Families still wanting to enroll their student in Colorado’s universal preschool program now have a much quicker route to the classroom: Rather than sign up through the Colorado Department of Early Childhood’s online application portal and wait for the state to match them with one of their preferred programs, they can go directly to the school district or community provider where they want to enroll so that their child can start sooner.
The “walk-in” option better connects families with the school setting of their choice and expedites the process of enrolling in universal preschool, district officials say, but that alternative method still doesn’t solve the problems that school districts and community providers point to with the state’s online enrollment system, BridgeCare.
That system — already at the center of a lawsuit filed against Gov. Jared Polis and state education leaders and agencies in mid-August — once again came under scrutiny last week, when lawmakers grilled state education officials about the widespread challenges districts and providers have faced in starting the school year off smoothly. Districts echoed one another in expressing frustrations over their lack of full access to the system and the resulting scramble in trying to place students in preschool programs that can adequately serve them.
“(Walk-ins are) a way for us to not turn families away immediately, so that is positive, but it’s still the same problem,” said Bethany Ager, Brighton School District 27J’s early childhood coordinator.
“That roadblock of not being able to get in the BridgeCare system to make edits and help families on the backend is still the biggest barrier that we have,” Ager added, noting that districts like hers don’t have the ability to edit student applications, update details tied to a family’s demographics or contact information, or address a family’s request to change between a morning and afternoon preschool session.
CDEC began allowing families to directly enroll into preschool programs by walking into a district or community provider “to be responsive to what we were hearing as a need from providers,” said Dawn Odean, program director of universal preschool.
The speedier method of enrollment is a “fantastic” step forward for families and providers, said Dawn Alexander, executive director of the Early Childhood Education Association of Colorado, though she would like to see the option offered to parents no matter the time of year they register.
“To be able to put a sign in your yard and say, ‘you can start free UPK today here now,’ that’s huge,” Alexander said. “(Community providers) just have had so many people where they’ve helped them with an application process, they’ve listed a couple programs and then they never see them again because they’re swept away to other programs. So now we have the ability as a program to be able to say, ‘You want to come here? Perfect. Let’s get you registered.’ That’s what we need to sustain business.”
And it’s particularly helpful for families who have relocated to Colorado or who may not be aware of universal preschool, Odean said.
“Providers, of course, really want to serve those children when they have open seats as quickly as they can, and so they requested for us to have an option that was more of a direct placement,” she said. “We want to make it as easy as possible for the family and for the provider.”
The department has been working with districts and providers to directly place children with special needs since February, but it formally established walk-ins as an acceptable approach to enrolling any preschooler in mid-September, when it updated guidance for programs participating in universal preschool. However, early childhood education leaders from multiple districts say they did not receive clear communication from CDEC about the update, which was tucked on the third page of a document within a Google folder sent to districts and providers.
And many districts have already been working closely with families to get students set up for preschool, according to Melissa Gibson, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives, one of the plaintiffs named in the lawsuit filed against Polis and state education agencies.
“Many districts have already been helping families complete their UPK application and working with their (local coordinating organization) so that students can get into their chosen program,” Gibson wrote in an emailed statement. “Districts have been doing this because families have come to them frustrated and confused about Bridgecare, just wanting to get their child enrolled and in school. Unfortunately, this walk-in guidance is a band-aid and not a solution.”
CDEC is not yet tracking how many students enroll in universal preschool by walking in, Odean said. But the department continues to track the number of students who start preschool after being placed in one of their family’s choices through the online portal, which now matches families and providers in the span of a week. The total number of 4-year-olds taking advantage of universal preschool now totals 38,468, according to data from the department.
“With change comes additional work”
In Brighton School District 27J, the district’s early childhood administration team of three helps families who show up at their door apply to universal preschool through BridgeCare by creating a login and completing registration steps.
A child can begin preschool once the district has that child’s birth certificate, proof of residency and immunization records and once the child and their family has met with their preschool teacher to talk about goals for the school year, how the student learns best and how the educator structures class, Ager said.
Still, districts are limited in how they can help families after introducing them to BridgeCare, she said.
“Our hands are tied immediately after they hit ‘submit’ still,” Ager said.
When asked why districts and providers aren’t authorized to edit and update student information in BridgeCare, Odean said the department wants to keep families in the driver’s seat when making decisions about their child’s education.
“We have had families reach out where providers have made decisions for families that weren’t the family’s choice,” Odean said. “And so, it’s a balance. So we definitely want to ensure that the families are able to own that.”
Mat Aubuchon, executive director of learning services in Westminster Public Schools, countered that his district has run into issues with the department overturning at least one family’s decision to move to another district for preschool.
“Let us handle our own enrollment,” he said. “Trust us to do the job we know how to do.”
Odean added that CDEC does not “want to presume that all of our providers have the administrative time” to update student information in the system.
“That’s additional time for (providers) to be in the system and make those changes when their primary focus or abilities depending on the provider type are really student facing and working directly with the children in the classroom,” she said.
But Ager said more of an administrative burden has been thrust onto districts and providers by charging them with walking families through the enrollment process when they come in wanting to sign up for universal preschool on the spot.
“That is something that we’re willing to do if it helps our families,” she said, “but it does then have an unintended consequence” of adding more work to her team, which is already strained by managing information for 847 preschoolers, including both 3- and 4-year-olds. The district has enrolled at least 100 students whose families have walked in.
Odean responded that the state has undergone “a big change” in shifting to opening preschool up to all kids the year before they enter kindergarten.
“And with change comes additional work,” she said. “I will say that we’re all charged with serving families and ensuring families’ needs are met, so it’s important to us to listen and be responsive, which I believe we have.”
Aubuchon, of Westminster Public Schools, raised concerns about directly enrolling a student in a classroom when a district or provider doesn’t know upfront how many hours of universal preschool that child qualifies for and therefore how much money they’ll receive from the state.
But he also questioned why CDEC’s matching program has been the primary way the state has been placing children in universal preschool.
“If we can do this for a few kids, we should be able to do it for the whole system,” Aubuchon said, referencing walk-in families. “There is evidence that the technology supports this, so let’s figure out a way to get it done.”
Odean said that for the rest of the school year, districts and providers can continue accepting walk-in students. The department has not yet decided the full scope of enrollment options it will offer families for next year but is now reflecting on lessons learned this school year to build “a stable process” for the future.
“I think when we have 17,000 applications at once, we want to ensure that there’s equitable access,” Odean said. “And so we want to balance that with that ability to also do the direct placement walk-in.”