Are there enough free preschool seats for Colorado 4-year-olds? It depends.

Preschoolers’ jackets and boots or shoes are lined up in their cubbies.
Some counties have more universal preschool seats than 4-year-olds. Other counties have too few slots. (Beau Lark/Corbis/VCG/Getty Images)

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Since Colorado leaders began planning a major expansion of state-funded preschool more than two years ago, parents and advocates have wondered: Will there be enough seats for everybody who wants one?

The answer: It depends.

On paper, there are plenty of seats. State officials expect only about half of Colorado’s 4-year-olds — around 31,000 children — to participate in the first year. Meanwhile, a Chalkbeat analysis found more than 56,000 preschool seats available for next fall. 

“Right now, it’s looking really good,” said Dawn Odean, the state’s universal preschool director.

But things get stickier at the county level. Some parts of the state are awash in preschool seats and others don’t have nearly enough. Some families may also struggle to find preschools with the schedules and programming they want.

“The physical number of slots versus what parents actually need doesn’t necessarily align,” said Kelly Esch, who’s both the parent of a preschooler and executive director of an organization that provides early childhood coaching and resources in western Colorado’s Garfield County.

While Chalkbeat’s county-by-county analysis provides a snapshot of preschool availability across Colorado, there are plenty of factors it doesn’t account for — families who cross county lines for preschool or the uneven distribution of seats within counties. Plus, it’s possible more providers will join soon, adding new seats to the tally. 

Odean said state officials plan to dig deeper into the data for trouble spots once parents select preschools for the coming year. Families of about 26,000 4-year-olds who applied for seats by the end of February will find out Wednesday what preschools they matched with and will have two weeks to accept or decline the offers. (Families can continue to apply through the summer and fall.)

The new preschool program will offer 10 to 15 hours a week of tuition-free preschool to 4-year-olds statewide, 30 hours a week to 4-year-olds who come from lower-income families or meet other criteria, and 10 hours a week to some 3-year-olds. The program is funded in part with a voter-approved nicotine tax and will be offered in school district classrooms, private child care centers, church-based preschools, and homes licensed by the state.

Esch, who lives in the small town of Newcastle, is pretty sure her son Oliver will land a universal preschool seat in the home of the beloved child care provider he’s been with since he was 10 weeks old. Not only does she offer hard-to-find all-day and summertime care, the provider runs a top-notch program, Esch said, and for a while even adjusted Oliver’s nap schedule so she could work with him one-on-one to overcome a speech delay. 

Although Oliver should get priority for one of the provider’s two universal preschool spots, Esch still feels uncertain about how things will play out under the state’s new system.

“Are we in? Did it work?” she wondered as she awaited the official notification email.

Preschools have big decisions to make

While around 1,700 preschools have signed up to offer universal preschool classes next fall, the exact number of seats is still in flux at many programs. In some cases, that’s because of unfolding expansion projects or difficulty finding teachers to staff classrooms. In others, preschool providers are still considering whether to offer full-time or part-time slots or are uncertain about whether they can release unfilled seats reserved for students with disabilities or children of employees to the general public.  

At Springfield Preschool, a highly rated school district program in southern Colorado, leaders haven’t yet decided how many hours a week to offer 4-year-olds next year. 

Director Debbie Sharpe said the preschool will probably have enough spots for all interested families if it continues with half-day classes. But she knows Baca County is a child care desert and that full-day preschool would be a godsend to many locals. District officials will decide which schedule to offer in the next few weeks.

If the preschool moves to full-day, there won’t be enough seats for every child, Sharpe said. “Space is going to be a problem.” 

Stacy Petty, who heads the group coordinating universal preschool in Garfield, Pitkin, and Lake counties, and part of Eagle County, expects shortages too.

“We didn’t have enough seats to support everyone in our region before [universal preschool].” she said. “We do have some expansion going on, which is going to help, but we still know we don’t have enough seats for everybody.” 

Petty said based on preliminary interest, she expects 80% of eligible families in the area to seek a universal preschool seat — well above the 50% uptake Colorado leaders anticipate statewide.

In the Garfield RE-2 school district, based in Rifle, preschool expansion projects are underway at two elementary schools. Together, they’ll add around 80 new preschool seats, some by August and the rest by January. 

Emily Kielmeyer, the district’s early childhood coach and coordinator, said she’s hopeful the expansion, which will bring the total number of preschool seats to 300, will be enough to accommodate every family that wants a spot.  

“We knew the time was right with universal preschool coming,” she said of the expansion. 

District officials say there’s been lots of residential growth in the area — people who left cities in search of smaller communities and outdoor space during the pandemic or who’ve gradually been priced out of “up-valley” housing in cities like Aspen.

“We have housing starts through the roof out here,” said district spokesperson Theresa Hamilton.  

Thousands of families may still apply

It’s likely most families who want a universal preschool spot next year have already applied, but providers and advocates say they’re still fielding questions from families who are confused about the process. 

Kelli Gabehart, the preschool director for the Elbert County school district southeast of Denver, discovered some parents haven’t applied because they erroneously believed universal preschool provides only 15 tuition-free hours a month. (It’s actually 15 hours a week.)

They’d say, “Oh, it’s not even worth applying for,” she said. 

Some providers say they’ve provided computers and on-the-spot help for parents filling out the universal preschool application after finding that some longtime clients hadn’t signed up.

That’s the case at Family Star Montessori, which will offer a total of 36 universal preschool slots at its two Denver locations next year. Most are reserved for children from low-income families, but private pay families can enroll too. 

Julia McConnaughey, the program’s senior director of community partnerships, said Family Star still has a few open spots for next year, and had even more earlier in the application process. 

“I don’t think there was enough outreach to the public without schools doing the heavy lifting,” she said. “We had to personally ask every parent, ‘Hey did you apply? Did you choose Family Star as your first choice?’” 

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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