From an Innovative Concept to a National Model 2006&endash;2022: Our Story


Over the last decade the Denver Preschool Program has evolved from an innovative concept to a national model for what a locally funded, high quality early childhood education initiative can be. This report details the story of that evolution and provides key insights and lessons learned from that experience.

This is the story of the Denver Preschool Program.

It is a story of unwavering focus on the city’s commitment to ensuring every Denver child gets the best possible start to his or her education. It is a story of community collaboration and commitment. It is a story of continuous learning, evolution and improvement. And it is a story of keeping our promises to our key partners: Denver’s families, early education providers and taxpayers.

We are humbled by our success and the fact that other communities in Colorado and across the country are interested in learning from our experience. We don’t purport to have the formula for success. We recognize that each community has unique circumstances that will shape their approach to this issue. However, we do believe there are important lessons to be learned from our experience and we are eager to contribute to the field of early childhood education and serve as a partner to others who seek to nurture young children in their communities. As early childhood education gains its rightful place as an urgent priority across the country, and as opportunities and accessibility for families expand, we will continue to evolve to meet the changing needs of our providers and families. We hope that by sharing our story we can inform and advance the work of others in a meaningful way. Through partnership and thoughtful collaboration, together we can prioritize education for our youngest learners.

Thank you,

Denver Preschool Program Leadership - Past and Present


Vision, Establishment and Growth: 1990 - 2016


The roots of the Denver Preschool Program can be traced back to the early 1990s when Denver Mayor Wellington Webb brought new focus and community attention to children’s issues, including care and education for young kids. Mayor Webb undertook many important and successful initiatives to support vulnerable kids.

However, Webb’s highest profile initiatives to address the needs of children both failed. In 2000 and again in 2001, Webb championed sales tax increase proposals that would have provided funding and support for a wide range of programs to benefit vulnerable children, including funding for child care subsidies. Both times Denver voters rejected the “kid tax” measures by fairly wide margins.

Former Denver Mayor Wellington Web

Denver’s Mayor in the early 1990s, Wellington Webb

Analysis of the measures and campaigns found that they were unsuccessful for three primary reasons. First, they were viewed to be too broad and lacking focus, as each measure would have provided funding for a number of support services for low income children, including child care, school-based health care, food support and after-school programming. Second, they lacked a broad base of support among voters. While social service providers and the early childhood community backed the measures, there wasn’t broad public understanding of the need for or support of the proposals. Third, supporters lacked the financial resources necessary to run competitive campaigns. While unsuccessful, the efforts were valuable learning experiences that informed and shaped the successful 2006 measure.


John Hickenlooper was elected Mayor of Denver in May 2003. His Mayoral campaign platform included a focus on early childhood education, specifically high quality preschool. During his first month in office Hickenlooper launched Invest In Success, an early childhood initiative.

To implement the initiative, Hickenlooper established two key committees: The Mayor’s Early Childhood Education Commission (Commission) and the Mayor’s Leadership Team for Early Childhood Education (Leadership Team). The Commission was comprised of 15 members with expertise in early childhood education and was charged with advising the Mayor’s Office on early childhood education and child care issues. The Leadership Team was a larger group of approximately 30 business and civic leaders charged with “ensuring that all of Denver’s kids have access to high quality early childhood education.” The Commission and Leadership Team began formally collaborating in 2004. They formed three shared workgroups and a joint Steering Committee.

The work of the Commission and the Leadership Team was substantially facilitated and supported through a partnership with the Gary Williams Energy Company and its philanthropic arm, the Piton Foundation (Piton). Gary Williams and Piton brought invaluable business and nonprofit expertise, as well as considerable financial resources and technical assistance, to the effort.

Through months of work together the joint Steering Committee established five priorities. They recommended that a new early childhood education program for Denver should:

  1. Be independent of City government, but accountable to elected leaders and tax payers;
  2. Focus on quality rating and improvement of preschool programs;
  3. Empower parents to choose the early education program best for their child;
  4. Be universal and open to all children in Denver; and
  5. Prioritize children in the year just before kindergarten (most commonly, 4-year-old children).

These principles became the pillars of the Denver Preschool Program and are still evident in the program today.

In Colorado, raising public revenue at any level of government requires a vote of the people. As such, it became clear that any effort to establish a new early education program in Denver would require a ballot initiative. In 2005, the Piton Foundation and Gary Williams Energy hired two local political consulting firms, The Kenney Group and SE2, to advise the joint Steering Committee on the campaign process.


The political consultants started their work by focusing on public opinion research, message development and timing. To establish a baseline of support for the concept and develop messaging, they conducted a series of focus groups in November 2005, followed by a telephone survey poll of 500 likely Denver voters in December. The research found that among likely voters there was general support for preschool, but a low level of understanding of the importance of preschool and a belief that early education was primarily a parent’s responsibility. Compared to other community needs, funding preschool was simply not a priority for Denver voters.

Armed with this information and an understanding of historic trends in voter turnout, the consulting team recommended targeting the November 2006 general election. It was a gubernatorial election and so would result in higher turnout among sympathetic voters who tend not to vote in off-cycle elections. Equally important, this approach provided a year to educate voters about the issue and hopefully elevate it on voters’ priority list.

The research found that among likely voters there was general support for preschool, but a low level of understanding of the importance of preschool and a belief that early education was primarily a parent’s responsibility.

An education campaign about the value and importance of preschool was conducted in the early part of 2006. This effort, which was largely funded by foundations and 501(c)3 organizations, focused on messaging about brain development in early childhood, creating equal opportunity for all children and preparing children to be successful in kindergarten and beyond. The education campaign was built around television advertising. In total this effort lasted about three months and cost approximately $350,000. The education campaign was separate from the political campaign, but informed by the research and message development work done in late 2005 and guided by the same players. It concluded in March 2006.


While the education campaign was underway publicly, the joint Steering Committee worked behind the scenes to develop the specific ballot language, gauge support, identify vulnerabilities and build relationships with key stakeholders and partners, particularly Denver City Council members. As it was developed and refined, the program was named the Denver Preschool Program (DPP). Leaders polished the vision to ensure the program delivered on two explicit objectives: (1) maximize access to and participation in preschool programs for all 4-year-old children in Denver in order to improve school readiness and academic success; and (2) promote quality improvement of preschool programs available to those children.

