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Reef Buchanen-Pendleton listens to “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” during his group’s “relaxation time” on Feb. 13, 2023, at New Horizons Co-Op Preschool in Boulder. New Horizons, founded in 1968, utilizes a bilingual preschool program for up to 16 children at a time. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Colorado’s rollout of expanded preschool has community-based providers across the state fearful they will lose critical revenue and struggle to keep their doors open as more children shift to free school-based programs.

Operators of community-based preschools worry that 3-year-olds who leave their centers to attend a school district program won’t come back once they turn 4 to continue preschool before they enter kindergarten. Colorado currently has 3,405 providers licensed to educate preschoolers, and they need those students to stay afloat and continue providing care to infants and toddlers. 

The state has strict rules governing the ratio of teachers to infants and toddlers in classrooms. Without as many 3-year-olds under their watch, many community providers question whether they will have the funds to care for kids, including infants and toddlers. 

“I am very concerned that this is an existential crisis for small community programs,” said Eva Nisttahuz-Hathaway, assistant director and a lead teacher at New Horizons Co-Op Preschool in Boulder. The nonprofit preschool teaches a diversity of students, including kids from low-income families and children learning English.

“And to me, this is creating more inequity because it’s limiting choice and access to the students who really need it most,” Nisttahuz-Hathaway said. 

The state is making its expanded preschool program — known as universal preschool — available to a group of 3-year-olds who need extra time in the classroom before entering kindergarten, offering them 10 hours of preschool per week. That group includes kids from low-income households, those who are learning English, those with special needs as well as children who are homeless or in foster care.

Although the state increased funding to offer the preschool program to all children the year before they enter kindergarten, funding did not increase beyond the amount set aside for 3-year-olds in the funding available to school districts in the Colorado Preschool Program this school year. The state invested an estimated $37.7 million for 3-year-olds in the Colorado Preschool Program and a separate $16.5 million for 3-year-old preschoolers with special learning needs who are not enrolled in the Colorado Preschool Program, according to the Colorado Department of Education.

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The Colorado Preschool Program, which began in 1988, will wrap up at the end of the school year. The program’s funding will merge with funding from Proposition EE, which taxpayers passed in 2020. The measure increased taxes on tobacco and nicotine products to pay for an expansion of the state’s preschool program to all children in the year before kindergarten.

Through legislation passed into law that created what the state calls universal preschool, House Bill 1295, the state will direct funding for eligible 3-year-olds to school districts and give them control over managing services for those children, which could include contracting with community preschools.

“This was determined, in part, because it will help school districts meet their obligations under special education law to provide inclusive classrooms for 3-year-olds with (Individualized Education Program plans) that have historically been served by school districts,” Colorado Department of Early Childhood spokesperson Hope Shuler wrote in an email.

Toddlers play on Feb. 13, 2023, at New Horizons Co-Op Preschool in Boulder. New Horizons, founded in 1968, utilizes a bilingual preschool program for up to 16 children at a time. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

IEP plans are used to help schools and teachers meet the learning needs of students with disabilities.

“Three-year-olds are not part of the universal preschool program, per se,” Shuler added, “but are a carve-out population to ensure that these children enter kindergarten ready to learn.”

The expanded preschool program is expected to serve about the same number of 3-year-olds in its first year, as are typically enrolled in the Colorado Preschool Program, Shuler said. There are 6,001 kids age 3 and younger in the program this school year, the Colorado Department of Education said.

If some of those children are cared for by a community preschool, state funding will follow them, she said. 

Communities across the state rely on a blend of school district programs and community providers to accommodate preschool demand among local families, said Melissa Mares, director of early childhood initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

An “exodus” of 3-year-olds from community care settings isn’t likely, Mares said, “because this pot of money is so fixed.”

Still, she said she understands community providers’ anxiety.

“The first year of anything this big and transformative, we know there will be messy moments,” Mares said, “and part of why we’re here as advocates is to help demystify things or help get answers (and) as a support so that this can be successful.”

Denver Public Schools — which educates about 5,000 3- and 4-year-olds, including about 1,800 3-year-olds — contracts with close to 40 community sites, which serve another 1,800 kids, including infants, toddlers and 3- and 4-year olds, said Priscilla Hopkins, executive director of early education for DPS.

