Sign-ups for Colorado’s universal preschool program begin Tuesday, Jan. 17. Here’s everything you need to know

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Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Saralyn Voltz bleaches toys in her preschool classroom at Carson Elementary, March 13, 2020.

UPDATE: The state extended the application period after a confusing, frustrating start for some parents and preschool providers.

The moment many families with young children have been waiting for has arrived — signing up for the state’s new universal preschool program.

The voluntary program, which offers families with eligible children up to 15 free hours a week of preschool, is expected to serve at least 30,000 children. It launches in the fall for the next school year, after voters approved a tax on tobacco in 2020 to fund the program.

Registration for parents opens Tuesday.

How do I apply for free preschool?

This application portal goes live at 8 a.m. on Jan. 17. Parents will see a list of participating providers and will have access to each provider’s profile, which contains information about provider type, hours offered (full-day, extended day, part-time, half-day morning, half-day afternoon), rates, location, etc. Families will then rank their top five providers.

You can also provide additional information to see if your family qualifies for additional hours. You’ll find out about that by the end of March. Families will be matched in application “waves.”

The first wave is from Jan. 17 - Feb. 14. Families should hear about their matches on March 10.

The second wave is Feb. 15 - March 13. Families should hear about their matches on March 29. (And no, you don’t get higher priority if you sign up earlier in the wave.) 

Who can get free universal preschool?

Every Colorado child in the year before they are eligible to enter kindergarten, typically 4-year-olds and also some 3-year-olds. The cutoff is Oct. 1. That means a child who turns 4 before this date in the year they are enrolling will be eligible. (School districts might have other cutoff dates and those will be honored.) Slots depend on availability and funding, so they aren’t guaranteed.

Are there families that can qualify for more free hours?

Yes. A child who has one of the following qualifying factors will be eligible for up to 30 free hours:

  • Low-income (270 percent of 2023 federal poverty guidelines)
  • Dual-language learner, and the native language spoken in the child’s home is a language other than English.
  • Has an Individualized Education Program (IEP) (indicating a disability that impacts a child’s learning)
  • In a foster care home or in non-certified kinship care.
  • Experiencing homelessness

Families may also qualify for the current state-funded program, Head Start or other programs that can pay for additional hours beyond 30 hours.

What if I need more than 15 hours of care for my child but don’t have a qualifying factor?

Families can select a “private pay” option in coordination with their provider to supplement UPK Colorado and other funded programs. 

What if I need help finding the right child care program that participates in UPK?

Each county (or sometimes a group of counties) has a community organization called a local coordinating council. One of the council’s jobs, along with coordinating resources and making sure child care providers are up to standards, is to support families in applying for UPK Colorado slots.

Click here to find your county’s local coordinating council.

If my child is already in a child care program, can they stay in that program?

Yes. Simply select that program on the application form. Having a sibling in the center will also be considered when matching families with providers.

Where can 3-year-olds attend preschool?

Children who are 3 or younger, will be eligible for 10 free hours in school districts that have a waiver to serve children under 3 if they meet one qualifying factor listed above. They may also be served by a community-based provider that contracts with the school district.

How many early childhood providers are signed up so far?

As of Thursday, more than 1,000 providers had signed up accounting for 37,000 seats, which is more than the highest state estimate of children who will participate in the first year.

Will there be curriculum requirements?

Programs will need to use a curriculum that is in a Colorado Department of Early Childhood list of recommended curricula and meets the standards of the Early Learning Development Guidelines. Those guidelines include things like recognizing and being responsive to different cultures, languages and abilities.

What about quality standards?

Quality standards will be developed and made into rules in the spring. All UPK Colorado providers must be licensed child care providers, so they are required to adhere to licensing requirements.

The Early Childhood Teacher qualifications can be found in the Rules Regulating Child Care Centers That Provide Less Than 24-Hour Care at 7.702.45A.

Who runs UPK Colorado and how will it operate?

Universal preschool is housed within the new Colorado Department of Early Childhood. The department has appointed local coordinating councils to support the program at the local level. Providers will be paid based on the slots allocated by the local council to their program and the number of children who enroll. They will be paid, on average, $4,837 for 10 hours, $6,044 for 15 hours, and $10,655 for 30 hours.

Specific rates for each region are here. More details on UPK Colorado can be found on the Colorado Department of Early Childhood’s FAQ page.