ORONO — Maine will soon have more qualified teachers to serve the state’s youngest residents with special needs thanks to a partnership between the University of Maine College of Education and Human Development and Maine Child Development Services.

The Maine CDS system, which is part of the Maine Department of Education, operates nine regional sites that offer preschool services for children and families across the state. 

The partnership allows CDS employees to become certified as teachers of students with disabilities, birth to age 5, in just nine months. The fast-track program is designed to speed up the certification process for these educators, who would otherwise need to complete a four-year undergraduate or two-year graduate degree to earn special education teaching credentials. Maine DOE is covering tuition for employees, who will receive access to additional resources and mentoring during and after the program as well.

Sarah Meuse works as an individualized education program coordinator at CDS Reach in Portland and is part of the first cohort of 13 CDS employees to join the accelerated program. She was already thinking about going back to school to earn her certification in early childhood special education, but says she was wary about taking out loans to do so.

“The program was offered to me by CDS, and it’s free, with the condition that you continue to work with children who have special needs after completion,” says Meuse. “That has been my plan, so it was really a perfect opportunity for me.”

Like many states, Maine faces a shortage of qualified special education teachers at all levels, not just early childhood. Although the issue predates COVID-19, it’s grown since the pandemic as record numbers of educators, both nationally and statewide, have retired or left teaching for other careers. 

Once she completes the certification program, Meuse says she hopes to continue to take courses and complete a master’s in special education with an early intervention concentration. She says the classes she’s taken this semester are directly related to her current job and already have provided her with tools and knowledge that she can use to help serve the children, families and fellow educators with whom she works on a daily basis. She says the mentoring aspect of the program has been especially valuable.

“It gives me a point of contact when I have questions or concerns,” she says. “The mentors provide us with information about the courses outside the certification track and keep us up-to-date on certification requirements from Maine DOE, which can be confusing to navigate without support.”

Mentors include Deborah Rooks-Ellis, former coordinator of graduate programs in special education at the UMaine College of Education and Human Development, and longtime leaders at CDS and Maine DOE. The mentors hold monthly Community of Practice meetings, where the employees can learn about additional resources for professional growth, as well as information on topics such as anti-bias education, inclusive classrooms and advocacy opportunities.

Rook-Ellis recruited the first cohort of CDS employees to the program before she left UMaine for Coastal Carolina University at the beginning of the 2022–23 school year. She remains involved in the project, and Shihfen Tu, director of the School of Learning and Teaching in the College of Education and Human Development, says the program will continue.

“When you have complex challenges, like the shortage of certified special education teachers, you have to get creative,” says Tu. “We’re proud to work with the state to help their workers earn certification and gain the knowledge, skills and values necessary to provide differentiated, evidence-based instruction to Maine’s youngest and most vulnerable students.” 

Research shows that educational and social outcomes for students with special needs improve when they receive early intervention services like those the CDS employees are learning to provide in the accelerated program. Likewise, teachers who are well-prepared are more satisfied and have longer careers than those who receive less training.

Erin Frazier, state director of special services and inclusive education birth–22 with Maine DOE, says helping CDS employees earn certification will make the system stronger.

“We developed this collaboration between the Maine Department of Education and the University of Maine because it’s important to invest in the dedicated CDS staff to support their continued professional development as they work diligently to provide preschool services in Maine,” Frazier says. 

The first cohort is expected to be complete by May 2023 with additional cohorts set to begin each fall moving forward.