She anticipates that DPS will continue contracting with community providers, though she is not certain if the district will continue working with all of the sites.

“We’re still figuring out how that’s going to look,” Hopkins said, adding, “the first thing will be, what are the needs out there?”

Greeley-Evans School District 6 also plans to continue contracting with community providers to care for 3-year-olds, though the district will serve those who have IEPs, spokeswoman Theresa Myers said in a text message.

Toddlers watch as director Isolde Stewart distributes Valentine’s cards on Feb. 13, 2023, at New Horizons Co-Op Preschool in Boulder. New Horizons, founded in 1968, utilizes a bilingual preschool program for up to 16 children at a time. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Boulder Valley School District, for now, plans to keep all 3-year-olds in the expanded preschool program in the district.

“At this time, BVSD’s position is that they have to come through BVSD at this time until we have a better understanding of the funding mechanisms to support special education students,” Kimberly Bloemen, the district’s executive director of early childhood education, said during a Feb. 14 school board meeting. 

“Many school districts, it’s not that they’re not wanting to commit to private providers,” Bloemen said. “There’s so many unknowns coming through (the Department of Early Childhood) right now, and there isn’t a lot of written guidance, and we really haven’t seen how the dollars are all adding up. And so school districts are saying, ‘We’re kind of in a hold pattern right now. We’re in a wait and see. We need to better understand how the dollars are flowing through the school district.’”

Disrupting care for infants and toddlers — and the state economy

A minimal number of 3-year-olds will be ineligible for universal preschool at community centers, according to the Department of Early Childhood and some state lawmakers.

Rep. Emily Sirota, a Denver Democrat and prime sponsor of the legislation that created the expanded preschool program, supports sending state funding for 3-year-olds to school districts to keep classrooms diverse for students who have disabilities.

“And for this small number of 3-year-olds, they will continue to be served in the districts because they are children who have a disability and children with risk factors, but in order to ensure a diverse classroom so that you don’t end up only having children with disabilities in the public classrooms, that was a priority for us to ensure that those classrooms are a diverse mix of students,” Sirota said.

But with more than 3,250 universal preschool applications for 3-year-olds submitted to the Department of Early Childhood — according to data provided by the department in a recent subcommittee meeting focused on the educator workforce — early childhood advocates and providers worry that the number of 3-year-olds routed to school districts could be significant enough to have lasting impacts on community providers.

Community providers also are concerned that Colorado could be teeing up a system that in the future will direct more state funding for young kids to districts.

“The state has told us that there’s a cap on current 3-year-old funding but has also told us that there may be more money available to expand 3-year-old funding down the road,” said Scott Bright, owner of ABC Child Development Centers, which has 25 sites across Weld County and partners with two school districts. 

“They surprised us by pushing 3-year-olds through the school districts,” Bright added. “And it’s only right for us to raise our hand and ask the question, ‘Why and where are you headed with this?’”

Many providers rely on 3- and 4-year olds to stay financially whole since they can care for more of them, said Dawn Alexander, executive director of the Early Childhood Education Association of Colorado.

Shane Matthews, a parent and volunteer with New Horizons Co-Op Preschool, helps push children on swings on Feb. 13, 2023, in Boulder. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

For instance, state rules dictate that one staff member can oversee five infants while one staff member is needed for every five to seven toddlers, depending on their ages. Meanwhile, one staff member can care for 10 children from 3 years old to 4 years old and 12 children from 4 years old to 5 years old.

“They need that full balance, that full spectrum of children in their program to be able to provide them the ability to sustain and offer those services,” she said.

Moving 3-year-olds out of community providers and into school districts could pinch community providers and jeopardize their sustainability at a time parents are already struggling to find infant and toddler care, Alexander said. 

“It threatens our entire state economy,” she said. 

A growing list of community providers and parents want to see legislative changes that would allow families of 3-year-olds in the expanded program to choose the type of preschool they see fit for their child. They are advocating for those changes to be included in a “clean up bill” the Department of Early Childhood is drafting to refine language in the law that created universal preschool that is outdated or ambiguous.

