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The Power of Preschool

Investment in early childhood education pays off in many ways, but there are still obstacles preventing it from reaching every child.

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When friends and family expressed concern that Jessica’s four-year-old daughter Jaylah was communicating without using words, she assured them Jaylah was developing at her own pace and would speak when ready. “She wouldn’t say more than ‘uh,'” Jessica recalls. “I could understand her, but of course, I’m her mother.”

It wasn’t until Jessica enrolled Jaylah in north Denver’s Hope Center Children’s Program—a childcare provider participating in the Denver Preschool Program (DPP)—that she discovered her daughter’s silence indicated a speech disorder. Hope Center staff arranged an in-class tutor for Jaylah as well as home visits from a speech therapist. By the end of her preschool year, Jaylah could speak in full sentences like her classmates.

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Now the once shy toddler is an outspoken, headstrong, and “very, very confident” 14-year-old, reports Jessica. “Because of the DPP helping me send Jaylah to a good school, she’s an A-plus kid.”

A Decade of Achievements for Early Learners

The number of children, such as Jaylah, whose families have collectively received more than $92 million in taxpayer-funded tuition assistance from the independent nonprofit DPP exceeds 50,000—enough children to fill Coors Field. Denver voters first approved a 0.12-percent dedicated DPP sales tax in 2006. In 2014, they increased it to 0.15 percent and renewed it to extend to 2026. “Our vision is that every child in Denver enters kindergarten ready to reach their full potential both cognitively and social-emotionally,” says DPP president and CEO Jennifer Landrum.

Regardless of income, all Denver families with a four-year-old can receive tuition credits on a sliding scale and choose from more than 250 DPP providers—up from 52 in November 2006, according to Landrum. A family’s childcare needs can range from a few hours a week to full school days or workdays, and options vary by community. “What’s really great is that a Denver family can find a high-quality preschool classroom for their child in a community-based center, a Denver Public Schools classroom, a family childcare home, or a charter school,” Landrum explains.

DPP serves about 52 percent of Denver preschoolers and is working to include more. Similarly, half of Colorado three- and four-year-olds attend preschool, according to the KIDS COUNT Data Center. DPP lacks the resources to serve Denver three-year-olds but is exploring how it could reach a portion of them.

DPP has also invested more than $13 million in preschools, helping defray the schools’ cost of obtaining the required state-approved quality ratings. “Since 2007, when the first preschooler walked through a DPP-funded preschool, we’ve seen the quality of Denver’s preschool programs continually increase,” Landrum reports.

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Taxpayer-funded preschool programs in cities such as Seattle, Cincinnati, and Dayton, Ohio, have more recently joined those in Los Angeles and Denver; representatives from across the country visit Denver to find out how they can replicate DPP. Why are these cities banking on early childhood education? They recognize that aside from helping parents and teachers identify and treat obstacles to learning, such as Jaylah’s speech delay, preschool’s benefits abound for the child, parents, and community.

Preschool Boosts Kids and Communities

Preschool builds a stronger platform for early language, literacy, and math. It also allows children to learn classroom behavior, make friends, demonstrate initiative, sow independence, and self-regulate when they feel overwhelmed—skills they carry throughout life. DPP’s studies of its students show better preparedness for kindergarten than their national peers regardless of native language or economic background.

“High-quality preschool is one of the best investments we can make, as parents and as a community, in our children,” says Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood initiatives for the nonprofit, nonpartisan Colorado Children’s Campaign, which has advocated for children at the state policy level for more than 30 years. He calls all early care and education programs a “two-generation” strategy. Whether it’s a single- or two-parent household, he says, roughly two-thirds of Colorado children under age six have all parents working. High-quality childcare and preschool free the parents to make an economic contribution to their families and communities while placing children on a path to academic success.

University of Chicago economics professor James Heckman, a Nobel Prize winner and Colorado College alumnus, has quantified early education’s return on investment. He found that every dollar spent on high-quality birth-to-five programs for disadvantaged children saves taxpayers seven percent annually. These savings derive from preschool’s long-term benefits such as an increase in school completion, job preparedness, and incomes, as well as a decrease in criminal justice costs and welfare payments.

“Based on Heckman’s equation, Denver taxpayers can expect a return of $648 million during the lifespans of the children they’ve contributed to through the 2015–2016 school year. So for that reason, and many others, preschool is not just beneficial for the child but for our entire community,” Landrum concludes.

