Kids First helps keep preschool going through summer for higher risk kids

Warren Klug reading to preschoolers at the Yellowbrick in Aspen during a program supported by Kids First.
Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times file photo

Kids First will plug a critical summer gap for 24 preschoolers deemed at-risk, helping with that all-important transition to kindergarten.

The city of Aspen department this week announced the allocation of $50,000 in financial aid to provide tuition for children enrolled in the Colorado Preschool Program to register for local child-care programs two days a week throughout June, July, and August.

The CPP provides programming for high-risk 4-year-olds to help them successfully transition to kindergarten.

Aspen Family Connections determines eligibility for the program based on risk factors such as family income, homelessness, family stability, parent’s education, social skills, and a need for language development, in accordance with Colorado state guidelines. However, since the CPP is only funded during the school year, students who rely on it are left with a gap in childcare and education during the summer.

“For the good of the children and their health and their ability to thrive and succeed, it’s important that they continue to have some kind of care through this summer,” Kids First Co-Manager Nancy Nichols said.

Despite the lack of summer support by CPP, many child-care programs in the area operate year-round. Because of the gap in funding during the summer, families often struggle to find money to keep their children in school year-round, according to Leslie Bixel, executive director of the Early Learning Center of Aspen.

“(It) kind of sets them back because they’re not getting that interaction with other kids that they could be getting,” Bixel said. “(Parents are) cutting corners at home to make sure that their kids have child care for the summer.”

Child care promotes social-emotional development, as well as the development of hard skills, according to Nichols. For young children, this type of learning prepares them to actively participate in kindergarten and work well with others.

“We know that a huge amount of brain development is before the age of 5, so we’re supporting that, so that they’re successful citizens academically and socially in the future,” she said.

Bixel agreed that preschool is critical for promoting development of skills critical for success in kindergarten, such as making friends, regulating emotions, and understanding structure and routine.

“When they enter kindergarten, they can enter that kindergarten class, and they’re ready to start absorbing and learning,” Bixel said.

Every summer, Kids First and AFC search for grants and other sources of funding to provide continuity of care and education for children throughout the summer months, according to AFC Early Childhood Connector Renee Giles. In the past, they have collaborated with the Aspen Thrift Shop and other funding agencies to provide summer care.

CPP was phased out at the end of the 2022-23 school year and will be replaced at the start of the next school year by the state’s new universal preschool program. The new program will provide 15 hours of preschool to all 4-year-olds and eligible 3-year-olds, rather than providing care to children only with qualifying risk factors. The program will support additional hours for students with qualifying risk factors, as evaluated by household income, learning differences, homelessness, dual language learners, and children in foster care.

“They’re still working towards it. (It’s a) work in progress, so they’re flying the plane as they build it,” Giles said. 

The current plan for the universal preschool program does not address the gap in education during the summer months.

“This summer, that’s what one of our goals is and one of our plans is — to kind of start talking about how we can collaborate with the community in supporting those three months where these families, especially the high-risk families, are not receiving any funding for school,” Giles said.

In May 2024, Kids First also plans to implement a program that focuses on providing funding to children with high-risk factors, according to Nichols. This will be in addition to the current financial-aid program that provides funding based on family income and cost of care but does not consider the child’s risk factor. 

Since the statewide program prioritizes students with financial needs, Kids First’s new program will address a gap left for students who require support due to risk factors but do not otherwise qualify for financial aid. Nichols said there will likely be some overlap in students who qualify for funding based on financial needs and students who qualify due to risk factors.

“As long as we’ve been in existence, we’ve been funding financial aid, and we intend to include this as another option for families, for child’s success,” she said.

The city of Aspen also provides funding through financial aid to families living or working in Aspen, as well as funding for stabilization, grants for teachers, subsidy grants for child-care programs, and written relief for the tenants of the Yellow Brick Building, which houses child-care programs, according to Bixel.

“The city of Aspen really cares about child care and they support us financially and with coaching and support,” she said.