In an urban school district like Dallas ISD, many factors can result in even our youngest students exhibiting major communication and language disorders such as voice impairments, stuttering, or articulation issues that, untreated, can severely stunt a student’s learning.
For decades, it has been recognized that the learning difficulties these students face can often be overcome by utilizing specialized instruction delivered by clinically trained speech language pathologists (SLPs) during the students’ most formative learning years. But over the years, it has become more and more difficult to recruit SLPs to work in urban school districts, creating a major talent shortage, which must be addressed if we want our kids to get the support they need to thrive.
In fact, in Dallas ISD alone, more than 4,800 children have communication disorders requiring specialized intervention.
In fact, in Dallas ISD alone, more than 4,800 children have communication disorders requiring specialized intervention. But since the school district has been unable to recruit the more than 140 SLPs necessary to serve the need, the district has had to spend millions of dollars, that could otherwise be repurposed, to outsource a large percentage of the work.
So before her retirement this past summer, Angela Pittman spent several years using her experience as Executive Director of Special Education at the district facilitating collaboration with key experts from UT Dallas’ Callier Center for Communication Disorders creating a unique partnership model that can help Dallas ISD—and urban school districts around the country—overcome the shortage of SLP professionals in urban schools. The program began a pilot implementation in the middle of last school year.
Pittman says the UTD-DISD partnership will create a sustainable pipeline of SLPs by focusing on three key levers:
- A new career pathway for high school students in communication disorders has been developed to introduce students to careers in speech language pathology beginning as early as ninth grade.
- Students from DISD are also being introduced to and encouraged to consider enrolling in UT Dallas to receive a bachelor’s degree in speech-language pathology. The program not only includes coursework, but also mentoring from graduate students and immediate career experience opportunities supporting DISD schools.
- Graduate students at UTD are given the opportunity to apply for stipends to bring their specialized training to DISD, support students, and participate in outcomes-based research while working toward their masters degrees in speech language pathology. In fact, as a result of this new partnership, UTD graduate students began working in Dallas schools last year, providing interventions for 4- and 5-year-old students with language disorders.
I recently had the chance to catch up with Pittman and ask her more about the SLP partnership between UTD and DISD.
AC: You’ve been receiving lots of phone calls from communities around the country asking about the UTD-DISD SLP partnership. Why are so many people interested in this?
AP: They’re challenged with the same challenges we have in Dallas. They suffer from shortages at a national level. There are plenty of speech pathologists to provide the clinical work, to work in hospitals, to work in maybe upper-middle-class settings, to work in private settings—because, essentially, your speech training is exactly the same regardless of what area of specialization you go into. And what we’re trying to do is help them. I’m talking about creating a similar grow-your-own model. This has been a great template for them. This content has been presented at national speech and hearing conferences. And because University of Texas at Dallas is one of the prominent universities that trains young speech pathologists, they are also collaborating at the faculty level with other universities around the nation. Because, again, this is a national issue of having shortage of SLPs to work in public urban school settings. So we believe this concept will provide the essential data needed for other districts and other parts of the country to do something very similar.
“We believe this concept will provide the essential data needed for other districts and other parts of the country to do something very similar,” Angela Pittman says.
AC: The program only began as a pilot during the last school year, but has there already been any impact you can point to?
AP: I think the enthusiasm expressed by the graduate students who took the chance to be a part of the program in its first year has been contagious. The young graduate students who are working in these model demonstration sites really have probably been the best marketing tool that we have. They are very excited, especially to see how working with these select students three times a week makes such a difference. And hearing from the teachers how working with these students has made such a difference in behavior and progress of these students. … We had to beg for anywhere from two to four students to come work on an annual basis for the last five years.. This year, we have a waiting list of graduate students. We don’t have enough placements for them.
AC: Is it fair to say that something about this program has tapped into the desire of millennials to be change agents for some of the biggest problems facing our community in Dallas?
AP: I absolutely would agree with you on that. I’ve had the opportunity to interview the young graduate students and they really do want to be the change agents for Dallas. They believe that it’s so important to make that contribution back to society, and they feel driven to do that. And there has been such excitement from the students, even if they decided not to go down this pathway. We’ve had hundreds of students come to our panel on this topic, and that never use to happen. So we believe that excitement is going to make this project sustainable.
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