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Anna Jo Haynes, president emeritus of Mile High Early Learning Centers, is a longtime children’s advocate and “the godmother of all things early childhood in Colorado,” says Jaeger. Haynes observes that longitudinal studies published in the last decade, as well as scientific developments that make it easier to illustrate the importance of early learning, have further demonstrated its long-term benefits and helped advance kid-friendly public policy in Colorado.

“Too often, quality early childhood education has been treated as a ‘would be nice to have’ rather than the necessity it is for most families and children in today’s economy,” says Jaeger. “Helping policymakers at the state and local level understand the huge benefit to child, family, and community as a ‘triple bottom-line’ investment is a best first step.”

Landrum goes on to say that while preschool benefits all children, its rewards increase for those with typically less access to high-quality early education such as dual-language, special needs, or low-income students. Most states offer state-funded preschool programs such as the widespread Colorado Preschool Program (CPP), which provides access to quality early childhood education for three- to five-year-olds with family risk factors that jeopardize children’s learning readiness. Jaeger holds up the CPP as an example of a “modest program” with a “striking impact.”

The Colorado Child Care Assistance Program (CCCAP) is another state-supported funding stream to help Coloradans afford preschool, this one serving low-income families. Parents of children with a diagnosed learning need can access preschool special education services through their school district’s Child Find program.

Childcare Deserts and Funding Droughts

Despite the mountain of evidence supporting preschool’s value, participation is middling in a state touted for its highly educated adult population. “We know we have more than 4,000 children on the waitlist for our state-funded preschool program, that only 13 percent of eligible children are able to receive a childcare subsidy, and that only half of all kids attend preschool of any kind,” Jaeger says. “More often than not, these issues of access have less to do with what parents want—just look at the waitlists and demand for quality early care and education—and more to do with affordability and availability.”

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Just as communities have food deserts—neighborhoods with little to no steady or affordable suppliers of healthy food—there are childcare deserts where demand for preschools and childcare programs outstrips the number of available slots. “Denver, like all of Colorado, suffers from a lack of capacity for both childcare and preschool. There is enough preschool in Denver to care for approximately 63 percent of three- and four-year-old students,” Landrum says. “One of the challenges, however, is that where a family lives or works may not be near a high-quality preschool. DPP is working to better understand where Denver’s childcare deserts are and determine how we might partner with others to make more preschool available.”

During the recession, state budget cuts reduced Colorado Preschool Program funding. It has since rebounded, but Colorado trails other states in funding its state preschool program. Colorado ranks 39th in per-child spending out of the 44 states with state-funded preschool programs, according to The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). Colorado public preschool enrollment and funding dipped slightly last year as both measures rose nationally. With 23 percent of its four-year-olds enrolled in CPP, Colorado ranks 24th in access to state-funded preschool for this age group, compared to a national average of 32 percent.

“Many other states offer full-day programming that meets high-quality standards and offer universal access,” Jaeger says. Haynes views universal preschool as a long-range goal for Colorado, noting, “When voters put their own money in for other kids as they have for DPP, it shows we care about our youngest children—that we’re in this together. People feel good about having done that.”

The 2017 KIDS COUNT report identifies other challenges that disproportionately affect families of color, including locating culturally relevant early care programs or experiencing exclusionary discipline practices. Colorado children of all racial and ethnic backgrounds participate in early learning programs by choice or necessity, although some parents prefer to keep youngsters at home, learning from family members.

Building Blocks

“It was beautiful,” says Jessica of her daughter’s preschool-age transformation. Jaylah now balances middle-school academics with playing two instruments and four sports.

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How can Colorado create more success stories like Jaylah’s? “We can continue to create partnerships among state and local governments, the business community, private institutions, and the public in support of early education,” Landrum says. Jaeger concurs: “We look forward to the 2018 legislative session and beyond to continue to make the case to state policymakers that investments in quality preschool are good for children, are being demanded by parents, allow parents to pursue economic self-sufficiency, save Colorado taxpayers money over the long run, and are woefully inadequate to current need.”

The real power of preschool begins with parents. “Parents are brain builders,” Haynes says. “Talking constantly to and reading to your child are free and easy to do. Allowing children to stop while you’re reading together and ask the incredibly inquisitive questions about ‘why’ gives them language development that leads to early literacy.” Parents can encourage children to test new skills while interacting with other children, whether inside or outside a formal preschool.

“We in the early childhood field work together as a team with parents,” Haynes says. “When children have a team working for them, they’re bound to be successful.”

The work ahead includes educating parents about the resources they can build on to engage young children in the excitement of learning at home, at school, and out in the world, from day one.

Resources for Families of Preschool-Age Children

Call 211 to connect to Colorado’s free childcare referral service.

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