The political campaign, known as Preschool Matters, officially launched in April 2006 and ran through Election Day, November 7, 2006. The campaign’s key tasks were to:

  • Build campaign infrastructure and raise funds; in total, the campaign effort cost $1.5 million - $1 million raised cash, $500,000 in-kind support;
  • Secure City Council support to refer the measure to voters on the November ballot; This happened in August 2006 and the effort was officially labeled Question 1A;
  • Build an effective media campaign, consisting of television advertising and direct mail to likely voters, as well as earned media; and
  • Execute a paid field campaign (door knockers) to turn out the vote among sympathetic voters.

Mayor Hickenlooper was the most visible champion for Preschool Matters, but a number of high profile business and civic leaders supported the measure publicly. The campaign collected endorsements from dozens of well-respected community organizations and relied on those supporters and their networks to help raise awareness and support for the proposal. The campaign also actively educated and engaged early care and education providers to help them understand the nature of the proposal and how it would benefit the families they served, as well as their programs. This work during the campaign phase was an important early step in building trust and partnership in the provider community.

Like all political campaigns, Preschool Matters had its critics. The most vocal opponents were the Anti-Defamation League, which opposed the proposal because faith-based preschool programs were included among providers eligible to participate, and the Colorado Convention and Visitors Bureau, which opposed it because of concerns that the sales tax increase would negatively impact convention business in Denver. While these groups made their opposition known through news coverage of the campaign, there was no funded opposition effort. At the time, Denver had two daily newspapers, The Denver Post, which endorsed the measure, and The Rocky Mountain News, which editorialized against the measure.

Election Day came and went and the outcome of the Question 1A was still unclear. The vote had been so close that a recount was required. Luckily, the recount was conducted relatively quickly and within about a week of the election supporters got the good news that Denver voters approved Question 1A by 1,815 votes.

Sales tax revenue began accruing to the program in January 2007, so there was no time to waste in establishing the new nonprofit that would administer the program. A transition team was put in place and Mayor Hickenlooper appointed the initial Board of Directors, which included one member appointed by Denver City Council. That group worked for approximately six months and then appointed an Interim Executive Director. The first tuition credits were distributed to providers on behalf of the families in September 2007 and the first permanent Executive Director of the organization was installed in November 2007.


Because of the 10-year sunset provision in the 2006 policy, Denver Preschool Program leaders would need voter support again to continue the program. Since the first campaign and election, public awareness of and support for early education had grown significantly, as evidenced by the fact that President Barack Obama called for universal high quality preschool for all American children in his 2013 State of the Union address. Later that same year, organization leaders made the decision not to wait for the full 10-year authorization period to pass, but to rather seek public support for program extension in 2014, another gubernatorial election year. This ensured that if the reauthorization campaign was not successful the first time, there would be another opportunity to win voter support before the program’s authorization expired. With the strong support of Mayor Michael B. Hancock, Denver Preschool Program leaders prepared for another campaign.

Reauthorization provided a key opportunity to revisit the policy established in the City ordinance that governs the program. By and large, the policy established in 2006 had proven quite effective. There was no pressing need to significantly revise the program’s framework. Rather, the program had matured and the benefit of experience taught program leaders and city officials where policy should be tweaked to create an even-more effective program (details of those policy changes are noted in the following sections regarding program structure, governance and operations.) The revised ordinance extended the program through 2026, 10 years from the expiration date of the original program authorization.

The reauthorization effort benefitted tremendously from the robust program evaluation and copious data available about the impact of the program (described in detail later in this paper). The concept had been proven effective, so the task at hand was to convince Denver voters to extend and expand an existing tax in support of a successful program. As such, a lengthy education effort was not needed and the campaign itself was much more modest in both time and budget.

The 2014 campaign lasted five months and cost about $530,000 - $427,000 raised cash and $100,000 in-kind media. The Denver Post editorialized in support of the measure twice. The Rocky Mountain News, which had opposed the proposal in 2006, was no longer in business. The primary opponent of the original proposal in 2006, the Anti-Defamation League, remained neutral on the question of reauthorization having been convinced that the program had been implemented in such a way as to ensure that public dollars were not subsidizing religious education. Voters approved reauthorization with just over 55 percent support.


Crafting a focused proposal with clearly stated outcome objectives was key. Earlier efforts to fund a broad package of children’s programs failed – twice.

Establishing foundational tenants about program structure early in the policy development phase was helpful in guiding the policy development and ultimately the program.

Securing significant financial and technical assistance resources from an angel investor early on provided essential capacity to do the necessary planning and preparation work that supported a successful campaign.

Building a broad base of active support across business and civic leaders, in addition to children’s advocates and educators, was key to executing a successful campaign and securing public support.

Assessing the public’s understanding of and support for early childhood education programs well before launching the first campaign was essential. Doing so clearly indicated the need to undertake an educational effort about the value and benefits of preschool before asking taxpayers to invest in it.

While the policy established in 2006 was largely successful, some revision was needed in the program structure and governance to address changing needs as the program transitioned from a start-up to a mature organization. The 10-year sunset provision and 2014 reauthorization provided a timely opportunity to revise some components of the policy structure.


2006-2016: Program Structure, Governance and Operations


An independent nonprofit corporation, Denver Preschool Program, was established for the sole purpose of administering this program. The organization enters into an annual contract with the City and County of Denver to administer and expend Denver preschool tax revenue. While a private entity, DPP is contractually obligated and committed to public transparency and accountability and as such the organization operates in accordance with state transparency laws that apply to public entities.

When originally established, the City ordinance required the Denver Preschool Program to have a governing Board of Directors, consisting of seven members, including one member of the Denver City Council. All private citizen members of the Board are appointed by the Mayor and confirmed by City Council to serve three-year terms and are not permitted to serve more than three terms. The City Council representative on the Board is selected by City Council. The original ordinance also required the establishment of a 25-member Board of Advisors to make non-binding recommendations to Board of Directors on policy issues regarding early childhood education and administration of the program. They were, in essence, the content area experts.

