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Preschoolers Laylamarie Larson, left, and Kinley Palmer play together during a morning class at Early Connections Learning Center in Colorado Springs Friday, July 30, 2021. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Close to 12,000 applicants signed up for the state’s expanded preschool program Tuesday, the first day parents could enroll their child ahead of the program’s start this fall.

The number of applications is a promising sign for the new program and is prompting state officials to rethink the number of children who will enroll.

“We’re pleasantly surprised,” said Lisa Roy, executive director of the Colorado Department of Early Childhood. “It exceeded our expectations for the first day. We think it’s an excellent indicator of family interest” in the state’s expanded preschool program, known as “universal preschool.”

The department originally projected about 30,000 kids would opt into the state program during its first year, about half the number of kids who will be eligible, Chalkbeat Colorado first reported. State officials largely based that estimate on enrollment numbers across the country and from the Denver preschool program, Roy said.

“Colorado is giving us an indicator that our initial projections are lower than what the uptake will be,” she said. “And that’s exciting. We have the funding. We need to make sure that … by the fall we have the seats available, and based on the provider uptake, we look like we’re in really great shape.”

So far, 1,477 child care providers have submitted forms to offer services through the preschool program, with another nearly 1,000 forms that providers have started but not yet submitted, according to the department. Based on the number of providers who plan to participate in the program, 60,000 slots are available for kids, nearly double the department’s initial expectation, said Melissa Mares, director of early childhood initiatives for the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

The first round of applications for families closes Feb. 14, but the expanded preschool program is not first come, first served. Instead, the department will evaluate all families’ applications at the same time and use an analytics system that will consider a variety of factors when matching families to preschool settings — including home-based, center-based and school-based programs. Those factors include transportation, whether families want a full day of preschool and whether a program is listed as a family’s first choice. When applying, parents and caregivers can select up to five preschool programs, ranking their preferred programs starting with their top choice.

The application is available in English, Spanish and Arabic and takes no more than 15 minutes to complete, Mares said, adding that the state has created the application by asking, “how can we best take (the) burden off of families?”

All 4-year-olds in the state will be eligible for at least 15 hours of free preschool per week — close to a half day of care. Additionally, some 3-year-olds will qualify for 10 hours of free preschool per week, including those with a disability, from low-income families, facing housing insecurity, learning English or living in foster care.

The state’s newly expanded preschool program was made possible by Colorado taxpayers in 2020, when voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition EE, which raised taxes on cigarettes and other products containing nicotine partly to fund more preschool for Colorado kids.

Providing free hours of preschool to families has been a major goal of Gov. Jared Polis, who has championed early childhood education since he first ran for governor. Polis touted the launch of the application window for expanded preschool during his State of the State address Tuesday.

The program “will save families at least $6,000 a year and give every child the best possible start in life,” Polis said during his speech.

Department of Early Childhood spokesperson Hope Shuler noted that preschool applications swelled during and after Polis’ address. The department’s website encountered few technology challenges amid the flurry of applications, running slowly the first 15 minutes of the day but then resolved and managed the intake of applications, she said.

The department will likely launch a second round of applications for families and possibly a third, depending on the flow of applications.

If the majority of eligible children have applied by the end of the first or second round, Roy said, “we’ll adapt as needed.”

Meanwhile, the department is also focused on establishing academic standards, assessments and curriculum support for all types of preschool providers, she noted, while also approving curriculum that some providers already use.

“We have a lot to do before fall,” Roy said, “but we plan on having many of the important areas that were identified by the statute in place before the summer comes.”

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...