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There are only a few weeks left until the start of the upcoming school year. Chaffee County, its school districts as well as local preschool providers, have been preparing for this for months  —  the inaugural year of Colorado’s Universal Pre Kindergarten (UPK) program.

“Ready or not, here it comes, I guess, but I think it’s going well,” said Chaffee County Early Childhood Council (CCEECC)  Executive Director Sarah Romack.

“We are fortunate to work with really great providers,” she added. “The council has earned their trust, and we’ve been able to help them set up profiles, enroll kids, and talk with families. Over the summer that included reopening applications when needed and assisting families with getting the right info into the applications.”

Colorado voters overwhelmingly approved a UPK ballot question that offers 15 hours a week of state-funded, high-quality, voluntary preschool to every Colorado child who is age four in their year before entering kindergarten. Three-year-olds with qualifying factors are eligible for 10 free hours per week.

The program is administered county-by-county, coordinating with the new Colorado Department of Early Childhood Education.

Preschool children. Photo courtesy of Bigstock

Nine Chaffee County early childhood programs are participating in the state’s UPK launch. “Six are childcare centers and three are family childcare homes, which is really exciting,” explained Romack. “It gives families another option as far as early learning for their four-year-olds.”

“We’re offering really high-quality environments,” she added. “I am so glad those three providers decided to take that leap. Hopefully, others will see how well it has worked for them and join in.”

Romack explained that the current count is 128 Chaffee County four-year-olds accepted/placed. She expects that number will rise because there are more four-year-olds accepted and waiting for the program directors to accept them. There are also 37 qualified three-year-olds for the state-funded 10 hours/week.

“Accepted means they have a seat there, they are ready to go,” Romack clarified. “We are tracking unmatched children. We have one program that isn’t open yet that is planning to offer pre-k where we want to place some of the unmatched kiddos in that program.” (She confirmed that that planned program is the new nonprofit effort behind the reopening of The Schoolhouse in Poncha Springs.)

She said that in some cases there are additional state-funded hours for pre-k children with two qualifying factors such as family low incomes, English as a second language, homelessness, or children in the foster care system.

Romack’s enthusiasm is obvious, and she has sustained it over a busy summer. “The applications and the matching has been going on for several months. Providers have been notified of their matches, accepting or declining based on the seats they have available. The state is using what is known as ‘bridge care’,” she explained, about the matching process combined with the program funding. “Providers will receive their first payments in August.”

While the matching system is at the state Department of Early Childhood Education, the counties can access the back end of the system to check on applications and clear up problems. To say this is a big lift — to start a new education program across all 64 Colorado counties at one time — is an understatement.

“We’ve been troubleshooting the issues as they arise,” she explained. “The programs formally start when school districts start in August or September. For instance, Buena Vista School District has a preschool program and theirs starts when their school year begins.”

Asked about how this UPK program relates to the state’s early intervention programs and special education, Romack explained that it comes down to two, separate areas of oversight responsibility.

“Early intervention — birth to three — is part of the Colorado Department of Early Childhood. But programming for ages three to five are housed within the Department of Education,” she explained. Those two systems don’t always talk.”

“Children who qualify for an IEP (Individualized Educational Program) have to be served within the actual school districts,” said Romack. “We are working on a way in our community to make this work for parents who opt out of that. We have a few parents who for personal reasons — a sibling in another program, or transportation challenges — who refuse services in the school district. There are lots of reasons why parents might decline special education services.”

“Our goal is to work with community providers who have those kids and equip them with some tools to serve children. It’s complicated; we’re working with it while the state is working on their end of it.”

For questions, contact Sarah Romack, or 719-221-5114.