When the ordinance was revisited ahead of the 2014 reauthorization campaign, two important changes were made to the governance. First, the Board of Directors was expanded from seven members to a minimum of 11 and a cap of 15 members. Second, the Board of Advisors was eliminated. While the Board of Advisors played a critical role during the start-up phase of the organization, it was not as relevant or necessary to the operations of the mature organization.


The 2006 measure established a .12 percent (12 pennies on a $100 purchase) sales tax increase. The 2014 measure increased the tax to .15 percent (15 pennies on a $100 purchase) sales tax. The increase was needed to meet the growing demand of students in full- and extended-day programming, to reinstate and sustain year-round programming and to keep up with the rising cost of preschool. All funds are collected by the City and County of Denver and are subject to annual appropriation by City Council. Sales tax revenue fluctuates and its performance is tied to economic conditions, which complicates projections, but historically the sales tax has generated approximately $9 - $12 million in revenue. With the increased tax rate approved in 2014, the tax is projected to generate approximately $18 - $20 million going forward.

There are pros and cons to any public funding mechanism. Sales taxes can be volatile and are subject to economic changes. The Denver Preschool Program certainly experienced the impact of sales tax declines during the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009, and was forced to take painful steps to contract the program accordingly. That said, sales tax bases tend to increase over time and create the opportunity for capacity growth in the program, whereas other public funding sources, including mill levies, grow relatively slowly and cannot similarly accommodate program growth.

The Denver preschool tax revenue can be used for seven explicit purposes, as laid out in the enabling ordinance:

  • Administrative expenses – this includes salaries and office expenses, routine business expenses and reimbursement to Board members for expenses incurred in connection with their service on the Board. Administrative expenses were capped at 5 percent in the original ordinance and increased to 7 percent in the revised ordinance. This is the only expenditure that is explicitly limited by ordinance.
  • Tuition credits.
  • Outreach to parents and the Denver community.
  • Assistance with preschool enrollment.
  • Technical assistance and direct grants to preschool providers for the purpose of improving program and service quality.
  • Contracting with qualified experts to design and help implement a quality improvement system for preschools.
  • Establishment of independent evaluation in order to provide measurement of program performance and child outcomes and the preparation of associated performance reports.

While there are variances year-to-year, the organization’s budget typically follows this approximate revenue allocation model:

  • Tuition credits – 70 percent of revenue
  • Quality improvement – 10 percent of revenue
  • Community outreach – 5 percent of revenue
  • Enrollment support and customer service – 3 percent of revenue
  • Evaluation – 3 percent of revenue
  • Other contracted services – 2 percent of services
  • Administration – 4 percent of revenue (limited in City Ordinance to 7 percent)

Additionally the organization maintains an operating reserve to help weather economic downturns and ensure there is revenue to close out the program should voters choose not to renew it at sunset.

Tax revenue is the primary funding source for the program; however, nothing in the enabling ordinance prohibits the Denver Preschool Program from securing private revenue to supplement public resources. While DPP is permitted to secure private contributions through grants or other sources, the organization has carefully considered its approach to private funders and limits requests to special projects that enhance its core programming.


Expanding access to and participation in preschool programs is one of two primary objectives of the Denver Preschool Program and tuition credits are the vehicle for reaching that objective. Any Denver resident who is a parent or legal guardian of a preschool-aged child who is also a Denver resident is eligible for a tuition credit to be used to enroll that child in preschool in the year prior to the year in which the child will be eligible for kindergarten. Because Colorado law states that the age eligibility for kindergarten is 5 years old, this practically means that the subsidy is available to families of 4-year-old children whose birthday is on or before October 1.

The City ordinance that was approved in the reauthorization campaign empowers the Denver Preschool Program Board of Directors to consider providing subsidies to younger children. While the Board has not yet exercised that option, it is newly available to them.

Tuition credits are administered on a sliding scale, with the amount of the credit being inversely related to the family income of the recipient and related to the quality of the preschool provider with whom the credit is used. As such, low-income families choosing high quality preschool programs are eligible for the highest subsidies. The average tuition credit distributed in 2014-2015 was $303 per month for a student attending a full-day program.

Tuition credits are provided to any participating preschool on behalf of the parent or guardian. The credits follow the child should the child move during the preschool year. Preschools are eligible to accept tuition credits if they are duly licensed under the Colorado Child Care Licensing Act, or are an early childhood education program administered by Denver Public Schools, and if they agree to participate in a three-part quality rating and improvement program.

In the early years, the Denver Preschool Program provided subsidies for year-round education programs. However, when the Denver economy suffered as part of the Great Recession, sales tax revenue took a significant hit. As a result, program leaders were forced to consider how to contract the program to meet lower-than-projected revenue. While the Board of Directors considered a number of policy options, they ultimately decided to reduce the number of months that coverage was provided. Instead of providing subsidies for year-round enrollment, the organization would subsidize only nine months of a preschool year. This was a painful decision for program leaders and it had a very real impact on Denver families, as well as Denver early childhood education programs.

The 2014 reauthorization increased the amount of the sales tax dedicated to the program, which allowed DPP to reinstate year-round subsidies, beginning in the summer of 2015. Further, as a result of this experience, and thanks to the increased investment of public resources, DPP established and funded a firm reserve target to buffer against future economic volatility. Fulfilling promises to the program’s key stakeholders – families and providers – is a key principle of how the Denver Preschool Program operates and the organization is committed to doing all it can to avoid having revenue fluctuations impact parent and provider experiences with the program.


The Denver Preschool Program is only effective if Denver families know about the program and apply to receive funding. As such, DPP has taken a thoughtful and comprehensive approach to developing and implementing community outreach and enrollment strategies since its inception. Both functions – outreach and enrollment – are managed by DPP staff and executed by contractors.

Community outreach entails paid media (advertising), earned media (news coverage), social media, community events and provider partner support. All media – paid, earned and social – is executed through contracts with various consulting firms, including those with expertise in communications strategy, branding, advertising, direct marketing and digital content. Specific elements of the strategy have evolved over time, allowing the program to adopt changing practices in the field and reflecting community and program realities at the time.

