Ensuring every child has access to proper education

Denver Preschool Program pilots, expands programming to meet families’ needs

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Elisa Kim Lee and her husband, Chanyang, are happy to see that because of a preschool education, their young children are learning to write their names and use English, and they get to do enriching, hands-on activities every day.

“But the best is that they are learning to integrate in a society where they can learn diversity and inclusion,” Elisa Kim Lee said.

The Lees wanted to send their children to preschool. All of their family members live abroad, so they could not depend on family for childcare. But they could not afford preschool on their own, so the Lees had no choice but to have one parent stay home and provide full-time childcare.

“I wanted to give my kids the best, but at home, we faced a lot of limitations as parents,” Elisa Kim Lee said. She added that at home, there were challenges with being able to provide education and discipline.

Now, however, the Lees’ two children — Elizabeth, 4, and Anna, 3 — attend the Primrose School at Colorado Station in Denver’s University Hills neighborhood.

“Without the Denver Preschool Program, we would not have been able to even consider a preschool education for our kids. We are very grateful for this program that gave our children (an opportunity) to receive a proper education for their age,” Elisa Kim Lee said. “I (am) also grateful to the teachers who showed kind compassion and understanding to my children’s transition of adapting to a new environment — without mom and dad.”

Denver Preschool Program’s mission is to get children ready for kindergarten by providing resources and funding assistance so that all Denver families are able to send their children to preschool. It got its start in 2006 and is funded by a sales tax ballot initiative that Denver voters approved two years prior. Every 10 years, it goes back to voters for re-approval, said Elsa Holguin, president and CEO of Denver Preschool Program.

There was a need for DPP before the pandemic, Holguin said, mentioning that sending one child to a quality preschool can cost $1,300 a month, or more, which can equal approximately the same amount as a family’s housing costs.

But in 2020, DPP went into “crisis response,” Holguin said. “We were super concerned about the children, but also for the providers being able to stay in business.”

DPP got to work providing both emergency and innovative funding through several new projects and pilot programs.

In addition to expanding its scholarship program to more families — scholarship recipients get 100% of their preschool tuition covered — new pilot programs include expanding the DPP program to 3-year-olds, and Bonus Preschool Year funding for 5-year-olds.

Serving 3-year-olds has always been a need, Holguin said. She added that when families can send their children to preschool a year earlier — at age 3 versus 4 — it gives parents the opportunity to go to work.

The Bonus Preschool Year is for families who decided their child was not quite ready for kindergarten, Holguin said. This has been especially helpful for children who were attending preschool at age 4 last year, during the COVID-19 shutdowns and remote learning of 2020, Holguin added.

“The Denver Preschool Program is proud to have been available and responsive in serving our children, families and providers more deeply during the ongoing pandemic,” Holguin said.

DPP has also provided Strengthening Grants to preschools, Holguin said. These include stipends, and retention and recruitment bonuses for teachers.

Compared to 40% nationally, only six of the 250 preschool providers that DPP works with closed in 2019/2020, Holguin said. But, a few opened since then, and DPP now has 262 quality preschools it works with. While that is a positive report, DPP still has concerns about the workforce.

“We want to make sure to have some very real conversations,” Holguin said.

These conversations will entail teacher pay, and stating a clear goal of ensuring that the preschool workforce is sustainable and is paid fairly, Holguin said.

This goes along with DPP preparing for Universal PreK in Colorado. DPP is working with the state on a universal application to help streamline the process for parents.

DPP also plans to expand its services. Currently, universal preschool for the 2023-2024 school year will be 10 hours a week, Holguin said.

“We will still need to supplement,” she said, “and meet families where the need is.”

This could be full-time preschool hours and/or extended day preschool options for families who need childcare before 8 a.m. and after 3 p.m.

Having started 14 years ago, DPP’s first-year preschoolers are now, or will be soon, preparing for college, Holguin said. So as DPP is working with the state on how to implement universal preschool across Colorado, DPP is also waiting to hear what will happen concerning universal preschool nationwide. Because of its local success, DPP is confident that it can serve as a national model, Holguin said.

Elisa Kim Lee said that DPP never left any of her questions unanswered and served as “kind guidance from the other side of the phone.”

“Every child has potential,” Lee said. “This program is an investment that makes potential bloom and be successful. That child — and every child — can make, and will make, a difference and impact in their community in the future.”

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