Study Release: Community Projects Strengthened Early Childhood Field

Local grantees used federal stimulus funding to design innovative and equitable solutions to early childhood challenges worsened by the pandemic

Children and families across Colorado have greater access to quality, affordable child care and other early childhood programs after the completion of a $23 million State of Colorado initiative, according to a new evaluation of the program. The Community Innovation and Resilience for Care and Learning Equity (CIRCLE) Grant Program was a state-wide effort funded by the Colorado Department of Early Childhood (CDEC) and distributed through Early Milestones Colorado (Early Milestones). Through 226 grants awarded in 2022-23, families in every Colorado county saw improved early childhood services.

The CIRCLE Grant Program leveraged federal early childhood stimulus funds to invest in innovative, community-led approaches to strengthening Colorado’s early childhood ecosystem – a unique approach among states. The one-time program offered grantees highly individualized support, a community review process, language accessibility, and other tactics to ensure impacts reached every Colorado county, according to an evaluation conducted by Marzano Research.

“We are grateful to the hundreds of community leaders and early childhood professionals who embarked on an ambitious journey to address critical challenges affecting the early childhood sector,” said Dr. Lisa Roy, Executive Director of CDEC. “These professionals stepped up during the pandemic. Together, we have set the stage for a larger systemic change in early childhood in the months and years ahead.”

Young students at HeartSong Montessori pose for a photo with their favorite books.

The unprecedented nature of pandemic-driven challenges and the disproportionate impact on families of color and families with low incomes necessitated a different approach to grantmaking—one that held innovation and equity as core values and that infused them into every step of the process, from application to implementation and evaluation.

“The reach of these innovative initiatives to improve the lives of kids has truly been incredible,” said Jennifer Stedron, Executive Director of Early Milestones. “The efforts ranged from mentoring and coaching Family, Friend and Neighbor providers to expanding infant and toddler care to creating unique outdoor learning environments. No matter what their project’s focus, each grantee took a critical look at the most pressing challenges facing those in their community and developed and implemented a solution that was right for their unique circumstances.”

The initiative also provided a learning opportunity for large-scale systems change through community-driven solutions. The evaluation of the program conducted recently found that:

  1. CIRCLE built a robust portfolio of innovative, community-driven solutions to persistent systemic early childhood challenges. Many of these solutions have the potential to be replicated in other communities or scaled up statewide.
  2. Providing communities with the flexibility and freedom to develop the solutions that are right for them was key to the success of the program.
  3. Several grantmaking best practices explored during the project can ensure future funding opportunities achieve the intended outcomes. These include adequate timelines for spending funds and receiving a portion of funding at the beginning of the project.
  4. Partnering with an experienced intermediary organization allows for more individualized support and an equitable, relationship-based grantmaking process.

In total, 226 grants across the state focused on several key goals of the initiative. A few highlights include efforts to:

Increase child care slots for infants and toddlers: In Colorado Springs, Early Connections Learning Centers used their CIRCLE grant to fill gaps in infant and toddler care by coaching family child care home providers to strengthen their business practices. The coaches supported workforce training and increased the quality of their services to provide more Early Head Start opportunities.

Boost child care workforce participation: The University of Northern Colorado (UNC) used their CIRCLE grant to work toward creating an all-online bachelor’s degree in early childhood education (ECE) that students from across the state can access. Future educators can participate in the classes from their homes, which is especially helpful for those in rural communities.

Support dual-language learners: In the Central Mountain region, Colorado Mountain College (CMC) used their CIRCLE grant to bolster the early childhood workforce by removing barriers for Spanish-speaking ECE students. The college developed eight new bilingual training courses and created a substitute educator pool so students could learn on the job.

Expand access to quality child care, regardless of income: In Grand Junction, HeartSong Montessori used their CIRCLE grant to make culturally responsive Montessori experiences more accessible to children in families with low incomes through a new curriculum, teacher training, and new classroom materials.

Improve health and well-being of families: In the Metro Area, Jefferson County Head Start used their CIRCLE grant to bolster the early childhood workforce by hiring parents to be teacher’s aides in preschool classrooms. The parents were able to acquire on-the-job training for a career in early childhood while allowing classroom teachers to better support the individual needs of every child.

Strengthen child care business practices: In rural and urban counties across the state, Impact Charitable used their CIRCLE grant to support family, friend and neighbor (FFN) child care providers through culturally responsive mental health services, resource navigation and peer support services so they could be more responsive and engaged caregivers.

The full impact report can be accessed here.


 Early Milestones Colorado is an independent organization helping to advance innovative solutions that improve policies and practices in early childhood development. Founded in 2015, we work with state and local partners to exchange ideas, share resources, and create lasting, positive change so that every Colorado community can provide an environment where children will flourish.

 The Colorado Department of Early Childhood ensures the delivery of a comprehensive, community-informed, data-driven, high-quality and equitable early childhood system that supports the care, education and well-being of all Colorado’s young children, their families and early childhood professionals in all settings. Learn more about the Colorado Department of Early Childhood at