It’s school choice season in Colorado, but applying for universal preschool comes a bit later

Two preschool boys in the foreground play on a mat in a classroom as two preschool girls sit at a table playing in the background.
The application for Colorado’s new universal preschool program will open Jan. 17. (Allison Shelley / The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages)
Inside Colorado's free preschool initiative

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Many Colorado parents have begun to select their children’s K-12 schools for next year through online platforms operated by their school districts. 

But not preschool parents.

That’s a change from years past, when parents could use the school choice process to enroll their 4-year-olds in district-run preschool programs.

Now, with the state’s universal preschool launching next fall, most parents will apply for preschool using a new and separate online application that opens Jan. 17. Social media posts and questions fielded by district officials suggest the separate application process and timeline has jangled the nerves of some preschool parents. 

“They’re confused. They don’t know why it’s different,” said Mackenzie Nickum, the director of enrollment services in the Jeffco district, where the K-12 enrollment window runs from Dec. 6 to Jan. 13.

The short answer is that the state is doing something brand new — rolling out a taxpayer-funded preschool program open to all 4-year-olds and some younger children. The new program will replace a smaller state-funded preschool program for children from low-income families or who have other risk factors. 

Colorado early childhood leaders have been working for months to build the new program, including a statewide application system that will match children with participating preschool providers their parents choose. 

The application will be “almost as easy as buying on Amazon,” said Lisa Roy, executive director of the Colorado Department of Early Childhood. “This is a start-up, but we have really taken into consideration what works for parents.” 

Next year, all 4-year-olds will be eligible for 10-15 hours a week of tuition-free preschool in schools, churches, child care centers, or state-licensed homes. Some 4-year-olds will be eligible to attend for 30 hours a week and some 3-year-olds will be eligible for 10 hours. 

Roy said the state preschool application system will prioritize factors such as the desire for preschoolers to continue in the program where they’re enrolled now, or to get a spot at the school a sibling attends, or where a parent works. Also, it’s not a first-come, first-served system, she said, so early applicants won’t automatically get priority over families who apply later in the application window.

Families will also be able to reject a preschool match if their situation changes. For example, Roy said, if a preschooler lands a spot at a school parents thought their third grader would attend, they aren’t obligated to accept the seat if the third grader ends up elsewhere. 

Some Colorado school districts, including Jeffco, have posted notes on their websites alerting parents that enrollment in district-run preschools won’t happen through in-house enrollment systems this year. 

Still, questions abound. 

One mother posted in a Lakewood moms Facebook group, “I’m so confused with enrolling my daughter into preschool. Do I wait until January 2023 to apply and what if she doesn’t get in?”

Nickum said some parents’ concerns stem from the fact that historically, preschool spots in district classrooms have been highly coveted, with too few seats to meet demand in some locations or time slots. This year, Jeffco has about 2,000 preschool seats. 

The district will offer more preschool spots next year — nearly 2,800 — in part by raising preschool class sizes from 16 to 20 students. 

In Denver, the school choice window opens on Jan. 13, four days before the preschool application window opens. 

Priscilla Hopkins, the district’s executive director of early education, said the district will communicate with parents in early January to explain that preschool won’t be part of that process and parents will have to wait for the state application. 

State officials will also launch a preschool awareness campaign early next year. 

Hopkins said she’s excited about the shift to universal preschool, but said the transition is complicated and lots of details are still unfolding. She expects Denver to have enough universal preschool spots for every family that wants one, though not every family will get its first choice. Currently, the district serves about 5,400 preschoolers.  

“We’re all in this boat of change management,” she said. 

Ann Schimke is a senior reporter at Chalkbeat, covering early childhood issues and early literacy. Contact Ann at aschimke@chalkbeat.org.

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