Wes Nieto, a volunteer through a new program called Watch D.O.G.S., plays games with with son and other preschoolers Feb. 19 at Vista PEAK Exploratory. The program, which stands for Dads of Great Students, encourages dads, grandfathers and other father figures to volunteer for a full day of school starting at 7:45 a.m. when the dads help students off the bus. (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)
Brent Spahn, transportation director for APS high-fives preschool students before a bus safety excercise on Thursday Nov. 05, 2015 at Edna and John W. Mosley P-8.
Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel

Colorado children from low- and even middle-income families likely will be eligible for 20 hours a week of free preschool next year. That’s double the 10 hours a week guaranteed to all 4-year-olds under the state’s preschool law.

Children who speak languages other than English at home or who have disabilities will also be eligible for the extra preschool hours. So could children who are homeless, in foster care, or not living with their parents for other reasons. For example, children who are being taken care of by their grandparents might qualify.

When lawmakers and early childhood leaders first pitched universal preschool, they said all 4-year-olds would get at least 10 hours a week, with more time for children with the greatest needs. But it wasn’t clear who would get the extra hours or how many hours.

Now, answers to those questions are coming into focus.

Colorado is proposing that families earning up to 270% of the federal poverty limit — about $75,000 for a family of four — qualify for extra preschool hours. That’s much higher than the income limits for the current preschool program.

Median household income in Colorado is $75,231 according to U.S. Census data.

Kelly Altizer, who heads the group that will oversee universal preschool efforts in Adams County, said of the wider income eligibility, “In my mind, that’s exciting news.”

She said the higher income threshold would allow a majority of families in the Westminster district, where she was an administrator, to qualify for 20 hours of preschool.

The rules still need to be finalized by Lisa Roy, the head of the Department of Early Childhood, but she is expected to accept the recommendation.

The state’s existing preschool program is in its last year and will be replaced by the universal program in the fall of 2023. The current program serves about 21,000 students, mostly 4-year-olds, who come from low-income families or have other risk factors such as language delays or poor social skills.

The new preschool program, which could enroll triple the number of students, will be funded with money from the current preschool program and funds from a nicotine tax Colorado voters approved in 2020.

Ann Schimke is a senior reporter at Chalkbeat, covering early childhood issues and early literacy. Contact Ann at aschimke@chalkbeat.org.