A new report focused on southwest Denver sheds light on the difficulties some Latino parents face finding affordable, high-quality preschool spots for their kids.

The report, released Wednesday by the advocacy group Padres & Jovenes Unidos, found that some parents who responded to the group’s community survey were placed on waiting lists at sought-after preschool sites. Others found open slots, but only at centers with Level 1 ratings, the lowest of five tiers on the state’s child care rating system, Colorado Shines.

Officials from Denver Public Schools, interviewed by phone, say more could be done to connect parents with preschool options in southwest Denver, but too few slots isn’t the main problem there. Such shortages are more pressing in pockets of southeast Denver, they say.

DPS Acting Superintendent Susana Cordova, who spoke at the report release event at the Corky Gonzalez branch of the Denver Public Library, said expanding preschool access is a key strategy for the district, but noted that the state plays a major role in preschool funding and other early childhood issues.

Padres recommendations

  • Provide free full-day preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds from low to moderate income families.
  • Prohibit suspensions and expulsions in preschool.
  • Require preschool providers to adopt consistent policies to meet the needs of dual-language learners.
  • Fund preschool appropriately so that all employees earn a living wage.
  • Ensure preschool staff are trained on classroom management, implicit bias, developmentally appropriate discipline methods, dual language instruction and the use of inclusive culturally affirming practices.

“Let’s start talking about the legislative agenda we want to push forward,” she said.

The report, which marks Padres’ first major effort to address early childhood issues, drew from a survey of 330 southwest Denver parents. Several of the issues highlighted, including the high cost of care, barriers to access and the use of expulsions in preschool, are recognized problems across the state.

For example, there was enough space to serve only about 44 percent of Colorado children who needed care in 2013, according to the 2015 KIDS COUNT report by the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

As noted in the Padres report, there are also big differences in preschool-going rates for low-income and higher-income families. KIDS COUNT found that 38 percent of low-income Colorado children attend preschool while 57 percent of more affluent children do.

A spotlight on Southwest

The Padres report shines a spotlight on eight heavily Latino neighborhoods in southwest Denver where many families struggle financially. They are West Colfax, Villa Park, Sun Valley, Barnum, Barnum West, Westwood and Athmar Park.

District officials say compared to other parts of the city, the lack of spots there isn’t the biggest problem.

In fact, administrators considered closing some classrooms at the district’s highly rated Pascual LeDoux Academy preschool in Westwood because of low enrollment last fall, said Cheryl Caldwell, the district’s director of early childhood education. Ultimately, they decided against it.

Still, she agreed that connecting families to preschool can be a problem in southwest.

“I know there are kids that aren’t getting preschool and that we had openings that were not filled.”

She said the district could improve its preschool marketing efforts. Right now, outreach efforts vary a lot by school. Some school leaders man booths at preschool expo events, go door to door distributing information to families and post fliers at local churches and grocery stories. Others do less.

A patchwork quilt

For many parents, especially low-income parents who qualify for state or federal financial help, the preschool landscape is just plain confusing. Options vary depending on whether the care is offered in school or community sites, the length of the day, the child’s age and language ability, and the funding streams available to pay for the care.

Parents of 3-year-olds often face an even more daunting task because there are fewer subsidized slots for that age group.

Another piece of the early childhood puzzle is Colorado Shines, the state’s new rating system that only last month awarded the first two Level 5 ratings in the state—to centers in Denver and Loveland. Currently, about three-quarters of the state’s child care providers have Level 1 ratings.

Finally, there’s the red tape of application forms and financial documents.

Parent Elsa Oliva Rocha, co-executive director of Padres, said she recently discovered the challenge of preschool enrollment firsthand. She wanted to find her daughter, now 2 ½, a spot in a 3-year-old classroom next year.

First, she had trouble locating the application form on the district’s website and when she visited Pascual LeDoux to drop off the form, she found that not only had she filled out the wrong form, she had missed the center’s 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. drop-off window. She had to return to the school—which has a Level 4 rating on Colorado Shines—a couple days later to submit the paperwork.

She found the experience frustrating and worries such snafus create needless barriers for struggling families.

Pressing problems in Southeast

District officials say the shortage of preschool slots is most acute in parts of southeast Denver, where more than two-thirds of students are poor, schools are overcrowded and there are fewer community-based preschool providers.

On a color-coded district map showing the areas with the most pressing 4-year-old preschool needs, that area is the only one shaded red. Much of southwest Denver is shaded a less urgent yellow, while parts of northwest and northeast Denver are an even better green.

Four construction projects that would add preschool seats to district schools are under consideration for the 2016 bond that will go before Denver voters next November. The two most pressing early childhood projects are in southeast Denver— at Placebridge Academy and Shoemaker Elementary. The other two are in southwest Denver—at Fairview Elementary School and Pascual LeDoux.

That said, all four projects have lower priority rankings than several elementary, middle and high school projects and may not be funded.

Even so, there’s at least one new prospect for southwest parents seeking high-quality preschool.

Up to 45 new seats are on the way as a new center in the Westwood neighborhood ramps up its capacity. The Volunteers of America Early Childhood Education Center, which has a Level 4 Colorado Shines rating, moved into its new facility last July from rented quarters in a church gym.

It currently serves 74 neighborhood children, but will eventually serve around 120, said Lindi Sinton, vice president of program operations for the Volunteers of America Colorado Branch.

“Starting now, we’re recruiting for next year,” she said.