However, consistent throughout has been the understanding that our preschool providers are the best asset to reaching families and encouraging them to participate in DPP. Throughout a cyclical communications process DPP communications efforts have always been child-focused, and maintained a clean, professional, look and brand targeted at reaching adults. DPP strives to differentiate itself from its providers so as not to be mistaken as a preschool provider itself.

In addition to media, DPP has maintained a strong presence in Denver neighborhoods by hosting events and sponsoring innovative initiatives. DPP was instrumental in creating the One Book, One Denver program, which was a city-wide initiative promoting early literacy and providing free books to young children. This initiative grew into the One Book 4 Colorado program that now distributes a book to every 4-year-old in Colorado each year. In 2013, DPP began hosting Preschool Showcase events designed to educate parents about DPP and connect them to preschools in their neighborhood. While the Showcase events have evolved over time, they remain an important marketing tool for DPP and for the preschools themselves.

Like community outreach activities, enrollment services are executed by a third-party contractor and managed by Denver Preschool Program staff. The contract for enrollment services includes: a call center to interface with families and providers, application, attendance, and tuition credit processing. This vendor also holds a tremendous amount of data, which is critical to the program’s evaluation efforts.

Finally, it is worth noting the important role that child care providers play in both educating families about DPP and helping with enrollment. In many cases, families connect with their provider before they connect with DPP. As such, the provider is the trusted referral to DPP and an important ambassador for the program. DPP works to ensure providers have up-to-date resources, information and materials necessary to help connect families with DPP.


Improving the quality of available child care and preschool options is the second primary objective of the program and so quality rating and improvement activities are embedded throughout the Denver Preschool Program. Most significantly, DPP makes participation in quality rating and improvement one of only two requirements for provider participation (the other being state licensure).

To implement the quality rating and improvement activities, the Denver Preschool Program used only the Qualistar Rating™ or the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) accreditation framework from the 2007-2008 school year through 2012-2013 school year to rate providers and develop quality improvement plans for them. These systems focus on measuring the structural components of early learning, including characteristics of the learning environment, teacher / staff qualifications, ratio and group size and family partnerships. Qualistar used a star rating scale of zero (provisional) to four stars, with four stars being highest quality. DPP providers that attained NAEYC accreditation were given a rating equivalent to four-stars on the Qualistar Rating™ scale.

In the 2012-2013 school year, in response to a growing body of research about the importance of teacher-child interactions, including the findings of a DPP evaluation study, the Denver Preschool Program added significant investments in CLASS®, the Pre-K Classroom Assessment Scoring System, to its quality rating and improvement activities. CLASS® utilizes classroom observation to evaluate the nature of teacher-child interactions. CLASS® compliments the Qualistar Rating™ and NAEYC accreditation framework to provide a more complete picture of program quality. To implement this change, DPP created its own five-level quality rating system in the 2013-2014 school year, which combined the CLASS® with either the Qualistar Rating™ score or NAEYC accreditation, and began requiring that each DPP classroom receive the CLASS® observation once every two years.

In addition to requiring participation in quality rating, the Denver Preschool Program provides technical assistance and grant funding to child care providers to undertake quality improvement activities. These activities can include acquisition of learning materials, early childhood education coursework for providers and participation in conferences, training and coaching aligned with the provider’s quality improvement plan. DPP has worked to continuously review and improve its quality improvement resource offerings, leading to the creation of a new quality improvement framework in 2015 based on the core values of intentional teaching, highly effective teachers and positive teacher-child interactions. These core values are prioritized when supporting providers in creating their QI plans and in selecting how they will use their quality improvement funding allocation.

Finally, as noted above, the amount of a family’s tuition credit is determined, in part, on the quality rating of the preschool they choose. This policy creates an incentive for parents to choose highly rated programs, thus driving consumer demand for quality in the market.

Quality rating in early learning programs is a quickly evolving area in the field of early childhood education. The State of Colorado launched a new quality rating and improvement system in 2015 tied to the state’s licensure of child care facilities. Known as Colorado Shines, the new state system assesses quality in five domains:

  1. Workforce Qualifications and Professional Development
  2. Family Partnerships
  3. Leadership, Management and Administration
  4. Learning Environment and
  5. Child Health Promotion.

While there are many similarities between Colorado Shines and the DPP Classroom Rating, there are also some key variations. As such, the Denver Preschool Program adopted a two-year plan to align its quality rating and improvement plan with the state’s system and move away from having its own DPP Classroom Rating. This extended transition period, now complete, was designed to ensure participating child care providers could benefit from the investments they have previously made to secure a quality rating and provide ample time for them to transition to the new system. While CLASS® was not recognized as part of the old Qualistar Rating™, providers can earn points within Colorado Shines if they achieve certain CLASS® observation benchmarks, which is one important reason why DPP chose to align with the state’s new rating system.

Remaining nimble and being prepared to respond to changes in the field of early education is another key principle of how the Denver Preschool Program operates, as is evident in the evolution of the quality rating and improvement activities of DPP.


Recognizing that Denver was undertaking an innovative approach to funding early education, measurement and evaluation has been a key tenant of the program since its inception. The Denver Preschool Program contracts with a small group of academic institutions and private companies to conduct a comprehensive annual evaluation to show, in measurable terms, how the program benefits Denver children. A key partner in this effort is Denver Public Schools (DPS), which provides achievement data for DPP and non-DPP students throughout their time in DPS used in the DPP longitudinal student outcomes study.

The evaluation looks at impact on student achievement, impact of preschool quality and program operations. Evaluation of student achievement centers around two primary questions: Are students ready to learn when they enter kindergarten? How long after preschool do its benefits last? Program evaluation looks at impact on availability of quality preschool programs and efficiency and efficacy of Denver Preschool Program operations.

More information about the impact of the program is available later in this paper, but the bottom line is that data shows that DPP students are ready to learn when they enter kindergarten and they are outperforming non-DPP student on reading, writing and math assessments when they reach third and fourth grades.

Recognizing that the field of early childhood education is developing and evolving rapidly, the annual data collected through this rigorous evaluation process is invaluable to informing program operations and supporting efforts to continuously learn and improve the Denver Preschool Program. In addition to informing internal operations, the student achievement and program operations evaluations are made available through annual reports to the Mayor, City Council, City Auditor and the public. As stated earlier, the data and research measuring impact of the program was particularly valuable in the 2014 campaign to secure continued public support for the program.


