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Colorado universal preschool leaders hope to iron out enrollment process for second year


Colorado universal preschool leaders hope to iron out enrollment process for second year

Sep 22, 2023 | 4:07 pm ET
By Sara Wilson
Colorado universal preschool leaders hope to iron out enrollment process for second year
A group of children are indoors in their preschool classroom. The camera focuses on a boy who is playing with wooden building blocks. (Getty Images)

While officials tasked with implementing Colorado’s universal preschool program outlined solutions they are working towards for the program’s second year, lawmakers questioned them on why they cannot address shortcomings sooner.

Lisa Roy, the executive director for the Department of Early Childhood, and Dawn Odean, the Universal Preschool program director, spent Wednesday morning fielding questions from the Legislature’s Joint Budget Committee and addressing criticisms of the preschool program’s student matching system, larger technology platform, and service delivery for special education students.

More than 38,000 4-year-olds are enrolled in Colorado’s universal preschool program, which began its first year this fall.

“Everyone is committed to a successful preschool program here in Colorado,” JBC Chair Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, said at the start of the discussion. “We know the task is daunting. We also know that when you are standing up a new program of this magnitude, sometimes there can be some bumps in the road. We, as JBC members and as members of Legislatures have heard from providers, from school districts, from our constituents and from stakeholders about the bumpy road.”

Odean said the department is well aware of the flaws in the program and is working through the challenges “one by one.”

“The Department of Early Childhood has worked tirelessly to resolve issues that have arisen, and what we’ve done behind the scenes to address these challenges hasn’t been something new or the broader public has heard enough about,” she told the committee.

One issue involves the online system for matching families to available programs, known as BridgeCare. Before universal preschool, families went directly to school districts and providers to enroll. For the preschool rollout, providers listed their programs on BridgeCare and families applied for a spot on the platform, indicating top choices. An algorithm then matched students with preschool programs.

“I seem to have more feedback about BridgeCare than any other category,” Zenzinger said. “That single point of entry was kind of the whole purpose — to try and break down these silos and make it as easy as possible.”

District officials said the platform did not give them enough access to data, resulting in increased burden and manual administration on their end to get enrollment straightened out. For example, districts do not have the ability to update enrollment data directly in the system. Sometimes, the system provides incorrect information.

‘Year two’

Odean said that in this initial year of universal preschool, BridgeCare was set up to be focused on the family experience — a simple process to sign children up for school.

“Our focus for the matching system in year two will be on improved provider experience,” she said. That could include adding “robust data dashboards” for districts to use and resource libraries, though Odean did not offer many specifics on what type of data could be included.

Colorado universal preschool leaders hope to iron out enrollment process for second year
Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, R-Brighton, speaks on the Senate floor April 6, 2022. (Faith Miller/Colorado Newsline)

Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, a Weld County Republican, was disappointed in that timeline. She, and other lawmakers, noted the deluge of constituent complaints about universal preschool.

“I heard you say you’re working on year two enhancements, and that really concerns me, because we haven’t even got through year one,” she said. “I want to know what you’re doing to fix BridgeCare now, so that school districts and private providers can get into it and have an understanding of where kids are going and so that parents can navigate it more easily. What are you doing now?”

She said her impression is that CDEC “might be listening, but not actually responding to the issues (people) have.”

Odean responded that while the department works to be responsive in real time to current BridgeCare issues, it’s crucial to look ahead.

“Second year enrollment and application is right around the corner and is equally as urgent. (We’re) taking what we’ve heard, going through discovery with our IT team, building development outside of a live environment and then really honing in on the user experience.”

Lawmakers also pressed Odean and Roy on whether universal preschool is adequately serving students with disabilities and have individualized education plans.

“How confident are you that every child who needs an IEP is getting an IEP? For every child that has an IEP, how are we ensuring that they are getting the full day and the resources and services that they need? Because I’m still hearing from people that they’re not getting it,” Kirkmeyer said.

Though districts are required to collect information about IEPs, they aren’t able to update applications directly in BridgeCare if a family’s submission is not filled out correctly. That has led to families needing to work directly with local coordinating organizations to redo applications, among other technical issues with getting students with IEPs matched with the appropriate program.

“The manual workload that we’ve put on administrators through this new process is not anything we want to repeat,” Odean said.

Next year, she said, the office plans to pre-populate programs with known students who have IEPs. Federal law obligates the department to place IEP students with their match as determined at the time of their IEP meeting, and pre-population would streamline the process and make sure seats are available at the correct providers, CDEC public information officer Ian McKenzie said.

They hope that will alleviate a lot of the administrative burden.

“We also recognize that families will continue to have their children evaluated throughout the program year (for IEPs), and we need to be more nimble in the process for direct placements to occur,” she said.

Colorado’s universal preschool program is the subject of a current lawsuit filed by school districts and educational organizations centered on concerns over access to the enrollment system, funding, and the system’s ability to comply with laws about educating students with disabilities. The state needs to respond to the lawsuit by mid-October.