A survey initiated by the Early Childhood Education Association of Colorado two weeks ago has drawn more than 315 responses from concerned providers and families, Alexander said. About 140 providers and families have indicated they will give written testimony, and about 90 providers and families are willing to give in-person testimony to lawmakers. 

Community providers and teachers are equally concerned about how much shuffling kids between child care and preschool programs in school districts and those housed by community providers could hurt their development. Children thrive on routine and consistency, experts say.

“Quite honestly, I haven’t heard any real good reasons as to why it’s set up that way in the first place,” Bright said. “If you think about it very logically, 2-year-olds are in a mixed delivery setting; 3 year olds are being pushed to school districts; 4 year olds go back to mixed delivery; and 5 year olds go back to the school district.”

Community providers also wonder why the state is mandating that 3-year-olds in the expanded preschool program be automatically routed to district-run preschools when state leaders have been touting a mixed delivery system since first setting out to open up preschool to more families. That system draws on a variety of preschool settings — school districts, community providers and home-based providers — so that parents have options and can place their child in an environment best suited to their learning needs.

Toddlers play on bikes on Feb. 13, 2023, at New Horizons Co-Op Preschool in Boulder. New Horizons, founded in 1968, utilizes a bilingual preschool program for up to 16 children at a time. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

“It was obviously important to legislators to put 4-year-olds in mixed delivery settings,” said Bright, who also is on the board of the Early Childhood Education Association of Colorado and serves on the Rules Advisory Council, which advises the Department of Early Childhood. “It confuses me as to why it wasn’t as equally important to leave 3-year-olds in mixed delivery settings and instead push them through school districts.”

State officials say the way they are serving 3-year-olds in the expanded preschool program falls in line with state statute and does not interfere with the mixed delivery system set up for 4-year-olds.

Bright’s centers cater to about 1,000 3- and 4-year olds, with about two-thirds of those children funded through the Colorado Preschool Program and Preschool Special Education. 

He fears that losing 3-year-olds from community providers will compromise their ability to also care for infants and toddlers. 

​​“If someone wanted to remove infant toddler opportunities from communities in Colorado, one of the quickest ways to do it would be to pull 3- and 4-year-olds out of child care centers,” he said. “Whether the state or school districts know it, they are undermining the ability for providers to provide infant toddler care to families and communities by pulling them.”

New Horizons Co-Op Preschool in Boulder, which opened after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and has since evolved into a bilingual center for Spanish-speaking families, currently cares for 33 children, with 19 students funded by the Colorado Preschool Program, 12 of them who are 3 years old, Nisttahuz-Hathaway said.

The preschool, which has become even more diverse by serving local Nepalese children, did not learn that 3-year-olds in the expanded preschool program would not receive funding to attend its center until staff members attempted to help families try to register their 3-year-olds and were unable to enroll them.

Toddlers play on Feb. 13, 2023, at New Horizons Co-Op Preschool in Boulder. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Nisttahuz-Hathaway, the assistant director and a lead teacher, believes that parents of 3-year-olds who enroll in the expanded preschool program should have a full menu of schooling options.

“That shouldn’t only be extended to 4-year-olds,” Nisttahuz-Hathaway said. “The 3-year-olds who qualify, they need a lot of support. They need two years of preschool. They should also be able to choose the program that best fits their needs.”

She also worries that losing 3-year-olds next year will impact the preschool’s future classes of 4-year-olds in universal preschool.

“Most people will do what’s most convenient, which is staying in the place where they are,” she said.

The state has created something of a financial safety net for community providers who have partnered with a school district to educate children through the Colorado Preschool Program, offering them “hold harmless” funding for one year, Shuler said. That means that if a community provider receives less funding under the state’s expanded preschool program in its first year than the amount they received this school year under the Colorado Preschool Program, the state will pay them the difference.

It will help community preschools like New Horizons Co-Op Preschool, but it won’t guarantee they will be able to keep their doors open long term.

“It doesn’t change the sustainability problem over time,” Nisttahuz-Hathaway said. “So it buys us a tiny bit of time to try to figure things out, but it doesn’t solve the sort of fundamental issues that are at the heart of that.”

Colorado Sun staff writer Jesse Paul contributed to this report.

Erica Breunlin

Email: Twitter: @EricaBreunlin