There are pros and cons to any public funding mechanism. Whatever public funding source is used, program leaders must be cognizant of potential pitfalls or limitations of that structure and be empowered to address them.

Employing a mixed-delivery system that empowers parents to choose the preschool program right for their child – public, private, community-based, school-based or faith-based programs – and leverages other public funding sources, including Head Start and the Colorado Preschool Program, have been key in DPP becoming a truly universal program that works for the vast majority of Denver’s families.

While the mixed-delivery system is a net strength of the program, it has created some administrative and policy challenges in working with and supporting both Denver Public School programs and community based providers. Leaders implementing a mixed-delivery system program must be sensitive to the differing opportunities and challenges facing the various provider types and must be nimble in establishing program parameters that work for all provider types.

The Denver Preschool Program operates in the context of the evolving field of early childhood education and is reliant on a public funding source that is subject to changing economic conditions. Organization leaders must have the authority, flexibility and courage to adapt to new research and best practices and manage through changing economic conditions. Further, they must support program partners – namely families and early childhood education providers – in understanding and adapting to the changing landscape.

Program evaluation has been critically important, not only in measuring effectiveness and revising the program as needed, but also in maintaining public support and making the case for continued investment during the reauthorization campaign.

Go to 2016-2022 Foundational Program Statistics




Annual evaluations are conducted to determine how students participating in the Denver Preschool Program progress in their preschool year, how they present for kindergarten and their performance through their early elementary years. Evaluators examine five key questions related to student achievement:

  1. Do children make progress in their development while in Denver Preschool Program early childhood environments (i.e. language, literacy, mathematics and social-emotional development)?
  2. To what extent and in what areas are children who participate in the Denver Preschool Program ready for kindergarten?
  3. Do children from different income levels and with different primary languages make similar progress in their development while in Denver Preschool Program early childhood environments?
  4. Do children who receive Denver Preschool Program tuition credits compare favorably with the district as a whole on assessments administered by Denver Public Schools in kindergarten and beyond?
  5. Is attendance at higher-rated preschool programs associated with greater kindergarten readiness and long-term academic success (as measured by the Transitional Colorado Assessment Program - TCAP)?

At the highest level, the annual student achievement evaluations have found that Denver Preschool Program students are ready to learn when they enter kindergarten and they are outperforming students who don't participate in DPP on reading and math assessments when they reach third and fourth grades.

Some of the data from the most recent annual evaluation of student achievement that inform and support this key finding include:

  • Kindergarten readiness assessments consistently show that Denver Preschool Program children make growth in early literacy and math skills, receptive vocabulary and social-emotional skills.
  • In 2013 the Denver Preschool Program’s first cohort of preschoolers took the third-grade Transitional Colorado Achievement Program or TCAP. Results show that 64 percent of third-graders that participated in Denver Preschool Program posted advanced or proficient reading scores compared to 58 percent of students that did not participate in the Denver Preschool Program.
  • Results of the second class of preschoolers to take the third-grade TCAP in the spring of 2014 are consistent with the 2013 results: 64 percent of students that participated in the Denver Preschool Program posted advanced or proficient reading scores compared to 56 percent of students that did not participate in the Denver Preschool Program.

In addition to core academic performance metrics, Denver Preschool Program looks at developmental benchmarks for young children with the understanding that social-emotional development has a direct impact on school readiness and learning. When looking at behavioral skills, most DPP children rate high for initiative, self-control and attachment. Protective factors were a concern for fewer than 15 percent of children. Further, teachers identified behavioral concerns for fewer than 10 percent of children.

Denver Preschool Program data shows low-income and dual-language children demonstrate the greatest growth in kindergarten readiness. This finding is consistent with national research. However, unlike national experience, DPP data also shows that children across all gender, racial and socio-economic categories demonstrated growth and sustained student achievement through the early elementary years.

While there is much to celebrate, the data and evaluation experience also points out the limitations of the Denver Preschool Program approach. Vocabulary is very hard to impact in a single-year intervention with 4-year-olds. DPP experience shows that children who come to preschool with deficits in vocabulary do not make sufficient progress in this area in just one year. Language acquisition is one clear example of the critical learning that happens in the infant and toddler years. In this area, the data illustrates the fact that a single year of preschool is not a silver-bullet solution to addressing the needs of the diverse student population that DPP strives to serve.

To ensure the program’s standards are sufficiently rigorous, the evaluation framework is regularly revisited and revised. The Denver Preschool Program strives to establish challenging expectations for itself and the preschool providers it partners with, in order to give DPP students the greatest opportunity to succeed. To this end, we regularly ask ourselves whether we are measuring what matters most to impacting student success. Looking to the future, we hope to develop effective measures to evaluate more abstract, but critically important executive functioning skills such as the ability to work effectively in teams, to switch between tasks, sustain attention, take turns and control emotions.

As early participants in the program progress through their education and more students participate in the Denver Preschool Program and as we refine and strengthen our frameworks for evaluation, more data and more meaningful data will become available to enable even richer analysis of the impact that the program has had on student achievement.


Evaluation has shown that, when provided resources and support to undertake the work, Denver’s preschool providers have embraced quality rating and improvement. The most recent evaluation shows that 80 percent of the Denver Preschool Program’s participating providers take advantage of available quality improvement process and resources. Providers report that they have modified their hiring standards and curriculum, and are increasingly taking advantage of the coaching support offered by the Denver Preschool Program in order to improve quality.

The Denver Preschool Program considers a provider to be “high quality” once they have achieved at least three stars on the Qualistar Rating™ scale. As of the most current analysis for the 2013-2014 school year the Denver Preschool Program had 252 participating sites. Of the 252 sites, 207 sites (82 percent) had received a Qualistar Rating™ of either three or four stars. The vast majority of Denver Preschool Program students are enrolled in high performing programs. Over 35 percent of children were enrolled in 4-star classrooms, while 57 percent attended 3-star classrooms.

