New report dings Denver’s preschool program quality, but there’s more to the story

4 min. read
(Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat)

By Ann Schimke, Chalkbeat  

A national report on the quality of city preschool programs across the country gives Denver a mediocre rating, but program leaders and the report's authors say the 10-point checklist doesn't tell the whole story. 

The report finds that the Denver Preschool Program, a sales tax-funded initiative that offers preschool tuition assistance to all city 4-year-olds, meets only four of 10 quality standards. The benchmarks Denver fails to meet relate to class size, staff-child ratio, teacher credentials, mandated health screenings, and annual teacher training hours. 

Denver did meet a separate standard requiring at least 30% of eligible preschoolers to be enrolled. By meeting that threshold -- the program's actual enrollment rate is about 60% -- Denver was one of 16 cities to earn a "bronze medal" in the 40-city evaluation released Thursday. Seventeen cities won gold and silver medals, and seven cities didn't medal. 

GG Weisenfeld, assistant research professor at the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, which published the report with the policy advocacy group CityHealth, said research shows the report's 10 quality standards lead to higher preschool quality and better child outcomes. 

Still, she acknowledged that Denver Preschool Program does a lot to promote quality in participating preschools, but falls short because it doesn't require those measures. 

She said some individual Denver preschools may already meet the 10 benchmarks, but that those practices must be enshrined in city or state policy to help ensure all programs meet those benchmarks even if there are changes in leadership or funding. 

"Denver is one of our trickier cities to think about." Weisenfeld said, "Some of the benchmarks they meet are the harder benchmarks."

Elsa Holguín, who became president and CEO of the Denver Preschool Program in July, said nearly three-quarters of preschools participating in the city program have one of the state's top two ratings on Colorado's five-level quality rating system. And programs with the lowest two ratings must agree to seek higher ratings in order to continue participating.

Holguín said that data doesn't play into the new report because researchers relied on different methodology to make comparisons among cities. 

"We are just coming from different perspectives," she said.  

Part of the reason the Denver Preschool Program has less stringent rules on class size and teacher credentials than what national researchers recommend is because it follows state licensing rules. Those rules don't require lead teachers to have a bachelor's degree, assistant teachers to have an entry-level credential called a CDA, nor 4-year-old preschool classes to be limited to 20 children -- thresholds the National Institute for Early Education Research uses in both the city-by-city report and a similar state-by-report that comes out in the spring. 

Weisenfeld said some city-run preschool programs, including those in Dallas and San Francisco, have established stricter rules for local preschool providers than are required by their states.

She said among the six quality standards the Denver Preschool Program didn't meet, a few would be easier to institute than others. Those include the one requiring assistant teachers to have the CDA credential, annual teacher training and coaching, and vision, hearing and health screenings and referrals for preschoolers. A bigger -- and more expensive -- lift would be requiring lead teachers to have bachelor's degrees.

Despite Denver's middling results in the preschool quality evaluation, Weisenfeld said, "There's so many good things happening and I hope this report doesn't negatively affect their enthusiasm in the work they're doing." 

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

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