Orono’s Early Learning Program Prepares Kids for Kindergarten

Orono’s school district offers a top-notch school readiness program.
Early learners Elisa Thomas and Ryder Comparette, center, play together with Elisa’s dad Rob, left, and Ryder’s mom Jordan, right.

Mitzi Overland considers gaps in knowledge to be opportunities rather than obstacles. The longtime educator seeks answers at the heart of education—the brain. “It’s fascinating how much [education professionals] are learning about brain development and kids,” she says.

Overland serves as Orono Schools’ Early Learning Programs manager, and she’s charged with overseeing programs for nearly 225 children from birth to age 5. Overland says her staff connects with the district’s elementary schools on various programs—like Early Childhood Family Education classes and preschool classes—to ensure young children are prepared to enter kindergarten. “More and more, it’s important to address what ‘school readiness’ really means,” Overland says. For their part, parents are increasingly tuned into early education. “Parents are very aware of the full-time kindergarten day, and they want their kids to be ready,” she says.

“I think [the district] really focuses on readiness,” says Vanessa Scherer. The former co-chair of the district’s Parent Advisory Council says her oldest child was “more than ready” for kindergarten, thanks to the Early Learning Program. “I feel that the expectation of a kindergartner is that they should be able to read when they leave kindergarten, and my son had all the skills to do that,” she says, adding the program also taught her son the fundamentals of classroom behavior.

For the last 10 years, Orono has used the state-approved and nationally recognized Creative Curriculum for early learning. Under the Creative Curriculum, parents can expect their children to experience play as the foundation to learning. Development of the whole child is a priority, along with core learning, parent education and the establishment of a Parent Advisory Council. The advisory council organizes a book fair and food drives, and conducts fundraising events for school enhancements. This year’s target is science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM). “It brings the best sense of community,” member Deb Van de Ven says of the advisory council. “All the parents are involved.”

Steps to Kindergarten

The district’s formula for readiness is “1 + 2 + 3 + 3½ + 4 = ready.” The Early Learning program outlines 4½ steps parents and caregivers should take to optimize children’s early learning experience.

1. Early Childhood Family Education classes, taught by licensed early childhood and parent educators, feature parent/children interaction time, guided play for children, and parent discussion time. Mitzi Overland says parent education includes a host of topics, but it strives to increase awareness about district-wide programs and services.

2. Preschool programs include Practice Preschool for 2- to 3-year-olds. It offers children a taste of what they can expect during preschool. They are exposed to circle times, theme-based learning, snack time and playtime.  

3. Preschool is available for 3- to 5-year-olds. Two-, three- or four-day options are offered and are led by licensed teachers. Curriculum is coordinated to align with Orono district kindergarten expectations.

3½. Between the ages of 3 and 4, children should receive Early Childhood Screening, as required by the state for entrance into public school. The screening aims to ensure that a child’s health and development are on track for kindergarten. It also assists the district in identifying children who need district or community resources. Appointments are available Mondays. (For more info, call 763.479.1530, ext. 213.)

4. For parents looking for additional programming in this age group, enrichment options include Ready, Set, Kindergarten! Students attend a weekly session to focus on reading, writing, math and readiness. ExploreMORE! is tailored to highlight high-interest, high-potential enrichment activities to address children’s curiosity and expand learning in various platforms. Kindergarten Connection’s two-evening program is attended by parents and children. The first night includes parent education and a child-led tour of the school. “It’s really been a fun tradition,” Overland says. The second evening features a parent-child bus ride and an opportunity for parents to meet the principal. “It helps with transition,” Overland says. “It gives families something to talk about over the summer.”