PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – More than 600 3- and 4-year-olds in Multnomah County will attend preschool for free this fall as the Preschool for All program launches. 

Voters decided to fund the program in 2020 and after nearly two years of preparations, the first group of students to receive free preschool education will head to their daycares and schools in September. 

“We’re ready to go and really hoping that this is going to be a positive experience for families, and we’ve been hearing that it has been so far,” said Leslee Barnes, the director of the Multnomah County Preschool and Early Learning Division. 

Barnes said she’s had a busy summer helping child care providers prepare for this new wave of kids. She’s been helping them order furniture and enroll children. So far, she said there haven’t been any major hiccups. 

Parents have been telling her that the application process was easy to navigate. One even said it was the simplest application process she’s ever been through when it comes to things sponsored by the government. 

Applicants could list their top choices for which preschool they’d like their child to attend and the county would assign them to one of their choices. Barnes said for the most part, families received their top choice.

Preschool for All applications opened in the spring. In its first year, the program is covering the cost of preschool for 687 children. As of Thursday, the county has placed 661 kids in open slots and 614 of them have accepted their places. Barnes hopes in the coming weeks, they’ll be able to fill the remaining 26 spaces with other applicants. 

She said some people did not accept their placements because they received free preschool support from another agency or moved out of the county. Head Start offers free preschool and the state of Oregon offers free preschool for families who qualify and apply to the Preschool Promise program

In all, 1,113 applications were submitted for the available Preschool for All spaces. 

“That just really illustrates the need for this service and that families are really wanting the support,” Barnes said. 

The county hopes to add another 500 open slots in 2023-2024, but that could depend on what child care is available. 

Barnes said providers are still struggling to find and hire staff, a problem that was exacerbated during the pandemic as some child care workers left the field to find jobs elsewhere

Multnomah County is exploring how to provide better wages and benefits to child care workers, Barnes said. It’s working with community colleges to encourage people to go to school to receive a certificate or degree in the field. The county is also exploring ways to provide child care providers with days off by using things like a substitute pool, with people who can fill in on the job temporarily. 

In the 2022-2023 school year, Preschool for All will be offered at 24 in-home child care facilities, 14 child care centers and 10 school districts. 

The school year begins for pilot program preschoolers between Sept. 1-15. 

“We’re learning and we’re welcoming folks in and really trying to be a support to assist them. It’s really a critical need for families and our communities, so looking forward to the school year,” Barnes said.

The application process is open now for any providers who might be interested in accepting Preschool for All students in the next school year. The application is posted on Multnomah County’s website. 

The county’s website also has more information for parents who might like to apply for slots in 2023.