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Director Isolde Stewart leads children in a breathing and stretching exercise 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)

More than 40% of Colorado 4-year-olds eligible to participate in the state’s expanded preschool program are set to start in August after their families accepted a match with a preschool provider, according to figures released Tuesday by the Colorado Department of Early Childhood.

Children from more than 27,450 Colorado families have been enrolled in preschool through the new statewide program, known as universal preschool, after CDEC paired families with preschools through two application rounds, according to a news release from the department. More than 90% of kids were assigned to one of the preferred providers their families selected on their application, and more than 78% of children were placed with the program that was their family’s first choice, the news release said.

“As universal preschool in Colorado welcomes the first class of students this fall, we are ensuring the youngest Coloradans have a strong start,” Gov. Jared Polis, a leading advocate for the state’s expanded preschool program, wrote in a statement.

Yet while state leaders including Polis have touted a state program that would be open to all 4-year-olds in the year before they enter kindergarten — an estimated 63,037 children, according to the Colorado Children’s Campaign — the number of seats available among preschool providers who have opted into the program falls short by several thousand. 

The 2,006 providers who have signed up for universal preschool can collectively serve 56,866 students — about 90% of all eligible 4-year-olds, according to figures from the department. 

However, state officials anticipate that between 40% and 60% of qualifying families will take advantage of the state program in its first year, based on data from other states with similar programs, department spokesperson Hope Shuler wrote in an email.

Preschooler Kinley Palmer leans in to listen to a question from teacher Sam Patru during a morning class at Early Connections Learning Center in Colorado Springs Friday, July 30, 2021. (Mark Reis, Special to the Colorado Sun.)

Ahead of the program’s fall launch, 43% of the total 56,866 available preschool seats remain open across Colorado, with preschool slots still open in each of the state’s 64 counties. In Denver County, for instance, 40% of the 6,740 slots are waiting to be filled. In Weld County, half of the more than 4,700 seats are still available, and in Eagle County on the Western Slope, close to 40% of the 600 seats for preschoolers are vacant.

The department will notify another round of families about which provider they have been matched with June 29 and is continuing to accept applications for the expanded preschool program, with the next application deadline slated for July 13.

Families who decline their match can re-rank their provider choices and submit them again to secure a different provider, Shuler wrote.

The state’s new preschool program, funded by a voter-approved measure that raises taxes on tobacco and nicotine products, offers all eligible 4-year-olds a minimum of 15 hours of preschool per week the year before they start kindergarten — even as many working families need more hours of subsidized preschool. 

Children from low-income families along with those who have special needs, are homeless, are learning English or are in foster care qualify for more hours. The department aims to tally the total number of kids who can receive extra hours by mid-July, according to Shuler.