Special Start Preschool Program: Overview

Special Start is the Cambridge Public Schools’ preschool program for students with disabilities. The program provides services for preschool aged children 3 to 5 years of age, who have a disability as outlined by state and federal requirements under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The program also enrolls non-disabled peers in many of the classrooms, so that students with disabilities can benefit from peer role models and inclusion opportunities as they are able. Sub-separate classrooms, or classrooms with no enrolled non-disabled peers, provide services to students with more severe needs.

Students who qualify for the program based on a disability have a variety of needs, from mild to severe. The delivery of services is based on the needs of the individual student and is determined by the student’s IEP team. Services are delivered in the least restrictive environment possible for the specific student.

Students with disabilities enter the program on a rolling basis as they are determined eligible. Non-disabled peers enter the program through the Cambridge Public Schools Three-Year-Old Lottery, and begin attending in September of the following school year.

Identification Process
There are two ways in which preschool-aged students with disabilities are identified as needing services through the Special Start program:
  • Transition from Early Intervention Services: Students who previously were identified with a disability through Massachusetts Early Intervention (EI) are directly referred to the school district by EI providers prior to the student turning 3 years of age. The school district conducts a transition meeting to determine continued eligibility and write an IEP that outlines the services and supports for the student that will begin at age 3.
  • Child Find (District Screening): Cambridge Public Schools Office of Student Services collaborates with local child-care agencies to ensure that preschool-aged students are identified as early as possible for services. In addition, individual screening appointments may be scheduled for any preschool-aged child whose parent or guardian is concerned that their child may have a disability that requires specialized services and supports. Families should contact the Special Start Office if you suspect your child may have a disability, and you would like to schedule a screening.
Preschool Special Education Services
  • Community-based Consult Services: Related Service providers, Assistive Technology specialists, and Special Educators collaborate with staff in Cambridge community preschools to ensure that students with disabilities enrolled in those programs are successfully able to access the curriculum.
  • Walk-in Therapy: Families are able to access related services as determined by the IEP team, for students who are at home or enrolled in private or community early childhood programs at a designated CPS school.
  • Special Start Classrooms: IEP teams who determine that a student’s needs cannot be met through community-based consult services and/or walk-in therapy, assign students to an appropriate Special Start classroom. There are two types of Special Start classrooms:
    –Integrated Preschool Classrooms are inclusive classrooms that enroll both students with IEPs and peer students without IEPs. Each classroom has students with a wide range of disabilities. The classrooms implement high-quality instruction in a language-based, hands-on, multi-sensory curriculum that is aligned to the Massachusetts Early Childhood program standards and frameworks. Peers attend the classrooms four hours a day, five days a week for the school year. Students with IEPs stay for an additional one to two hours per day, and some students stay for an extended year (11th month), based on their need.

    –Substantially Separate Preschool Classrooms are classrooms for students with moderate to severe disabilities who require intensive instruction in a small group or individual format. These classrooms use many direct teaching strategies such as discrete trial and task analysis. These classrooms also foster inclusion for students as they are able, by joining another class of same-aged students located in the same building. Students attend substantially separate classrooms for six hours per day, five days per week, 11 months per year.
Program Components
  • All Special Start Classrooms have a low student to teacher ratio, and are staffed with a licensed teacher with specialized training in early childhood/preschool education, and two to three paraprofessionals.
  • Bi-monthly consultation between related service providers, specialists, and classroom staff to promote generalization of skills to the classroom setting.
  • Behavior consultation to the classroom or individual student on an as needed basis.
  • Evidenced-based instruction, intervention and support emphasizing safety, independence, social, functional, academic and behavior skills.

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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
Elizabeth Rollins
Special Start Lead Teacher
[email protected] 

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

Rasmiya Ferej
[email protected]
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