Ever since President Obama announced in his State of the Union address an initiative to encourage states to create a universal preschool program, early childhood education has become a hot topic of debate.
In Summit County, educators and parents alike are voicing their support of the president's proposal. Though people such as state Rep. Millie Hamner (D-Dillon) are working to amend state law to alleviate the problem, the fact still stands that the demand for preschool programs in Summit County is outstripping the availability, even with programs like Head Start and local scholarships.
"There is always more demand than what we can fulfill, due to space and requirements and funding and all of that business," said Upper Blue Elementary principal Kerry Buhler. Upper Blue currently hosts two preschool programs.
Yet despite the difficulties, research has shown that attending preschool benefits children in the long run. This has not escaped the notice of the Summit County community, which continues to strongly support early childhood education.
The Colorado Preschool Program (CPP) provides funding for preschool for at-risk children throughout the state. Factors that make a child at-risk include eligibility for free or reduced meals, need for language development, poor social skills, frequent home relocation, homelessness and abusive family situations. The 2011/12 year saw 19,480 children throughout Colorado enrolled in the program. However, between 6,455-14,290 at-risk 4-year-olds have not had access to preschool through CPP or similar programs, according to CPP data.
Hamner hopes to amend this, working closely with state Sen. Mike Johnston (D-Denver) to revise the Colorado School Finance Act and link to a citizen's initiative ballot question in November which, if funded, would fund all-day kindergarten for all Colorado students and preschool programs for at-risk 4-year-olds.
"There's a fairly extensive waiting list right now for at-risk 3- and 4-year-olds to get into our CPP," Hamner said. "That's a really serious concern to me, because the at-risk children who are not able to access quality early childhood programs are more likely to have the negative outcomes of not being ready for kindergarten, not reading at grade level in third grade and not graduating from high school. It's just really important that we're able to intervene early in the lives of children."
Hamner is also working on a bill to align childhood development programs under the umbrella of the Colorado Department of Human Services. The bill recently passed its second reading in the House.
"By aligning the early childhood development programs, we will advance and improve early childhood support programs and services particularly for Colorado's at-risk populations," Hamner stated in a release on the Colorado Democrats' website.
Children in Summit County can take advantage of both the CPP and Head Start programs. While CPP is funded by the state, Head Start is federally funded to serve children of very low-income families.
Summit School District currently has 10 integrated preschool classrooms, which can take up to 165 students. Right now, 160 of those spots are filled. That doesn't mean there aren't children available to fill those positions, however. According to the district's early childhood coordinator, Beth O'Riley, those spaces are required to remain open just in case a child comes along that qualifies for preschool by state or federal standards.
"We have to keep some spaces open because any time a child qualifies for special needs, then we have to be able to offer them a spot, regardless of what time of year it is," O'Riley said. "So we always keep some slots open for those children."
"The children with the greatest need get those slots," said Elizabeth Lowe, Head Start director at Early Childhood Options in Summit County. "But there's certainly a lot of other children who would qualify," if more funding was available.
Funding is the key word when it comes to preschool students. If a child in Summit County doesn't qualify for aid from CPP or Head Start, he or she may still be able to receive one of a handful of scholarships offered by local organizations such as The Summit Foundation and town and county governments.
The last option is parent-paid tuition, or no preschool at all.
"There has to be a funding source for a child in preschool," O'Riley said.
"We have parents calling to look for childcare and preschool all the time," said Lucinda Burns, executive director of Early Childhood Options. "One of their main frustrations is that the spots at the school district, where they really want their children to go, are just too limited."
Often, not getting those slots in the school district means no preschool, Burns said, because the families can't afford the private options.
The idea behind President Obama's plan is for states to provide funding universally for preschool students, much as they do with grades K through 12. It is not clear yet whether all the funding would come from the states or if they will work together with the federal government.
"Universal preschool would be excellent, I think, for lots of different reasons," said Lowe.
