Across the U.S., approximately 75% of young children participate in preschool programs. But exactly what those preschool programs look like seems to be changing, especially in the state of Colorado. To ensure high levels of enrollment and achievement, preschools are starting to get creative — and they may be making families a lot happier in the process.
In Aurora, one of the most intriguing ideas is being put into action by Beck Preschool, one of five preschools that is actually run by the city. Just this year, the preschool offered custom scheduling options for families. Rather than making parents choose a consistent session for their child, they can decide whether a morning or afternoon option would be better on a daily basis. Whatever fits the family’s schedule best, Beck will make it work.
According to Melissa Guggenmos, Beck Preschool director, this allows working families or parents who share custody to alleviate stress and get their children to school without incident. Around 22% of fathers who live separately from their children see their kids more than once a week; with flexible scheduling, spending quality time together is much more feasible.
Guggenmos pushed for custom scheduling options due to families she had to turn away due to conflicts. She told the Denver Post, “I was amazed by the number of families who came forward to say, ‘We made it work before, but this is ideal for us.'”
The unusual arrangement seems to be working. Since flexible scheduling was implemented, one-third of Beck Preschool families take advantage of the arrangement. Overall enrollment is up, too — so much so that the previously lagging enrollment for three-year-olds is now so high that they had to add another class.
As one of the most diverse cities in the entire region, officials feel meeting the needs of these families early on is of particular importance. Data shows that children who are dual language learners and are from economically insecure families stand to gain the most from preschool: studies show that this early learning can narrow academic gaps between low-income, Latinx families and affluent, white families.
Improving preschool access for all can play a huge part not only in grade school readiness but in virtually all types of development. As Donna Hunt, supervisor of Aurora’s 45-year-old preschool program, told the Denver Post, “I think there’s more eyes on preschool, that we’re finally being recognized as a need more than just, ‘Oh let’s just go play.’ People are actually seeing the benefits of their children having this experience before going to kindergarten.”
On the other end of the spectrum, Westminster Public Schools in Denver have opted for a full-day preschool program in an attempt to encourage higher levels of achievement from an early age. Their modified version of the “Pay For Success” school model is already showing promise in a district that, prior to the program’s implementation, saw only one-third of kindergartners who met the expected school-related benchmarks.
The concept of Pay For Success is that philanthropists and private investors finance social programs upfront and then are paid back (with interest) if those programs end up saving the public money. Essentially, the program tries to prevent the need for more costly services like reading remediation or special occasion. It is a risk for these investors, as a lack of results will translate into a loss. But so far, the 25% of preschoolers in the district who attend full-day programs have performed better on early childhood assessments than those students who attend half-day programs.
The program will be evaluated further over the next two years, but Mat Aubuchon, the district’s director of early childhood education, told Chalkbeat that he hopes the program will continue beyond the three-year pilot setup and even expand. Currently, the state is not yet a partner, which would have to be the case for it to be classified as a complete Pay For Success program. But given the fact that full-day preschoolers have also shown higher attendance rates and an increased likelihood that these students will return for kindergarten, staff members are optimistic.
In Denver’s Green Valley Ranch neighborhood, many toddlers are already getting acclimated to the charter school system. In fact, six different Denver-based charter schools have launched their own preschool programs in recent years. Many of these schools are meant to serve low-income families by providing high-quality preschool programs that are also economically feasible. Approximately 45.6% of children living below the federal poverty level are enrolled in preschool programs nationwide, but it’s often difficult for families to afford private education. According to a recent Center For American Progress report, several Denver neighborhoods (including Green Valley Ranch) are located in so-called “child care deserts,” so it’s clear that families need a solution — especially since the highly-regarded Clayton Early Learning center closed abruptly a few months back and left families scrambling.
For many of these families, charter school-run preschools are the answer. At the Northeast Elementary School run by KIPP (one of the nation’s biggest college prep charter school networks), their three new preschool classrooms aren’t even enough to satisfy local demand; 41 children are currently on their admission waitlist. Rocky Mountain Prep, which runs two schools in Denver and one in Aurora, has more than 180 children on their preschool waitlists between these locations.
There’s reason to believe these charter-run preschools are helping students succeed. In a Mathematica Policy Research Study, KIPP students who enrolled in the network’s preschools had reading advantages over their peers who enrolled in KIPP programs in kindergarten. Students who attended classes from preschool through second grade at KIPP also had higher achievement in both math and reading. While some experts are worried that these programs may be a bit too academic and may lack emphasis on social and emotional development, the programs are yielding some positive results that shouldn’t be ignored.
It’s evident that Colorado families are clamoring for options that can allow their children access to superior educational options from an early age. Whether it’s a charter school, a full-day program, or a setup that lets parents create their own schooling schedule, these non-traditional offerings showcase the need to think outside the box when it comes to early childhood education.