options for families.

Calvin Moreno and Maria Flores-Rodriguez clean up after and activity in their preschool classroom at Shawsheen Elementary in Greeley on Thursday, December 12, 2019. (Valerie Mosley, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Universal preschool, Baysinger said, would open up opportunities for “really rich” programming in math and social learning, and in literacy, which is an especially pressing priority for students beginning school.

“We need to be addressing concerns based around literacy when children are younger rather than when they’re older,” Baysinger said. “We just know that we can make a bigger difference when they’re younger.”

Erica Breunlin is an education writer for The Colorado Sun, where she has reported since 2019. Much of her work has traced the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic on student learning and highlighted teachers' struggles with overwhelming workloads...