DPP's evaluators have also looked at how DPP provider quality changes over time. With the first DPP providers having joined the program in 2007-2008 and receiving a quality rating once every two years, DPP has a growing data set to examine how quality levels change over time. As of April 2014, 100 sites (with 168 DPP classrooms) had received their second rerating (defined as two ratings after their initial rating). For these sites, the evaluator found that nearly all classrooms that received a provisional, 1-star or 2-star Qualistar Rating™ on their initial rating had received a rating of 3-stars or 4-stars on their second rerating. The below chart shows how Qualistar Ratings™ changed for these 100 providers by their 2nd rerating when compared to their initial rating.

The data is promising in that 100 percent of sites initially rated provisional or 1-star improved by their 2nd rerating, 81 percent of sites initially rated 2-stars improved to at least 3-stars during their 2nd rerating, 36 percent of sites initially rated 3-stars improved to 4-stars during their 2nd rerating, and 81 percent of sites initially rated 4-stars maintained that level during their 2nd rerating.

The below chart shows how quality continues to increase over time:

The chart shows how the number of 4-star sites increase and 2-star sites decrease the longer they participate with DPP. While only 20 percent of sites earned 4-stars on their first rating, 54 percent of sites have earned 4-stars by their 3rd rerating, and the percentage of 2-star sites has dropped from 15 percent to 4 percent by their 3rd rerating.

While quality rating is central to the Denver Preschool Program, no quality rating system can be perfect. The rating scale is reflective of a number of variables as observed and evaluated at a given point in time. Conditions change within a preschool that can impact quality – teacher and staff turn-over, changes in physical environment to name just two – but the Qualistar Rating™ was valid for two years and the new Colorado Shines Rating is valid for three years. This can be to the benefit or detriment of the provider depending on any changes that occur between ratings. However, experience has shown that, in general, once a provider achieves a high quality rating level they tend to maintain that rating.


In the face of historic economic volatility and three leadership changes over the decade of its existence, the Denver Preschool Program has consistently received good feedback from its key partners – families and child care providers – about program operations. Provider complaints have mostly centered around the quality rating system. Historically parents have noted challenges with the tuition credit application process, mostly around application complexity and time required to complete it, but in recent years that has improved as the organization contracted with a new enrollment vendor in 2012 and undertook efforts to streamline the process and provide more assistance.


Measuring the Denver Preschool Program’s impact across the three domains of student achievement, availability of quality preschool programs and organization operations has been essential in fulfilling the commitment to continuously refining and improving the DPP and in building community trust in and support for the program.

Evaluating student achievement impacts requires looking at student performance at various points-in-time, focusing on growth and measuring social-emotional development, not just academic performance.

When provided with resources and supports to implement it, most preschool providers embrace quality improvement efforts.

We have yet to find the perfect evaluation framework for measuring either student achievement or provider quality, but have not allowed the perfect to be the enemy of the very good.



2017-2019 Highlights and Milestones

  • Welcomed New CEO
  • Launched the Gap Scholarship
  • Developed new quality improvement plans and added teacher course credits
  • Received new student outcomes data
  • Launched Preschool Showcase at the Denver Zoo

2017 - 2019 was an exciting time for Denver Preschool Program. In thinking deeply about how to further support Denver families, we also created and launched a pilot scholarship program to benefit our families with the greatest financial need. And because the best predictor for school readiness is a strong relationship between students and their teachers, we invested nearly $3 million in preschool quality improvement to support our providers and their programs.


Elsa Hoguín is a pillar of our state’s early childhood education community, and her early childhood experience runs deep. She came to DPP from Rose Community Foundation, where she served as the senior program officer for Child & Family Development for 21 years. During that time, she oversaw more than $50 million in early childhood development grants, positioning the foundation as a leader in this area. She played a pivotal role in the initiative that eventually became DPP during her time there.

Elsa is also a founding member and the current co-chair of Colorado’s Early Childhood Leadership Commission. She played an instrumental role in the creation of Colorado’s Office of Early Childhood, the Denver Opportunity Youth Investment Initiative, the Latino Community Foundation of Colorado and the Skills to Compete Coalition, and was a founding member of Early Milestones Colorado. She is a member of the Children’s Funding Project Policy Advisory Group and serves on the boards of Borealis Philanthropy and Tools of the Mind.

Creation of Gap Scholarship

In 2019, an internal taskforce developed a gap scholarship program that reaches families living at or below 300% of the federal poverty line.

The scholarship funds are intended to ensure that these families spend no more than 12% of their income on preschool tuition (that level has since been dropped to 7%). Given the fact that the cost of living in Denver is higher than many other places in our state and many of the families we serve face significant financial challenges, DPP families with the greatest financial need in community-based preschools at times spend upwards of 40% of their income on preschool tuition.

The Gap Scholarship pilot program was approved for up to three years so that DPP can accurately gauge both the long-term feasibility of such a program and how such funding can bolster our targeted families’ abilities to afford and attend a quality preschool.

Quality Improvement

During this time, we also focused on improving our approach to our evaluation process. We built in additional layers of evaluation and updated our child outcomes research design so that we could better demonstrate cause and effect between high-quality preschool and kindergarten readiness. While still utilizing our existing study design to measure our preschoolers’ progress from the beginning to the end of their pre-kindergarten year, we added a new layer to compare academic and social-emotional growth of newly enrolled DPP children with our children who have completed preschool and are moving on to kindergarten.

We hosted our 4th Preschool Forum in 2018-2019 for providers – this time with a twist. For the first time in the Forum’s history, we offered a college coursework component for participants seeking either undergraduate or graduate degree credits. Life is busy for our preschool providers, and this was one more way we could help them reach their goals of being the best possible teachers for their students that fit within their demanding schedules.

We partnered with the University of Colorado at Denver to design the curriculum and corresponding assignments, and we worked with our existing team of coaches to help participants meet the additional requirements. Of the approximately 100 Forum participants, 20 of them took advantage of this unique opportunity and completed the assignments and coaching necessary to earn credits toward their degrees.

We significantly increased the number of coaching hours we funded (more than 5,400 during the year), so that more of our early childhood education professionals were able to benefit.

Student Outcomes Data

With a steadfast commitment to data, DPP engaged in further research to prove the strength of programming for students. In the 2018-2019 program year, 234 new DPP students participated in our child outcomes study.

