Schools short in speech pathology

Monday, January 10, 2005

Rarely a week goes by when Leslie Buck doesn't receive a phone call or letter from someone begging to hire her.

Most offer more money and better benefits than she currently receives. It's a temptation that speech language pathologists in Buck's position -- those working in public schools -- face around the country.

Because of that and other issues surrounding the profession, many school districts, including those in Missouri, face a shortage of qualified individuals to fill those positions.

Speech pathology is a fairly new profession developed in the 1950s, Because of that, not many people are fully aware of what the job entails.

"Lots of people think we work with those who can't say their R's. That's part of it, but there's so much more," said Buck, who works at Central junior high and high schools.

Much of the training required is medical rather than academic. That allows speech pathologists, also called speech language pathologists or SLPs, to perform special tests, diagnose and develop treatment plans for patients in ways that regular special education teachers cannot.

They work with a variety of students, from those in the gifted program to those with behavior disorders or learning disabilities.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, speech language pathologists' salaries range from $33,610 to $77,940, with an average of $50,890. Those working in a clinical setting, especially in home health care, usually are paid on the upper end of the scale.

In the school setting, most are placed on the same salary schedule as teachers. For example, one with a master's degree in Cape Girardeau schools would have a starting salary of $27,195.

According to Janet Goeller, director of educator recruitment and retention with the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, speech pathology is the state profession with the second-highest number of shortages.

The largest shortage is found in special education teachers as a whole, a group that includes speech pathology.

Each year, Goeller surveys the state's 524 districts about employment issues. In 2003, 80 of the responding districts reported a shortage of speech pathologists, and only 10 felt there was a balance. At the time, 20 districts reported immediate vacancies that needed to be filled.

"That's a huge number of vacancies," said Goeller.

There are currently around 30 speech pathology students in the master's degree program at Southeast Missouri State University, a number that can't grow larger because of accreditation requirements, according to Dr. Sakina Drummond.

Drummond, who chairs the Department of Communication Disorders, said there are three main reasons pathologists gravitate toward clinical settings instead of schools: salary, more autonomy and working conditions.

"With the job description in schools, speech pathologists are treated like teachers, when this is really a medical position," Drummond said.

Drummond said only 10 percent of Southeast's speech pathology graduates go on to work in schools. The rest choose hospitals or other health-care agencies.

"It's not like nursing so much where there's a burnout. There's good job satisfaction and we have choices. But public schools are not taking a lead in recruitment," said Drummond.

Speech pathologists say the difficulty of the master's program and maintaining licensure is also a deterrent for some people.

In Missouri, speech pathologists in schools must have national certification, which requires passing an exam, and either a state license or a teaching certificate.

Receiving a license to practice speech pathology requires a master's degree, two semester-long internships and a year working under a licensed pathologist. An additional 30 hours of continued education is required after that.

Every year, speech pathologists must renew their national license -- a cost of $250 -- and their state license -- a cost of $50. In Cape Girardeau, they are not reimbursed for those fees.

"Some health-care facilities pay those fees, and some SLPs in education are upset about that. It's a big chunk of money to pay every year for something that is required of us," said Judy McLain, a speech language pathologist at Central Junior High School.

There are efforts to make positions in schools more desirable.

In 2004, the state legislature passed a law that created a career advancement program for school employees such as speech pathologists.

Participation by school district is voluntary, but the plan allows speech pathologists to earn supplemental pay based on professional development through a matching-funds program with the state.

Those who choose education over a medical setting say they like having time off during the winter and summer and, more importantly, a close relationship with children.

"It's always a challenge, and that's what I love about it," said Angie Rinehart, a speech language pathologist at Clippard Elementary. "If we didn't love it, we wouldn't be doing it."

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