New preschool seeks to fill child care gap in north Denver neighborhoods facing disruptive change

5 min. read
A boy rides a tricycle on the playground of the preschool at Laradon in north Denver. (Alison Roth/Laradon)

By Ann Schimke, Chalkbeat  

Anastasia Ortiz was first in line to register her daughter for the new preschool that opened in north Denver's Globeville neighborhood this fall. 

She was determined to find 3-year old Metzlianna a spot somewhere. She'd already tried nearby Swansea Elementary School, but its preschool classrooms were full. 

"She's an only child and she doesn't have a lot of cousins in the family to play with. It's kind of just her and I," said Ortiz, a stay-at-home mom whose husband works the night shift.

Nabbing a seat at the new preschool, which opened Sept. 23, was a win for Ortiz. 

The new program is also a small victory for the Globeville and Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods, which have long been considered a child care desert because there are so many young children and so few licensed child care slots in the area. The new preschool, which offers half- and full-day classes, alone won't eliminate that designation, but will help ease the shortage of care for 3- and 4-year-olds.

It's "monumental for this community," said Molly Yost, director of early childhood initiatives at Mile High United Way, which contributed $50,000 for preschool startup costs as part of its new $25 million United for Families campaign. 

City data shows there are only enough licensed child care seats to serve 7% of children under 10 in Elyria-Swansea and 29% of children under 10 in Globeville.

The new preschool currently occupies two recently renovated classrooms in the stately Laradon building, a longtime provider of education and other services for children and adults with disabilities. With two more classrooms slated to open next year, enrollment could top out at 60 children. Program leaders say most families will pay little or nothing since scholarships and other kinds of financial assistance are available. 

In addition to Laradon's preschool, two Denver elementary schools -- Swansea and Garden Place -- provide another 96 preschool slots locally. 

But other local programs have shrunk or closed recently. A small Head Start program that operated in a former Elyria-Swansea recreation center closed its doors in the summer of 2018 after the city asked the nonprofit that operated the center to leave. 

A 30-seat preschool program in the nearby Cole neighborhood, spearheaded in 2016 by a nonprofit that has long served families in Globeville and Elyria-Swansea, now offers 16 Head Start preschool seats, but is no longer affiliated with the nonprofit -- Focus Points Family Resource Center. Mile High Early Learning, which had partnered with Focus Points to run the site, still operates the preschool and plans to open up eight new infant and toddler spots there in 2020. 

Laradon officials said the new preschool in the building will help fill a gap in their offerings, which until now spanned birth through 3 and kindergarten through adulthood. There was nothing for children during the preschool years. 

A well-known Denver child care provider, Sewall Child Development Center, runs the preschool using a Reggio Emilia-inspired approach. The approach, which is increasingly common in Colorado, prizes play-based and project-based learning, grounded in the local community. Like other Sewall sites around the city, the Laradon location serves students with disabilities alongside their typically developing peers.  

On a recent morning, Laradon preschoolers rode tricycles and planted chrysanthemums with their teacher on a shady playground shielded from view by a tall brick wall. Outside that wall, train yards, Interstate 70 and large industrial plots share space with residential pockets housing many poor and working-class families. 

While gentrification is pushing out some longtime residents of Globeville and Elyria-Swansea, other residents are staying -- even amid the noise and dirt of the multi-year highway reconstruction project. And Laradon officials are hoping the organization's new affordable housing complex going up just across Lincoln Street from the new preschool space will help retain local families, too. 

Sewall staff recruited families to the new preschool -- 11 children are enrolled so far -- by passing out information in laundromats, grocery stories, and community clinics, said Liz Mendez-Shannon, vice president of programs at Sewall. 

"The best type of advertisement is word of mouth," she said. "Everyone we talked to was like, 'Thank goodness, because there was no place to go.'" 

Ortiz found out about the preschool from her aunt, who visited an information booth at a local 5K race over the summer. Ortiz chose the half-day program for her daughter. 

She's already impressed, especially with Metzlianna's growing vocabulary: "welcome," "please," "thank you," and "stop." Her daughter is also learning letters. 

"She's up to D and I was so surprised in the car this morning because she was singing A, B, C, D," said Ortiz on a recent afternoon, less than two weeks after the program began. 

Ortiz said she may place Metzlianna in full-day preschool at Laradon next year, and use the extra time to go back to work. 

For now, she likes the fact that the other kids greet Metzlianna with hugs and that her daughter proudly shows off art projects when Ortiz picks her up from school.

She knows Metzlianna enjoys her time at preschool because every morning when she wakes up, she says, "School mommy? School?"

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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