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What should Colorado’s new Department of Early Childhood look like? Leaders want parent, teacher say.

With three months to figure out the department’s structure, the state wants to know how to improve preschool services and financial aid for families.

Preschool teacher Sarah Penick stretches with her preschool students on Friday, July 30, 2021, at Early Connections Learning Centers in Colorado Springs. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun.)
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State officials want the input of parents, teachers and child care providers before launching what the governor’s office calls a bold new initiative: reinventing how Colorado provides services to preschoolers. 

Starting in 2023, the state will provide at least 10 hours a week of free preschool to every kid in the year before kindergarten. But first, the state must stand up the Department of Early Childhood to oversee the statewide preschool initiative, while finding ways to ease the path for families as they seek care for young children and figure out how to afford it. 

The promised changes couldn’t come soon enough, advocates say.  

“The problem is children can’t wait for child care,” said Diane Price, president and CEO of Early Connections Learning Centers in Colorado Springs, who called this a once-in-a-generation chance to fix a system rife with barriers that advocates have been pushing for decades to address.

A series of virtual public meetings, or listening sessions, is planned starting this week as groundwork is laid for the new Department of Early Childhood, which must make key decisions about how the program will operate.

The preschool initiative will effectively give parents free, public daycare in what has been hailed as a boost for children and working families, but details are still being worked out.

The initiative is expected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars annually, and managing its budget will be among the new department’s core responsibilities.

The listening sessions aim to give parents and early child education groups a say in how they will be affected by the move to universal preschool and other changes meant to simplify pre-kindergarten care. People interested in attending may find more information and register here.

HOW TO WATCH

Interested in attending one of these virtual listening sessions? Find more information and register here.

  • For program providers: Tuesday, Aug. 3, noon-1 p.m. and 5:30-6:30 p.m.
  • For parents: Tuesday, Aug. 24, noon-1 p.m. and 5:30-6:30 p.m.
  • For early childhood educators: Tuesday, Sept. 21, noon-1 p.m. and 5:30-6:30 p.m.

The public input process will put Colorado on pace to “deliver a statewide and bold approach,” Conor Cahill, a spokesman for Gov. Jared Polis, said in a written statement.

The new department, announced by Polis and lawmakers in May, also seeks to close gaps in educational programs, overhaul mental health services for children and streamline financial aid for families, among other improvements, with the goal of easing the process of getting children into care, officials said. 

Solving a system of “separation and fragmentation”

The Department of Early Childhood is expected to consolidate as many as two dozen programs that are currently administered by a tangle of state entities, cutting down a confusing journey for parents who must navigate the system.  

A set of working groups has until Nov. 1 to submit recommendations to Polis that will be used to set up the department. The creation of the Department of Early Childhood, distinct from the Department of Education, is being funded by about $1 million from the state’s general fund with an additional almost $600,000 set aside for the next fiscal year. Polis will appoint an executive director of the department.

Early childhood educators say they cheer the effort to make it easier for providers and families to find help sending kids to preschool. 

Preschooler Aidan Quintana Huynh paints on Friday, July 30, 2021, during a morning class at Early Connections Learning Centers in Colorado Springs. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun.)

Now, parents must turn to multiple agencies in the process of finding affordable and quality preschool programs for their children. That complicates what is already a daunting task for many parents, particularly those who rely on more than one funding source to cover the cost of preschool.

The 24 services expected to fall under the department’s oversight include preschool instruction, mental health care, child and maternal health care, food assistance, financial assistance for families and home visits. 

But how do you move programs that are already well established under other state departments and programs that serve both preschoolers and their older school-age peers?

In finding the answer to that question, education officials are trying to strike a balance that avoids further splintering how services are administered.

“This separation and fragmentation of services are exactly the issues that we want to address and resolve,” Pamela Harris, president and CEO of Mile High Early Learning in Denver, wrote in an email.

Harris and others behind the development of the Department of Early Childhood want to hear from parents, preschool providers and educators about what they need from the state to ease the process of getting kids into preschool classrooms.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Meanwhile, a set of working groups is guiding the first steps in the decision-making process, with subgroups focusing on governance, operations and funding, data, technology, evaluation and accountability; special education services; and details of implementing universal preschool. 

The work builds on a focus the state has had on early childhood for more than 30 years, Harris said.

An implementation plan for universal preschool is due to the Early Childhood Leadership Commission on Jan. 1.

The Department of Early Childhood, once up and running in July 2022, will have about a year to finish preparing for the start of universal preschool, which was made possible by voters’ approval of Proposition EE in November. The ballot measure, which went into effect in January, raises taxes on nicotine, cigarettes and other tobacco products in the state through 2027. By fiscal year 2027-28, the measure will generate an estimated $231 million for the universal preschool program. It’s not yet clear how much funding from other sources, including the Colorado Preschool Program, will be used to operate universal preschool.

The ultimate cost of the preschool initiative will depend on how many children enroll statewide and on practical matters that haven’t been decided, including what the student-teacher ratio will be in classrooms, said Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood and policy initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign.   

Through Proposition EE, universal preschool will provide all Colorado children access to 10 hours of preschool each week in the year before they enter kindergarten. Any extra revenue generated by the tax increase would fund additional hours of preschool to kids from low-income households or those who are potentially behind in school readiness.

The rollout of universal preschool will likely be the new department’s first major initiative, Jaeger said. He hopes that having a consolidated department for early childhood will smooth its implementation, but he also knows that bringing together all the components of the state’s early childhood system will take time.