One of these is, of course, funding.
"Right now, there is preschool programming at some of the elementary schools and the community childcare programs, but one of the greatest barriers is paying for that. Accessing quality childcare, if it was something universal, that was provided, that would be excellent."
Experts across the nation are debating if and how much a preschool education benefits children, both while entering kindergarten and throughout the rest of their schooling.
"Research indicates that early childhood education is crucial toward future academic success," said Summit School District superintendent Heidi Pace. "The district supports any increased funding for 3- and 4-year-olds in a qualified preschool program."
Some opponents of the universal plan have disputed this research, stating that the learning edge gained during preschool "fades out" around third grade, essentially leveling the academic playing field. But Burns disputes these findings.
"That's a widely misunderstood piece of research," she said. "There really isn't a fade-out effect. What we are sometimes neglectful in doing is making sure the K-3 system is just as high quality as the birth-to-5 system."
"There's so much research on the benefits of early childhood services," she continued. "The trick is it's not just any program, it's about quality."
O'Riley said that she's seen an increasing trend in parents enrolling their children in preschool programs.
"I do think the trend is you see more children in preschool because I think parents and society are seeing the benefits and I don't think they realized that 20 years ago," she said. "Years ago people just saw preschool and day care as more play time, but now we know through all the research that that's how children learn."
"I think that parents more and more are realizing the benefits of preschool, not just as childcare but as a way for their child to really be ready for what school is all about," she said, "and not just academically - that's certainly a piece of it - but more about the social and emotional things that kids learn at school."
Parent Caitlin Woodward said that one reason she enrolled her son Forrest in preschool was to increase his social interaction, not only with other children but also other adults.
"It just seemed like the perfect option," Woodward said. "It's been great."
Forrest attends preschool at Frisco Elementary with Kirista Bradford's daughter, Jenavive. Bradford said that she wanted a school-like environment for Jenavive, which she feels the program provides.
"I really wanted to get her in here because it has a great reputation for being a really good school and it's in more of an academic atmosphere," she said.
The hard part, Bradford said, was getting her daughter into the program, due to the limited space available. She applied at the beginning of the summer and got the acceptance phone call the day before school started.
"When I got the phone call from Miss Kathy the day before school, I expected it to be the explanation that she's on a waiting list and whether she may or may not get in, the likeliness of that really happening, but I expected it to be slim to none," Bradford said. "So that was definitely a pleasant surprise."
Whether or not the president's universal preschool plan is realized, it's clear that community will continue to play an important role in early childhood education.
"I have always been a supporter of preschool and feel that is very necessary and very important for a community to have," said Christine Boettcher, executive director of the Open Arms Childcare and Preschool in Breckenridge.
Fortunately for those living in Summit County, early childhood education appears to be a high priority for the community.
"We are so lucky that we live in a community that really supports the children and families in Summit County, and we have historically done that," Burns said. "For the most part, regardless of your political affiliation, you understand that investing in children has pay-off, whether you have a family or not."
However, there's still a ways to go, educators say.
"Summit County has strongly supported early childhood, through Early Childhood Options and our preschool programs," said O'Riley, "but we definitely are still a long way from there. We're not reaching all 4-year-olds yet; hopefully some day in the future we will be able to. Like Obama said, the more you spend in early education, the less you have to spend in later years."
It's smart, but it's also the right thing to do, in the opinion of some educators.
"Not only do kids need preschool but they really deserve the opportunity to access preschool," Buhler said, and reiterated the support the preschool programs have received from the county.
"But we're still missing kids," she added. "We're still missing families. Sometimes it's because they don't know and sometimes it's because they can't. The idea of universal preschool and what it offers for kids, I think it's what they deserve."
Burns echoed her sentiment.
"It's hard to look at a group of children and say, three of you deserve preschool and five of you don't," she said. "If they all have access to quality, they'll all have an equal chance of succeeding."