Many eligible families don’t use the Denver Preschool Program. The new CEO wants to change that.

Elsa Holguín considers herself a bridge of sorts — someone who can cross divides and connect communities.

It’s something she’s done since she landed in a Denver housing project at the age of 17 after immigrating to the U.S. from Mexico with her family in 1979. Even as she witnessed poverty and hardship where she lived, her career in advocacy and philanthropy introduced her to a wildly different — and wealthier — segment of society.

Holguín, who starts her new job as president and CEO of the Denver Preschool Program on July 15, feels comfortable in both settings.

“I have lived this all my life,” she said. “I live in two worlds, I live in two languages, I live in two communities.”

Holguín is coming to the Denver Preschool Program after more than two decades working at the Denver-based Rose Community Foundation. She also co-chairs the Colorado Early Childhood Leadership Commission and serves on the boards of several organizations, including Early Milestones Colorado and Together We Count Colorado, an organization promoting an accurate 2020 census count.

Holguín will replace Jennifer Landrum, who left in January after leading the Denver Preschool Program for 5½ years.

The Denver Preschool Program, which is funded by a voter-approved sales tax, provides tuition assistance to Denver 4-year-olds enrolled in preschool. The largest subsidies go to the poorest families enrolled in the best preschools, but every family is eligible for some assistance.

Holguín said she plans to use her bridge-building abilities to make what she says is already a very successful program even stronger. One of her goals is to increase the share of Denver families who use the subsidies. Right now, about 60% of eligible families do.

Holguín also talked with Chalkbeat about how Gov. Jared Polis’ desire to provide state-funded preschool for all Colorado children would impact the Denver Preschool Program, and what she sees as the biggest challenge facing the state’s early childhood sector.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What was your preschool experience like?

I grew up in Mexico, in the state of Chihuahua, in a small town. I attended both preschool and kindergarten. I was in that experimental group in Mexico because most of my family in Mexico are teachers and so they had been involved in developing the preschool. They did that a lot with me: “Let’s see how this is going to work. Let’s send her.”

Tell me more about your educational experiences.

One of my mentors and role models was my oldest aunt. Her name was Francisca and she started the first private non-religious school in the whole country when she was 19. She was an amazing woman.

In the summer, she did remediation classes and in exchange for remediation classes, which several of my siblings did, I would come and help her. I still have memories of being in sixth grade and being the assistant in her kindergarten class.

I grew up in an educational environment. My cousin was a superintendent. My other relatives have been principals and teachers. I was very lucky. We were extremely poor, but I had access to educational opportunities. I was in advanced calculus. I was in advanced classes. [My aunt] pushed and never took no for an answer because she knew this was going to change my life.

What was it like coming to the United States after high school?

By the time I came to the U.S. I was 17. I didn’t speak English … so I enrolled myself at North High School [in Denver] and went back to high school for a year.

It was challenging, but I was here with my mom and my dad and my other siblings so that was helpful. Within six months of when we arrived my dad lost his job. He refused to apply for food stamps or things of that sort … so it took me an enormous amount of time to convince him that we had to move to the housing projects [in north Denver] or we were going to be homeless. I took the role of navigator for my family.

It was an eye-opening experience to be in living at the housing projects and being in the wealthiest country in the world. I got to see multi-generational poverty, I got to see depression and I got to see people getting stuck. I also saw people who gave up because it was just too much.

How did you start your career?

While I was at the housing projects, I started working in the nonprofit sector. I started with an internship. [At the time], I was getting a degree in finance. That job led me eventually to the Women’s Foundation [of Colorado].

I got to live in this other reality of I know these very wealthy people and then I know these people in the housing projects. It was a really great way for me to understand that there was a role for me, that there was something I could do to connect these worlds. I thought, “I know how to do this.”

I feel the same way about philanthropy. I live in this world, but I can talk to the people in the housing projects. I can talk to the people in the community. They’re my relatives. I can go and say, “What’s going on and why is this not working?”

What are your top priorities for your first year on the job?

I’m going to spend six months really learning my facts, understanding the data. Let’s make sure we understand who’s been left behind and who’s not accessing the program. It may not always be low-income [families.] This is a universal program so we’re going to look at all communities.

The second thing is we now have the opportunity to start looking at 3-year-olds and we can start even earlier. Wow! That will be an amazing place to start.

Some eligible families aren’t taking advantage of the financial assistance offered by the Denver Preschool Program. How do you plan to address that?

It happens with the Colorado Preschool Program. It happens with Head Start. It happens with every single program that is reaching out to parents. I think we have the opportunity to go deeper. What’s reality for the parent? What’s going to work or not work? And if we have to do some out-of-the-box thinking, that’s exactly what we have to do.

Gov. Jared Polis has talked about his desire to provide universal preschool for all Colorado children. If that happens, would the Denver Preschool Program still be needed?

Absolutely. The cost for universal preschool statewide is enormous. Although the governor is going to have that as a goal, I think it’s going to be incremental. That gives us a window of opportunity to do it right and we have a model with the Denver Preschool Program on how to do it right. What [a statewide universal preschool initiative] will allow is for Denver Preschool Program to go deeper into 3-year-olds because [Polis] will start with 4-year-olds.

Denver Preschool Program has not only provided the funding for the actual cost [of preschool], we have done a ton of work around professional development, training and resources. So, we’ll still have the opportunity to do a lot of that work.

Looking broadly at Colorado’s early childhood landscape, what do you feel is most promising?

I’m finally seeing that early childhood has bipartisan support and it survives transitions in government, which was not always the case. You can go on a big ride with a governor that was really supportive of early childhood and be almost dead the next four years.

Even at the national level — which I’ll say very quietly — we have seen more funding for early childhood than we thought was going to be possible under this administration.

The data is there. Policy-makers and the public are starting to understand that investing in early childhood is the right thing to [do]. We have now see that we can change the system so young kids are not an afterthought but a priority.

What do you see as the greatest challenge in early childhood right now?

My concern is that we still need to focus on creating a better workforce for early childhood. How do we create the opportunity to compensate them in an appropriate manner? I’m a little bit concerned with the implementation of full-day [kindergarten] that we’re going to lose many of our teachers from preschool to better-paying positions. So we’re going to have to do a lot of work to get the workforce that we need.