Preschool teacher A.J. Hagn works with preschooler Isaiah Davenport on Friday, July 30, 2021, at Early Connections Learning Centers in Colorado Springs. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun.)

“That is not going to be something that happens with the flip of a switch,” he said.

Geoff Nagle, who oversees research, policy and advocacy at Clayton Early Learning in Denver, is encouraged by the new department’s broad focus, and emphasized the need for Colorado to refine its approach to how the state’s youngest students are taught as they prepare for kindergarten.

Nagle is less concerned about kids starting to make academic progress in the first few years of schooling. Fundamental skills like paying attention, following directions and getting along with others are more critical for preschoolers to master, he said, adding “we have such a disconnect with what needs to happen in early childhood in terms of cognitive development.”

What do providers and parents want from the new department?

Colorado early childhood care and education providers like Price are desperate for the new department to improve pay for teachers, who are among the lowest-paid teachers in the state. It’s a matter of paying educators a liveable wage and ensuring preschools have enough qualified professionals to offer quality programs.

“We have a national crisis in (the) workforce,” Price said. “You can’t walk down the street without seeing a help wanted sign.”

Early child care centers are suffering amid that crisis, as many of their staff members are hourly and many are entry level, said Price, whose center has struggled to fill open teaching positions. As of this month, Early Connections Learning Centers is down 17 teachers out of 85 employees total. The center, which has the capacity for close to 400 kids from birth through age 13, has frozen enrollment and is starting a waiting list. Price sees the same kinds of workforce shortages throughout child care centers in the Pikes Peak region and across the state, which has challenged their ability to meet families’ needs as parents try to return to work.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

A big part of the problem is wages. Teacher pay at Early Connections Learning Centers, ranges from minimum wage to $20 an hour, based on education and experience. The income that comes into her center and others is primarily based on what parents pay, Price said. Staff salaries and benefits comprise 75% of her center’s costs, she said, and if she wants to increase pay she has to charge families more. Providers who are nonprofit often try to find other sources of dollars, including grants and fundraising, but that’s not enough to cover raises every year.

“As an industry and a country, we have to figure out how much we value the first five years of life and how we’re going to support that for children and families,” Price said.

Mile High Early Learning in Denver, which cares for more than 500 children from 6 weeks old to 5 years old each year in its early learning centers and serves hundreds more kids through Early Head Start partnerships and other programs, is facing a 15% vacancy rate among staff, Harris said.

She hopes the department will take steps to create a well-supported, well-compensated workforce and explore how to reallocate funding to support workforce salaries and benefits so that early childhood educators have more stability, especially after a turbulent year in which caregivers faced added stressors and health risks from coronavirus.

“It’s scary,” Harris said. “And the concern around transmission and just the stress and mental health impacts we’ve seen have been quite dramatic, actually.”

Price doesn’t have a clear answer for how the new department can work to help providers overcome workforce challenges, but she said that the creation of the department is the first step to building a better state system of early childhood education.

“We have a better opportunity to bring people to the table under one umbrella than we’ve probably ever had before,” she said.

Preschool teacher Sarah Penick stretches with her preschool students on Friday, July 30, 2021, at Early Connections Learning Centers in Colorado Springs. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun.)

Another problem providers look to the new department to solve: the messy, disparate funding streams that centers have to tie together to be able to offer quality care and education. Early Connections Learning Centers uses money from the Colorado Preschool Program and the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program as well as federal Head Start grants and philanthropic fundraising, bringing together all those different avenues of funding to care for kids.

“High quality costs a lot of money and it costs more than .. .any one source of funding covers,” Price said. “So in order for me to offer quality across the board I have to blend multiple funding sources together.”

Each funding stream comes with different standards and regulations that providers must abide by, Harris said, “so it’s really trying to align all of these programs that support early childhood.”

The challenges of navigating different pools of funding across different agencies extend to families with young kids, Jaeger said, noting that the current system isn’t centered on “the child and family experience.”

Too few Colorado children have access to high-quality early childhood programs, he said. About half of Colorado children ages 3 and 4 have been enrolled in preschool of any kind in recent years, according to data from the Colorado Children’s Campaign. Families who can access programs struggle at times to find quality programs, and those who can find quality programs often struggle to afford them. Covering the cost of those early childhood experiences often means cobbling together multiple funding streams, Jaeger said, noting “that is a heavy burden.”

Preschool teacher Sarah Penick reads a book to preschoolers on Friday, July 30, 2021, at Early Connections Learning Centers in Colorado Springs. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun.)

Denver parent George Davis has lived through that burden first-hand after struggling to find the right preschool program for his daughter, who is now 5 and heading into kindergarten in the fall at Vanguard Classical School.

Davis, a single parent of two children, conveyed his challenges at the announcement of the new Department of Early Childhood in May. He struggled to find comprehensive resources that gave him a good idea of all his daughter’s options for preschool when she started three years ago, leaning more on recommendations from other parents.

Davis, whose family has relied on CCAP dollars to send his daughter to full-day preschool, landed on Clayton Early Learning in Denver. He compares the process to searching for the right school to “ordering a pizza in parts.”

“You had to order the cheese, then call somewhere else and see if they had the right sauce,” Davis said.

It was a taxing process, particularly for a parent trying to support his children with his job as an insurance agent. He hopes the new department will simplify the process.

“I hope it streamlines it,” Davis said, “makes it more like ordering a pizza should be.”


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