May 29, 2008

ASU program addresses speech pathologist shortage

Posted: May 29, 2008
Pathology student provides therapy
ASU speech-language pathology student, Kate Kennerley, provides therapy for a preschool child.

Every year, the number of children in Arizona public schools who need speech and language services increases, while the number of qualified speech-language pathologists does not. To address this shortage, Arizona State University’s Department of Speech and Hearing Science, together with the Arizona Department of Education, is helping technicians who work in Arizona public schools earn a master’s degree while completing their clinical training on the job.

ASU’s Professional Enhancement Program (PEP) provides education and training on a part-time basis to speech-language technicians who are working in Phoenix area public school districts. Students enrolled in the accelerated master’s degree program takes classes at night at ASU and are partnered during the day with qualified speech-language pathologists for their clinical training.

“The demand for speech and language services has increased so much, and so quickly,” says Cathy Bacon, a clinical associate professor of speech and hearing science in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. She oversees PEP, which is supported with a five-year, $625,000 grant from the Arizona Department of Education.

In 2006, there were about 50,000 children in Arizona public schools who qualified for speech and language services, according to the Arizona Department of Education. Yet, in that same year, there were only 1,620 qualified speech-language pathologists in public school districts. A qualified speech-language pathologist has a master’s degree and the necessary clinical training to identify and administer therapy to people with speech and language disorders, according to Bacon.

There are many reasons often cited for the increased demand for speech and language services in public schools, including the rise in the number of children diagnosed each year with autism, Bacon notes.

“In addition, there are a lot of other handicapping conditions that result in speech and language delay in children that then require the services of speech-language pathologists,” she says.

And, while more and more school-aged children need such services, so do adults. People who suffer from strokes or brain injuries often need services from a speech-language pathologist.

“These types of needs have resulted in a national shortage of speech-language pathologists,” Bacon says. “Our department is very concerned about this problem and is addressing ways that ASU can contribute to solutions to address this shortage.”

ASU and the Arizona Department of Education are hosting a stakeholder meeting May 23 to review data and develop a plan to address the statewide shortage. Stakeholders, including special education directors, Arizona certification and licensing agencies, state lawmakers, school district representatives and other universities will meet at ASU’s Decision Theater and use the facility’s advanced visualization environment to view detailed, three-dimensional models of potential solutions.

“We also have a strong commitment to providing the best services possible to school children from qualified pathologists, because speech and language disorders can have such a strong impact on learning. Children who are born with significant birth disabilities or are born prematurely often times experience academic failure,” says Bacon. “If we can intervene and help support their language skills and development, they have a greater chance to be successful in school and later in life.”

With the goal of increasing the number of qualified pathologists who work in Arizona’s public schools, ASU developed PEP. The part-time, accelerated master’s degree program is designed to be completed in three years, compared to the full-time master’s program, which takes two years to complete. Now in its second year, 11 students are enrolled in the program. They work in the Mesa, Scottsdale, Kyrene, Deer Valley, Murphy Elementary, Roosevelt, Washington or Creighton school districts.

ASU receives more than 200 applications each year to its master’s degree program in speech-language pathology, Bacon says. With the addition of PEP, the program will accommodate 10 additional students for a total of 40 master’s students in speech-language pathology admitted and trained each year.

“ASU’s program is competitive. We have very bright, successful students in the master’s program,” says Bacon. “It’s not a matter of having enough students who are interested and are in the field, as much as it’s having enough resources to provide the training programs for those students.”

One of the graduate students in the program, Monica Avina, chose PEP for its flexible class schedule and benefits.

“It’s a wonderful program if you want to pursue a master’s degree and you aren’t the typical age of most college students,” she says. “It’s also great because it allows you to continue working and still get a degree part time.”

Courtney Petersen, another student enrolled in the program, feels more confident in her ability to do her job because of the on-the-job clinical training.

“I was able to learn more about the type of tools I could use to implement therapy through the great examples of experienced speech-language pathologists. I know I have so much more to learn, but at least I know I’m on the right track,” Petersen says.

“The scope of speech language pathology has expanded so much in the last several years,” Bacon explains. In a master’s degree program students “must learn the research that guides clinical practice for a variety of communication disorders that affect individuals from birth to old age.”

The Arizona Department of Education hopes this program will eventually increase the number of qualified speech-language pathologists to accommodate the overwhelming need.

“We are really committed to the highest qualified person working with our students. If ASU could concentrate on a cohort of master’s degree students, it would help increase the skill level of these people,” says Miriam Podrazik, director for the Comprehensive System of Personnel Development at the Arizona Department of Education. “We are tremendously grateful to ASU for providing this program.”

ASU strives to increase its community reach by providing technicians a place to advance their career while still making a difference, according to Bacon.

“People choose this profession to make a difference in children’s lives,” she says. “This program really embeds ASU in the community and allows us to impact the shortage of speech-language pathologists directly.”

More information at shs.asu.edu, 480-965-2374 or 480-965-2373 (clinic).