Director Emphasizes Pre-K as an Anchor

It all starts with a strong Pre-K program. “I think it’s of utmost importance,” says Mary Karst the director of Colorado Academy’s Pre-Kindergarten program. “This sets the tone for everything, and it can change their lives. If you teach them now to love school, to love the people around them, to see the beauty in everything, it really has an impact, and the Pre-K teacher is an anchor person.”

Karst should know. With twenty years of teaching experience, mostly in Kindergarten, with some first grade and Pre-K thrown in, she says one of the things she loves most is working with students pre-reading skills. “I love how at CA, Pre-K has its own separate program. And those pre-reading skills, I love working with children to develop that.”

“Pre-reading” refers to teaching the letters and sounds, “really teaching reading, seeing the light bulb go off when they learn how to read,” Karst says.

CA has proven repeatedly its ability to produce well-prepared graduates, especially those who start in Pre-K or Kindergarten and go all the way through twelfth grade. And the students remember and appreciate that teacher. “My old students always come back and see me,” Karst said.

“At these schools, they tend to stay. You’re an important person and place in their life. So it’s really important, I think. You’re like a little touchstone.

“For many children, this is their first experience in school. It’s such a fun year, walking in line into the lunchroom, walking to school assemblies, experiencing school for the first time,” Karst said, and you get the feeling she’s thinking back to her first year in school. Karst has introduced the “responsive classroom” concept into the Pre-K class, which focuses on building community throughout the school, teaching students to greet each other and be mindful of others.

“Children start the day in a big meeting, sitting in a circle, and get the feeling of belonging to a group,” she said. “They learn to express themselves and learn how to listen to each other, which is even harder than learning to talk.

“It’s powerful how close the community gets by the end of the year, how the children really support one another. They greet each other every morning and learn to look into their friend’s eyes.”

Karst grew up in Newport Beach, California and graduated from Newport Harbor High School and the University of Arizona. Her background includes attending The American School in Switzerland (TASIS). “Where I was growing up, a lot of kids went there, traveled around Europe, learned about art history, saw the world, experienced life before they went off to college,” Karst said.

She later served as TASIS’s director of its English as a Second Language program in the summers of 2007 and 2008. She taught the teachers how to instruct their students. “That sort of inspired me to become a Pre-K director,” she said. “I met children from all around the world, and their teachers came from all around the world. It was an inspirational experience.”

Back in the states, she started teaching in the fourth grade at Harbor Day School in Newport Beach –- “I quickly learned I liked kindergarten,” Karst said. She was there one year, then moved to the Saddleback Valley Unified School District for four years. She later moved to the East Coast and eventually to Denver because she has family here. She worked in Denver Public Schools, then went to Graland Country Day School in 2005, where she stayed for 10 years.

“This sets the tone for everything, and it can change their lives. If you teach them now to love school, to love the people around them, to see the beauty in everything, it really has an impact, and the Pre-K teacher is an anchor person.”

Of course, teaching is so much different today than it was earlier in Karst’s two-decade career in the classroom. “It’s more academic now, and we’ve learned so much about the human brain.” Says Karst, “The emphasis used to be on keeping children quiet. When I was young, children were supposed to be seen and not heard. Now classrooms are joyful, with laughter. The classroom should be loud and happy. I want people to come into my classroom and hear lots of noise, lots of talking, and curious children asking questions.”

“I don’t want them to see quiet, silent, straight rows. The sign of a good childhood is when you’re asking questions, laughing out loud, have dirt on your paper and ink on your shoes,” she says.

“My goals are to have the children learn how to love learning; to create open-minded, kind children who appreciate others, who appreciate differences, who are curious, who accept other people.

“Academically, I want them to have a strong foundation, to be ready to enter Kindergarten, ready to meet whatever their teachers’ academic goals are. I want them to be curious and excited about learning.”