Photo: Micaela Bedell for Strategies for Children
Photo: Micaela Bedell for Strategies for Children

The Denver Preschool Program (DPP) is celebrating good news. According to new findings, children who participated in this program have shown reading gains compared to their peers. Participants have gone on to earn higher scores on the state’s third-grade reading test — the Transitional Colorado Assessment Program (TCAP) — than peers who did not participate in the program. “A total of 64 percent of DPP children posted advanced or proficient reading scores compared to 58 percent of non-DPP students,” according to a Denver Preschool Program press release.

“When you really dig and look into the data you’ll start to see that something is going on that is really positive,” Denver Preschool Program’s CEO Jennifer Landrum told the Denver Post.

This is an important finding, and it adds to a growing list of studies that connects preschool participation with third grade reading outcomes.

“Third-grade reading is a critical indicator of a child’s academic future,” according to a white paper summarizing Denver’s results. “Children who have not learned to read by the end of third grade are more likely to fall behind peers who are ‘reading to learn’ by fourth grade.”

Program Background

Denver’s program is publicly funded through a citywide 12 cent sales tax on purchases of $100 or more. The program seeks to increase access to high-quality preschool for all four-year-olds, and “thus increase the likelihood that children will be successful in kindergarten and beyond,” according to a DPP memorandum. The program is voluntary and universally offered – currently 70% of Denver four-year-olds attend. Compared to students not attending the preschool program, DPP students are more likely to be Hispanic (62% versus 56%) and more likely to be from low-income families eligible for free- or reduced-price lunch (74% versus 69%).

The program also incorporates parent choice: families can choose from preschool options in community-based centers, family child care homes and Denver Public School classrooms. To promote access, DPP offers tuition assistance to all families on a sliding scale based on family income, family size, and the quality rating of the preschool the child attends.

DPP helps all of its programs earn quality ratings from Qualistar Colorodo, the statewide QRIS, then invests in coaching and professional development for teachers to help programs improve their quality.

Study Findings by Subgroup

While the scores of children from low-income households continue to lag behind the scores of children from higher-income homes, according to the white paper, “DPP students who qualified for Free or Reduced-Price Lunch (FRPL) were 9.3 percent more likely to read proficiently than their non-DPP counterparts.”

Comparing students within racial/ethnic categories revealed higher reading proficiency rates for those students who had attended Denver Public Preschool.

– “61 percent of black third-graders previously enrolled in DPP reached proficiency compared to 52 percent of non-DPP students.”

– “Slightly more than half (52 percent) of Hispanic children with DPP experience were proficient readers, compared to 46 percent of non-DPP students.”

– “Over 90 percent of white third-graders with DPP experience were proficient in reading compared to 84 percent of non-DPP students.”

DPP students also did well in various school settings, the white paper explains, noting, “While DPP children who went on to attend higher-performing elementary schools (as assessed by Denver Public Schools’ School Performance Framework) did better overall, children who attended lower-performing schools still saw a benefit to DPP participation. Among all children enrolled in lower-performing elementary schools, DPP students outperformed their non-DPP counterparts by over 4 percentage points.”

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Other researchers have found similar links between preschool participation and reading abilities. A study from Duke University found that two North Carolina preschool programs “generate moderately large average positive effects on both reading and math scores in third grade.”  And we wrote about another study that suggests that children who hear sophisticated language in preschool tend to be better readers by fourth grade.

Denver serves as a role model, particularly for other cities looking for new ways to fund expansions of preschool access (click here for more background on how the DPP was created and funded). The new evaluation evidence of the program’s impact on child outcomes adds to the mounting evidence that high-quality early education is linked to children’s ongoing language and literacy development.