  • On average, preschool students enrolled in a DPP preschool developed at or above expectations over the course of the 2018-2019 school year.
  • DPP students showed statistically significant increases from fall to spring in their standard scores on vocabulary assessments administered in English and math assessments administered in Spanish, meaning students improved at a faster rate in these areas than we’d generally expect with typical development.
  • They also demonstrated statistically significant improvements in teacher ratings of social-emotional development (including self-regulation, initiative and attachment) over the course of the year.

When comparing the two groups of students involved in our new layer of research, we were also thrilled to find that the impact of attending a DPP preschool was statistically significant, with the largest benefits seen in early literacy and math.

Preschool Showcase – At the Zoo!

We hosted our 7th Preschool Showcase in 2019 at a new location, the Denver Zoo. It was a hit with both families and schools alike, and we saw our highest Showcase turnout in recent years with more than 50 preschools participating and 500 attendees.

2017-2019 Summary and the start of COVID

We ended the 2018-2019 program year with a clear understanding that change was on the horizon for early childhood education — due in large part to factors like the ever-changing demographics and rising birth rates in Denver, and the exciting prospect of expanded state funding for preschool throughout Colorado. As we transitioned into a new program year, we envisioned four key priority focus areas for DPP in 2020: early childhood workforce development, early childhood mental health, extending tuition support to three-year-olds, and widening the reach of our new Gap Scholarship. But as we entered 2020, everything changed.

2019-2020 Highlights and Milestones

  • COVID deeply affects early education and DPP pivots to respond
  • DPP shares helpful data for the future of Early Childhood Education
  • Proposition EE
  • Launch of online application and extended language access

As the pandemic took over our lives, people feared for their health, the health of their loved ones, and their job security. Our global economy shifted as we worked remotely and practiced social distancing while also trying to homeschool our children and lend a hand to those in need. One clear learning that was already apparent was how crucial early childhood education is to the fabric of our economy. Denver Preschool Program leaned into trusted partnerships and collaborated with education leaders in Denver and nationally to create new programs, and adjust current ones to better serve the needs of families in this tumultuous time.

DPP’s Response to COVID – Pivoting with a purpose

During an unprecedented pandemic, it was even more important that we were fully transparent in how we redistributed expenditures so that families and preschool providers experiencing new challenges were given relevant support.

What We Reduced:

  • Administrative expenses
  • Communications fees
  • Evaluation fees

What We Prioritized:

  • Direct support to families
  • Grants and direct quality improvement supports to preschool providers
  • Pilot programs designed to test the effectiveness of new early childhood education resources

Stipends for Providers

Preschool providers who did not receive federal, state, or local funding during the crisis were 1.6 times more likely to close. DPP distributed nearly $100,000 in emergency grants to child care centers and family child care homes to cover their immediate needs like payroll and personal protective equipment with the goal of sustaining operations without sacrificing quality. As of September 2020, only 5% of DPP providers had closed, due, in large part, to DPP’s support.

Support for Essential Workers

Within days of Colorado Governor Jared Polis issuing the first shelter-in-place order on March 18, 2020, a network of public and private entities including DPP launched the Colorado Emergency Child Care Collaborative: a system of emergency child care centers and tuition credits for essential workers.

As an established steward of public early childhood education dollars, DPP was pleased to serve as the Collaborative’s fiscal agent. In less than two months, DPP helped transfer approximately $11 million dollars to 498 preschools so that 5,086 children of essential workers could receive child care at no cost.

Virtual Learning

To increase the availability and quality of virtual preschool options, DPP partnered with Denver Public Schools and other local ECE partners to launch the Distance Learning Task Force. Members of the task force developed a distance learning plan based on best practices in early childhood education. Each preschool provider in the pilot could customize the plan based on their unique needs. DPP also committed $700,000 to support providers in their efforts to build and sustain distance learning programming.

Support for Foster Youth

DPP determined all 4-year-olds in foster care who are enrolled in a DPP-participating preschool program in the year before kindergarten were categorically eligible for the highest level of tuition support at Household Income Tier 1. This new change automatically assigned DPP-eligible foster children to the tier indicating the highest need for support, helping ensure more 4-year-olds within a vulnerable demographic have increased access to quality early childhood education at a critical time in their development.

Cost of Care

DPP increased the impact of the DPP Scholarship (previously called the Gap Scholarship), a three-year pilot in its second year that paid for 100% of preschool tuition costs for families with lower incomes who did not have access to other ECE funding sources (such as the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program or the Colorado Preschool Program). DPP revised our approach toward bridging the gap between what preschool programs request and can collect from Scholarship families by using annual cost of care instead of published tuition rates for families that are Scholarship-eligible.

The outcome was that under the new policy, DPP community-based sites with Scholarship students received more tuition credits to improve and maintain their quality. Additionally, 151 families were able to receive an increased level of support through the Scholarship to better help their child attend a quality preschool (the Scholarship’s positive impact on one family is included below).

Language Accessibility and Intentional Inclusivity

In early 2020, DPP developed our highly-anticipated online application. The application was originally available in Arabic, Somali, Spanish and Vietnamese with plans to translate it into six more languages by the fall of 2021. Families could also receive phone support and read key pages of DPP’s website in all five languages.

DPP Data Used to Educate on ECE

In 2020, researchers including DPP’s Director of Enrollment & Evaluation, Dr. Marina Mendoza, published a study in Early Childhood Research Quarterly to bring stakeholders closer to the answer.

The study examined DPP’s tuition credit model and how it relates to children’s academic retention and attendance outcomes at kindergarten: specifically, how approximately 39,000 children who participated in DPP over 10 academic years (2009-2010 to 2018-2019) fared in kindergarten as compared to 34,000 children who did not participate in DPP.

The findings were encouraging. “We found DPP participants were more likely to read at grade level and less likely to be retained or to be chronically absent than students who did not receive a DPP tuition credit,” Dr. Mendoza said. That means that, in general, DPP participants met reading standards, missed fewer school days and progressed to higher grade levels without having to repeat a year. DPP is proud that our 10 years of data-driven success was used to shape the adoption and improvement of government-funded early childhood education programs in the state and across the nation.

Proposition EE

In 2020, Proposition EE, a voter approved nicotine tax measure, passed, assuring Universal Preschool in 2023. Proposition EE is a win for education and an opportunity for DPP to stand as a leader in the Denver and national communities.

