Polis visits Colorado Springs District 11 amid mixed universal preschool reception
Jul 13, 2023
Gov. Jared Polis visited Colorado Springs classrooms on Tuesday in celebration of the state’s universal preschool rollout this month.
Polis has touted universal preschool as a way of breaking down barriers for low-income families who otherwise might struggle to afford early childhood education. More than 37,000 4-year-olds have enrolled statewide, about 4,500 of which are in El Paso County preschools.
Reading “The Color Monster” by Anna Llenas, which helps students sort and identify their variegated emotions, Polis shared an emotion of his own: “I have happiness because every kid in Colorado can go to preschool this year,” he told Jackson Elementary preschoolers seated on the carpet before him. “That makes me happy.”
But emotions elsewhere have proven less classroom-friendly as school leaders and preschool providers say they’re frustrated and unhappy with bumps in the rollout process. Two education groups and six districts, including local Harrison School District 2, filed a lawsuit on Aug. 17 requesting more access to the state’s software that matches families with providers. Theirs was the third in a string of lawsuits against the program.
Seat at the table
The program guarantees 15 weekly hours of free preschool to all Colorado 4-year-olds and some 3-year-olds. Others are eligible for up to 30, depending on certain qualifying factors.
School leaders agree the effort is a noble cause worthy of support, but not all are on board with the state’s approach.
Suing districts say universal preschool did not solicit enough feedback and offer satisfactory seats at the program development table, leading to a flurry of functional deficiencies that have allegedly left some low-income and special needs families in the dust and caused a rift between schools and parents.
Those involved in its creation disagree.
Melissa Mares, the director of early childhood initiatives for the Colorado Children’s Campaign, says she was among the group of diverse voices consulting on the program’s development. Mares was one of 31 Preschool Policy Leadership Committee members who regularly met in 2020 and 2021 to first offer design ideas, then explore governance and funding.
A preschool policy advisory group, consisting of nearly 250 participants from school leaders to policy experts, solicited feedback from community members to address participants’ expectations for the program.
Mares ran 61 community outreach listening sessions and talked to more than 800 people who would be directly impacted by preschool changes, such as teachers and families. In an analogy that stuck with her, Mares said one parent likened the former preschool application process — which sent parents across multiple websites in their attempts to find the right program for them — to baking a pizza without instructions and having to run to a different store for each ingredient.
There was fear that paying for extra hours would only further muddy an already confusing process.
“You can’t just say, ‘Here’s 10 more hours; you go figure it out,’” Mares said. “This is where we’re lucky to have leaders that heard that message loud and clear.”
The state attempted to address this concern by streamlining all providers under a single application, whether that provider is a school, a child care center or a local community partner. Then, parents will be given options to select from that best fit their child’s needs as they’ve described on the application. This approach is known as “mixed delivery,” according to Mares, and maximizes parental choice without bogging down the application process.
But deficiencies persist, according to leaders at CPCD, a preschool provider partnered with several districts in the region.
There is not enough clarity that the placement application is separate from the enrollment application, they say, leading to confused parents getting lost halfway through the process and showing up to classes for which their children are not properly enrolled.
“Families just showing up, very common now. It has never happened until this year, I will be quite honest,” said CPCD Child Development Director Shana Lacowicz. “It is always going to be a dual-enrollment system, so if you enrolled once, you’re halfway there. You are never going to be done with one.”
CPCD Chief Development Officer Marty Kemmer-Contreras said the application’s terminology is not family-friendly enough, leading to further confusion on critical topics like individual education plans, which are legally required special support plans for children with special needs. Some parents fail to accurately fill out individualized education program (IEP) information, leading to faulty placement with private schools that are not legally required to support children with special needs and often lack the resources to do so.
“This is all supposed to be choice. Parents are supposed to have choice of where their children go, but not all providers provide services for an IEP,” Kemmer-Contreras said.
Harrison D-2, one of the plaintiffs, is currently missing 23 students with known IEPs from its state-provided list, according to a spokesperson.
By and large, Polis says the program has seen “enormous success” in its first year. The state experienced a 43% increase in 4-year-old preschool enrollment over last year, representing 64% of all eligible 4-year-olds.
“We’ve gotten great reviews from parents, which in some ways are the most important constituency because it has to be easy for them to enroll their kids. We want to make it easier of course for districts and providers, but they, you know, they have IT people. They can figure it out,” Polis said. “I think the fact that so many parents were able to enroll their kids — over 40,000 preschoolers — is good success for the first year.”
Three-quarters of parents matched with their first-choice school under BridgeCare, the software used by the state. That’s a promising stat for parents holding out for their dream school.
Those who aren’t paired with their first-choice are still able to find room elsewhere, Polis said. Some districts have seen 20%-40% increases in enrollment as a result of the program, he said.
In Colorado Springs School District 11’s Jackson Elementary, where Polis visited Tuesday, classrooms doubled from one to two this year in response to the increased access.
The district has seen a 20% increase in enrollment so far this year, according to Superintendent Michael Gaal, which is a big step for a district that for years has been hemorrhaging students. That could also have significant implications on future achievement.
“The long-term return on investment here is very clear. Our reading scores will increase by our ability to get, retain and matriculate our [universal preschool] kids,” Gaal said. “We have to continue to invest in stronger early education.”
Whereas D-11 experienced wait lists for its pre-kindergarten programming last year, Gaal said they spent the time leading up to the universal preschool rollout planning and ensuring their schools could accommodate the anticipated influx. The school board set aside money to support the district in its preparations by way of furniture, staffing and classroom conversions. Their rollout was relatively smooth, he said.
D-2 has not fared quite as well.
In an Aug. 17 press conference, school leaders said they lack proper access to BridgeCare’s matching software and are often unequipped to field parents’ frustrations.
The district’s special-education director has 17 different lists in Bridgecare, according to an email response from D-2 spokesperson Christine O’Brien: one for each preschool site, another with matches and one for 3-year-olds. The special-education director is only able to view those lists, so when discrepancies occur — such as the 23 missing IEP students — she must “spend significant amounts of time on the phone with CDEC (the Colorado Department of Early Childhood) to have the lists updated.”
To effectively serve families, district leaders say they need additional BridgeCare access to see which resident children with special needs were matched with out-of-district schools to ensure their children will receive the support they need at their placement.
“She needs real-time live access to the system in order to be able to efficiently and accurately make sure that all the students enrolled with us are on the lists and in the right placement. She also needs to be able to see any student that resides in (our) boundary and where they have been matched,” O’Brien said.
BridgeCare founder and CEO Jamee Herbert said the pushback is “part of the process” as people advocate for what they feel is right, but her company has unfairly been caught in the middle of the struggle. Though BridgeCare has not been named a defendant in any universal preschool legal case, districts have lobbed harsh words at the educational software provider, which Herbert said is operating exactly as its client, the state of Colorado, intended.
Bridgecare can address any functional or access concerns should the state request them.
“We have from the beginning iterated on the solution and responded to feedback,” Herbert said. “Ultimately, we are just the software vendor, so everything we do is guided by instruction from the client, and it’s ultimately their choices on how they implement their program, but when they come with a challenge, we support them in solutioning.”
The state will wait to receive “all of the recommendations” before committing to any particular improvement or tweak to its matching software, according to Polis. Once all input is solicited, the state will next consider feasibility.
“I think a lot of it will hinge on what additional functionality they want us to build into the software for next year, which we’re very excited to kind of see what those ideas are and how we can make it even more convenient,” Polis said. “We’re going to really assemble what we want this to do, how we want this to function, what can we accomplish in the nine-month period until enrollment begins next year.”
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