Pre-K students Matthew Seastrom, Walker Verville and Tyir Brown, left to right, pretend they are in a boat while special education teacher Susan Hodgson places paper fish on the rug for the boys to catch at Narragansett Elementary School in Gorham on March 18. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

GORHAM — Narragansett Elementary School’s preschool classrooms were bustling at 10 a.m. Children played happily in small groups. In one room, some sat on a royal blue rug creating structures out of wooden blocks. Others gathered around a pint-size table and chairs working on their letters. In the corner known as the dramatic play area, children in a tiny wooden boat pretended they were at sea.

Gorham public schools started offering pre-K this year, with two classes at Narragansett and two at private preschools. Their pre-K classes are inclusive: Students with disabilities learn alongside their peers.

The district is one of about 60 in Maine that have agreed to provide some disability services, like speech and occupational therapy, for 4-year-old pre-K students. All school districts may soon be compelled to do the same, and more.

Child Development Services, a division of the state education department, is responsible for ensuring that Maine children with disabilities receive the support they need up until they reach kindergarten. But CDS has been failing to do its job for years, the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram has reported, leaving children in this vulnerable group without the services they are entitled to under federal law and require to succeed in the public education system.

A bill now moving through the Legislature would transfer the responsibility for providing all disability services to 3- and 4-year-old children to local school districts.

Gorham’s effort to provide the services itself – and the experiences of other school districts – offer a window into what might happen across the state if the bill passes.



Gorham Superintendent Heather Perry said she started noticing a few years ago that CDS was struggling to provide services to Gorham children. She saw a drastic increase in the number of kids entering kindergarten with more significant needs, needs that required these services.

“We were seeing holes in the system,” Perry said.

She decided to take action.

“We wanted to use time, energy and funding to reduce those unmet needs,” Perry said.

The district, with help from CDS and private providers, got to work creating a pre-K program that could serve all of its students, including those with disabilities. The program’s first year has been smooth, Perry said.


Students in need of extra help get support from special education teacher Sue Hodgson, who floats between the four pre-K classrooms, and from therapists who come to them in their rooms or pull them out to provide the services they need.

Pre-K student Addison Hager works with clay at a table with her teacher Lindsay Veilleux at Narragansett Elementary School in Gorham. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Though about 60 school districts in Maine have agreements with CDS to provide services to children with disabilities, the contracts aren’t all the same.

Some have taken on assessing children for disabilities, writing individualized education plans and carrying them out. Others only fulfill plans, providing appropriate therapies and support. A few provide classroom space for services but rely on CDS to hire therapists and other staff when needed.

Most schools are serving only 4-year-olds, and many are concerned about their ability to take on 3-year-olds as well within the four-year timeline outlined by the bill, while also assuming full responsibility for the needs of 4-year-olds.

“The concern we have is that if we do it, we want to do it right, and we don’t just want to take the children on without a plan,” said Holly Day, the special education director for Gray-New Gloucester.

Day said she’s worried that if the process is too rushed, public schools will end up in the same situation as CDS – unable to find enough providers or space to serve the children.


Launching new programs and classes during a statewide teacher shortage could make hiring for those new positions more difficult in some districts. Perry and Erin Eppler, Narragansett Elementary’s principal, said Gorham – a higher-paying district in the more-populated southern half of the state – hasn’t had trouble hiring. Eppler said they had a slew of well-qualified applicants eager to work for the district as pre-K teachers and speech, occupational and physical therapists.

Braelen Cook plays with a shadow box in his pre-K class at Narragansett Elementary. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

But some districts haven’t had that experience. The Presque Isle school district, in the sparsely populated northernmost part of Maine, doesn’t have the funds to pay as well as school districts like Gorham and Brunswick and has had trouble finding the educators needed to provide appropriate services, Superintendent Ben Greenlaw said.

In MSAD15, the Gray-New Gloucester district, Day said she had to ask a speech therapist with an already full schedule to find time to serve more students.

“They’ve been doing great so far, doing what I asked of them. But if it’s sustainable long term, that I don’t know,” she said.

Greenlaw has similar concerns.

The bill would require schools to place children with disabilities in classrooms alongside their peers. To cover 3-year-olds, schools would need to start new 3-year-old pre-K programs or work with existing preschools.


Presque Isle schools have offered pre-K for close to 20 years, but they have only half-day classes for both pre-K and kindergarten, and Greenlaw said he’s unsure about expanding to another grade before starting full-day kindergarten – an idea the district proposed about five years ago but that voters didn’t approve.

He’s also concerned about paying for it all. If the bill passes, the state has committed to fully funding special education for 3- and 4-year-olds in a model similar to how it pays for K-12 schooling, but Greenlaw said he worries about whether the funding model will be sufficient.


The bill also would require CDS to create a support network to assist schools, something educators say the agency already does.

Perry and Eppler said CDS staff have been wonderful to work with, that they’re communicative and supportive.

Other district leaders report similarly good experiences.


When the Brunswick School Department needed a bathroom compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act to create a pre-K classroom suitable for 4-year-olds with significant needs, CDS paid for it to be built, Superintendent Phillip Potenziano said.

Students line up to go outside for recess. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Educators across the state said they think early intervention is important and that the best way to provide it is in local school districts.

That’s why many school districts have already agreed to take on some of CDS’ responsibilities – because the agency was failing and they wanted to help.

But school district leaders said they don’t want to take on the responsibilities of CDS without a solid plan and confidence that they will be able to succeed where the state agency could not.

“The major issue,” Greenlaw said, “is the unknown.”

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