2020 Summary

At the close of 2020, the pandemic continued to affect families on all levels: financial, physical, and mental. DPP is proud that the pilot programs from this year showed great success bridging the gap to continue student learning, keep provider doors open, and teachers supported.

2020-2021 Highlights and Milestones

  • Provider Support and Workforce Stipends
  • Pilot Programs: Preschool for 3s, Bonus Year
  • Commitment to Equity

In 2021, Denver Preschool Program was able to reposition funds to better support the needs of Denver families during and post pandemic. As a thought leader and innovation engine, DPP felt a responsibility to continue to provide reimagined solutions to the ever-changing needs of the community. A primary concern was ensuring that providers were able to keep their doors open and keep essential teaching staff compensated through the financial tumult.

Provider Support and Workforce Stipends

  • Funded approximately 5,200 hours of virtual coaching and 100 hours of virtual professional development training with early childhood experts to help provide quality early learning experiences via new platforms.
  • Provided $785,350 in Strengthening Grants to help providers offset significant pandemic-related financial losses due to decreased enrollment and increased operating expenses for items such as health and safety supplies.
  • Funded nearly $380,000 in Quality Improvement Grants that providers could use on a range of new expenses including preschool staff bonuses/wages, rent/general operating and non-permanent building items related to COVID-19 operations.
  • Granted approximately $294,000 in teacher/director achievement awards and approximately $62,000 in program achievement awards, providing key financial support for completion of quality improvement activities such as training, coaching, or earning Colorado's Early Childhood Coaching Credential.
  • DPP and Denver's Office of Children's Affairs (OCA) collaborated to offer every staff member at eligible DPP-participating community sites (i.e. non-Denver Public Schools sites) a financial stipend. The project's primary goal was to support the financial wellbeing of educators so they could afford to remain working in early childhood education. The stipends were also intended to show appreciation to staff and teachers for their amazing work.

Bonus Year

The conditions of the ongoing pandemic showed that the effects of the learning loss were significant. Many families asked providers if they could hold back their students so that the young learners could have extra time in preschool. The “bonus” year was proposed to help students be more prepared for kindergarten, setting them up for success in and out of the classroom.

Preschool for 3s

DPP was thrilled to equitably expand access to high-quality preschool for a limited number of 3-year-olds in the Denver area beginning in the 2021-2022 program year! In addition to our traditional tuition credits for 4-year-olds, this new program put preschool within reach for children who turn three by October 1. Preschool for 3s created a continuum of support for families and was also an exciting step in a larger early childhood education plan for Denver.

New Equity Statement and Commitments

Quality early childhood education plays a critical role in early development, school readiness, and, therefore, long-term success for every child, helping to end the cycle of generational poverty and benefitting our community as a whole.

Alongside our partners, DPP will continue to make efforts toward equity and inclusion, address the preschool deserts in our communities, support early childhood workforce development, streamline early childhood education enrollment processes, and rethink policies that may be creating barriers for families. Addressing early childhood education in Colorado is an issue that affects all of us, and it is certainly a collaborative effort that we are proud to play a part in.

DPP’s New Equity Statement: DPP believes every child deserves equitable access to quality early childhood education and the opportunity to benefit from our promise: a strong foundation for a successful future. DPP re-committed to bold action to help eliminate differences in educational outcomes as a result of systemic racism, generational poverty, and discrimination through our role in early childhood education.

Closing out the Year in Preparation for Universal Pre-Kindergarten

As a leader in ECE discussions, the realities of universal preschool and the continuing and ever-changing needs of Denver families were top of mind at the end of 2021. DPP welcomed the new year with a deepened understanding of the complexities and opportunities of this new program and poised to take a pivotal role in its inception.

Universal preschool (UPK) is just one piece of the overall equation to ensure our young children are prepared for kindergarten. The good news is that with DPP as a complement to statewide universal preschool, many Denver families will be able to have their preschool needs met fully. It's really a win-win as there will be more resources for Denver families and young children. In preparation for UPK, DPP was able to expand current offerings and our role in the Early Childhood Education landscape in the following ways:

  • Thanks to UPK in Colorado, DPP was able to expand tuition credits to 3-year-olds at the highest levels of needs to increase our commitment to our vision that every child enters kindergarten ready to reach their full potential. This means three years of support for our youngest learners.
  • DPP was uncompromising in our commitment to our value of leadership in action, which entails “championing early childhood education, ensuring the community realizes the benefits of investments in young children.” At the close of the year, DPP was committed to continuing to advocate for additional funding for early childhood education in our community, supporting policies and funding that impact the workforce of educators and their livelihood, and welcoming the opportunity to share our leadership and learnings.


After 16 years, Denver Preschool Program knows that tuition credits are not enough. A holistic approach to quality early childhood experiences is critical to our community. This approach has propelled the successes we have achieved thus far. The unique combination of tuition credits, quality improvement, workforce support and professional development, community outreach and legislative advocacy are essential to achieving the systemic change we aim to achieve. In recent years, that meant doing what we do best: thinking differently and leading confidently to support Denver families and serve as a national model for the power of preschool.

With the expansion of tuition credits to 3-year olds, the success of pilot programs, and the start of UPK Colorado, DPP is poised for an exciting shift in the prioritization of quality early childhood education. DPP remains steadfast in our commitment to equity across education and ensuring every Denver family has access to quality learning for their children. We will continue to partner with the newly created Colorado Department of Early Childhood and serve as a leading voice in the national conversation around the importance of early childhood education. We are excited for the future and grateful to our amazing community for their support.



The Denver Preschool Program thanks Cody Belzley of Common Good Consulting, LLC for her invaluable partnership in researching and writing this paper.

We also wish to acknowledge and thank the following Denver Preschool Program partners for offering their thoughtful input and comments in the drafting of this paper:

Linda Campbell, Community Volunteer
Pamela Harris, President & CEO, Mile High Early Learning
Lynea Hansen, Senior Vice President, Strategies 360
Anna Jo Haynes, President Emeritus, Mile High Early Learning
Theresa Peña, Former Chair of the Board of Directors, Denver Preschool Program

Additional information and resources are available at our website: