The Calhan School District school serves upward of 400 preschool to 12th grade students. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

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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.