Special Start Preschool Program: Overview

Cambridge Public Schools Special Start Program provides special education services and programs for children with a wide range of disabilities. The program is designed to partner with caregivers to provide appropriate screening, evaluation, and special education services to young children. Children with disabilities are assigned to classrooms through the special education Team Evaluation Process and have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). The Special Start program serves children from a range of disability categories, including:

  • Autism
  • Communication Impairment
  • Developmental Delay
  • Emotional Impairment
  • Health Impairment
  • Intellectual Impairment
  • Neurological Impairment
  • Physical & Health
  • Sensory Impairment (vision, hearing)
  • Specific Learning Disability

Special Start classrooms offer a play-based educational experience in both integrated and substantially separate classrooms. Children who do not have disabilities are enrolled through the Cambridge Preschool Program Lottery process. Special Start teachers use the Focus Curriculum with individualization for every child based on their growth and development. The program provides a high student-teacher ratio to support individual programming and service delivery. Teachers also partner with related service providers to offer whole class motor, sensory and/or language development groups. This supportive program helps children to build important social, play, and communication skills that are important for early childhood development.

Services & Programs
A young child who is deemed eligible for special education receives services in the least restrictive environment (LRE), which can include a child care setting or a public school, as determined by the child's Individualized Education Program (IEP) Team. Services are provided at no cost to families through the Cambridge Public Schools. Processes for referral for evaluation and determination of eligibility are the same as those for older, school-aged children with disabilities.

Community Groups & Single Therapy Sessions
Children who are found eligible for special education and enrolled in community preschools or not in school yet may receive speech therapy, occupational therapy, and/or physical therapy at one of our school sites. Caregivers may bring their child to one of our elementary schools to receive a single therapy, or attend our two-hour, weekly community group to receive multiple therapies.

Integrated Classrooms
Children with mild to moderate disabilities may be placed in inclusive classrooms with children without disabilities. Special educators, related service providers, school psychologists, behavior specialists, and assistive technology specialists collaborate to implement Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) in the classroom. In these classrooms, teachers use a play-based learning approach and individualized, specially designed instruction for children with disabilities. Children with IEPs are assigned to integrated classrooms through the team evaluation process. Children without IEPs enter integrated classrooms through the Cambridge Preschool Program application process.

Substantially Separate Classrooms
Children with moderate to severe disabilities may be placed in classrooms with low teacher-student ratios and additional instructional time. Special educators, related service providers, school psychologists, behavior specialists, and assistive technology specialists collaborate to implement Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) in the classroom. In these classrooms, teachers use a play-based learning approach and more systematic teaching approaches such as Applied Behavioral Analysis. This may include incidental, direct, and discrete trial teaching. Children in substantially separate classrooms may have opportunities for inclusion time in our integrated classrooms based on team recommendations.

Special Start is a free specialized preschool program offered at many of our elementary schools to serve children with and without disabilities who live in Cambridge. As part of the Cambridge Preschool Program (CPP), all applications for Special Start will be accepted through the CPP process unless your child has an IEP indicating classroom placement. Visit the Cambridge Preschool Program website to learn more about the process.

Referral & Screening Process
Are you concerned about a child’s development? Initial referrals for special education evaluation may be made by parents/guardians, Early Intervention providers, or pediatricians. Initial referrals for evaluation may be made six months prior to the child’s third birthday. Below are the steps in the referral process.

  • Contact the Special Start office to schedule an intake or Early Intervention transition meeting:
  • Discuss your concerns, areas of strength, and relevant developmental history with a member of the Special Start team during an intake or Early Intervention transition meeting. Following this meeting, we will generate and mail a consent to evaluate form.
  • Sign and return the consent to evaluate form.
  • Participate in the evaluation process, which may include assessments with psychologists, speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists, and/or physical therapists. Caregivers will receive reports of assessment results prior to the eligibility meeting.
  • Meet with the evaluation team to determine eligibility for special education.

If your child already has been found eligible for special education in another district and has an IEP, please contact Meghan Singh, Teacher in Charge of School Entry, at 617.349.9448 or via email for more information about the school entry process.

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Program Locations
Baldwin School
85 Oxford St., Cambridge 02138

Cambridgeport School
89 Elm Street, Cambridge 02139

Graham and Parks School (G&P)
44 Linnaean St., Cambridge 02138

Kennedy-Longfellow School
158 Spring St., Cambridge 02141

Morse School
40 Granite St., Cambridge 02139

Peabody School
70 Rindge Ave., Cambridge 02140

Tobin School
197 Vassal Lane, Cambridge 02138

Contact Information
Shelagh Walker 
Preschool/Early Childhood Coordinator 
[email protected]

Students with IEP
Heather Francis
Special Start Lead Teacher
617.349. 3251
[email protected]

Kate Vieira
[email protected]
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