Five-year-old Kaia Vegas loves to swim.
And thanks to the Denver Preschool Program, her mom was able to use the money that would have been used for preschool tuition to get Kaia involved with extracurricular activities, like swim lessons and dance classes.
“Education gives your kid an advantage,” Kalelia Vegas said. “It opens them up to so many things.”
Vegas is a single mom working fulltime as an engineer at a member’s club in Cherry Creek. She also has a son, AJ, who is junior at Denver South High School.
Both AJ and Kaia were able to attend preschool because of the tuition assistance Vegas got from the Denver Preschool Program.
The Denver Preschool Program has a mission 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.
How it works is parents apply for the support, and funding is provided on a need-based sliding scale.
Soon, Colorado will have universal preschool, which means every family across the state will be able to send their 4-year-old to preschool at no cost to families. The Denver Preschool Program will serve as Denver’s Local Coordinating Organization.
There will be about 30 LCOs — which were determined geographically — in the state, and each LCO will have the ability to put together a community plan that will work best for that particular community, said Elsa Holguin, president and CEO of Denver Preschool Program.
Denver Preschool program is already well-established serving families with 4-year-olds, so it is focusing on expanding its programming to be able to serve even more Denver families, with statewide universal preschool coming.
Funding from the state for universal preschool will cover preschool for 10 hours a week per 4-year-old, Holguin said. Because the Denver Preschool Program already has funding from the sales tax to serve Denver’s 4-year-olds, statewide universal preschool will help supplement Denver Preschool Program in that it will be able to offer preschool for more than 10 hours a week, Holguin said. This means families in Denver will be able to send their child to full-day preschool, which helps families who are unable to afford the cost of childcare beyond the 10 hours a week that their children are in preschool, Holguin said.
And that’s not all — the Denver Preschool Program will be expanding its 3-year-old pilot program. The 3-year-old program allows families to enroll their child in preschool at 3 years of age, versus 4.
“This has been a dream of ours,” Holguin said. “Now, it finally has funding.”
Holguin said that the Denver Preschool Program has known there was a need for families to be able to send their children to preschool beginning at age 3 for a long time. The last time that Denver Preschool Program was on the ballot for re-approval was 2014, and back then, voters said yes to expanding the program to 3-year-olds, Holguin said.
Denver Preschool Program piloted its 3-year-old program last year with 300 children in high-need households. It will offer it to 600 children in high-need households for the 2022-23 school year. By the 2023-24 school year, all high-need households will be able to enroll their 3-year-old in preschool, Holguin said.
The Denver Preschool Program defines a high-need household as one that has an income of less than $60,000 a year for a family of four.
“For the first time in Denver, high-need families will be able to get two years of free, full-day preschool for their children,” Holguin said. “It is really exciting that we’re able to do this.”
Denver Preschool Program serves about 60% of all 4-year-olds in Denver.
It has a roster of about 260 providers it works with — 60% are Denver Public Schools and the other 40% are community providers, Holguin said.
All, however, are quality preschools. This means each school has to be licensed, insured and have a quality rating of three stars or higher from Colorado Shines, which is the state’s quality rating and improvement system provided by the Colorado Department of Early Childhood.
“The No.1 indicator of a quality preschool is having quality teachers who are supported and properly compensated,” Holguin said.
Therefore, Denver Preschool Program offers support to providers — including coaching and resources — to help them grow and ensure they meet the three-star or higher rating, Holguin said.
Additionally, Denver Preschool Program offers training programs for teachers, as well as grants, stipends and sign-in bonuses to help address the teacher shortages.
“Teachers are struggling,” Holguin said. “We’ll do anything we can to help teachers enter, and stay, in the early childhood profession.”
Kalelia Vegas believes her son AJ had an advantage in his education because she enrolled him in a learning environment — preschool — at an early age.
“He got a base (for learning) that was built on year after year,” Vegas said.
Likewise, Vegas believes her daughter, Kaia, is at an advantage as she begins kindergarten this year.
Vegas said it’s like the old saying, “it takes a village to raise a child.”
Kaia attended preschool at Denver’s Hope Center, a Black-led nonprofit that offers early childhood education and a vocational program for adults with disabilities.
“She loved Hope Center,” Vegas said. “It helped mold her to become a successful kindergartener.”
Vegas said a child’s learning continues at home, and added that Kaia’s teachers at Hope Center “did the work during the day, and I did it at night.”
Kaia would come home and talk about everything she learned through the school’s programming, such as book club and international days, Vegas said.
“Every day, she had something to tell us,” she added.
As a mother, Vegas wants her children to be able to pursue any educational goal they want — whether it be college or any other path of their choosing.
“Knowledge is power,” Vegas said. “You never have to stop learning, no matter what age you get.”
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