Park City School District Preschool director awarded for work in early childhood advocacy, programming
Kathy Anderson receives Mary Olsen Friend of Children award after 30-plus years as educator
There were little more than 60 seats in the Park City School District Preschool program when Kathy Anderson helped start it more than a decade ago. Since then, it’s grown to accommodate 100-plus students in large part because of Anderson’s commitment to developing young minds.
Anderson realized the importance of early education in college, going on to become a teacher in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in the late 1980s before moving to Park City. She started as a kindergarten teacher with the Park City School District in 1990 and transitioned to developing the pre-K program in 2011 when it was introduced district-wide.
‘I got my masters in reading, and I was working with small groups on how to build that. My goal has always been to help out the underdog in a classroom and to make them feel successful, and I feel the same way about the little ones,” Anderson said. “I knew that (working with the preschool) was something I was meant to do.”
Her efforts to create an enriching learning environment, while promoting independence and problem-solving did not go unnoticed by the Utah Association for the Education of Young Children, which recently gave Anderson the Mary Olsen Friend of Children award during the annual early education conference on March 18. The recognition is given to someone who has made outstanding contributions to the state’s early childhood community through their work as an advocate for children and quality programming.
Anderson, who is retiring in June, has worked the last 12 years as preschool director, serving as a cheerleader and champion along the way. She played an integral role in developing academic as well as social-emotional curriculums and helped run a successful program as the preschool adjusted to its growth.
Colleagues say Anderson “put her stamp” on the preschool program from its start and it has continued to flourish under her care.
Studies show high school graduation rates, the number of years completed in college and lifetime earned income increase for people who attend preschool.
“Early education is the biggest time for brain development for kids, around 0 to 3, and so we start with kids who are 3 years old,” Anderson said. “What really led me to this was just the rise in technology, and kids, I felt like, weren’t getting enough oral communication. They weren’t being talked to as much, parents are on their cellphones more. So it’s just about really wanting to make a difference with these kids and teach them with this program that they are important and they can be heard and they have a voice.”
While there are several private options for families who want to enroll their children in preschool, the program through the School District is the only public option for parents – and it’s only available to families with 3 and 4-year-olds living within its boundaries.
The Early Childhood Alliance, part of the Park City Community Foundation, in November 2022 said there is a childcare desert in the Wasatch Back as many parents struggle to find affordable providers. There are around 1,800 children under the age of 5 living within the School District’s boundaries, according to a Park City Education Foundation estimate. There’s high demand and limited space, which has led to a registration lottery to determine seats.
To help address the need, the Park City Education Foundation provides more than $120,000 annually to keep tuition low. Abby McNulty, the president and CEO of the nonprofit, said Anderson made the preschool program “a beacon to moms and dads who want a loving, fun, safe, and rich environment for their children.”
The School District is also planning to construct more space for preschool programs as part of its ongoing master plan; increasing available seats from 190 to 600. The Jeremy Ranch Elementary School and McPolin Elementary School preschool expansion projects are estimated to be completed in the fall of 2024. The target for the Parley’s Park Elementary School and Trailside Elementary School expansions is the following autumn.
Kindergarten readiness is a big focus of the preschool program, with teachers helping preschoolers build the foundation of their future educational careers. They participate in whole and small group lessons as well as independent choice activities that help them develop listening and language skills, learn how to pay attention and how to assess their emotions.
Preschool is especially important for babies that were born during the pandemic who have had limited interactions with others, according to Anderson.
“One big advantage to our program is that they’re already in the elementary school so by the time they go to kindergarten, they know how to do school. They can start kindergarten ready to roll because they’re comfortable with the school environment and riding the bus,” she said.
Finding and supporting high-quality staff has also been a key priority for Anderson, who acknowledged retention has been a challenge.
Laurie Holbrook-Jorgensen, a preschool instructional coach, said Anderson is known to work tirelessly to support early childhood educators and help them receive the pay – and respect – they deserve.
Amid misconceptions that preschool teachers play all day, Anderson said they work just as hard as the higher grade levels. Early childhood educators also promote a positive start to the school experience.
Looking back at her tenure, Anderson is most proud of how the program has grown into its current state. She said it’s also incredible to see middle- and high-schoolers who have gone through preschool come back to work with the younger students.
The longtime educator is hopeful her successor will ensure the program remains strong, high-quality and growing. The preschool has served around 2,000 students since its inception, with the first cohort expected to graduate in 2025.
“I feel lucky these last 35 years to be able to watch these kids grow. I’ve taught students of my students that I had in kindergarten 33 years ago. I feel that I’ve formed a lot of friendships, and that’s still the heart of Park City; these people who left and came back as adults. It’s still a small town, even with all the growth. It’s a great place to be and a great place to teach,” Anderson said.
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