Speech therapy for students from afar

Online Speech Therapy PresenceLearning
Turman Elementary School fifth-grader Lashawn Richardson has a speech therapy session with pathologist Lisa Paxton, who works in Kansas.

Lashawn Richardson, a fifth-grader at Turman Elementary School, is working with his speech therapist, playing a game that involves finding a lost dog. There is much giggling as he competes against his teacher and practices his diction.

“Farrrrm,” Lashawn says, stressing his “r” sounds when prompted.

Speech-language pathologist Lisa Paxton tells him, “Good job, good job.”

This is no typical speech class.

Paxton is hundreds of miles away in her Kansas home working live online with the boy.

It doesn’t bother Lashawn. “It’s cool and lots of fun,” he says.

For several years, Harrison School District 2, like many other districts, has had difficulty finding and keeping licensed speech-language pathologists, explained Deirdre Shearer, D-2 special programs coordinator. “They are often difficult to keep,” she said. They must have a master’s degree and at least a year of clinical experience and generally earn $50,000 to $55,000. Many go into private practice or just burn out, she said.

At D-2, about 511 students need some form of speech therapy, including 247 whose main need is speech and language. The district employs five speech-language pathologists and has one on contract; two assistants work under their supervision.

To alleviate the shortage, the district, after trying a summer pilot program, contracted with San Franciscobased PresenceLearning to provide three speechlanguage pathologists who teach online. From afar, the three serve about 128 D-2 students.

While software programs have been around for years, this program is more than just chat, Shearer said. “It’s very interactive.”

The online therapists create individual learning plans for the children and supervise the district assistants who remain in the classroom to help the students during online lessons.

Five elementary schools each have two dedicated computers, complete with webcams and headsets provided by the company. Once logged on, there is instant communication. The online teachers can even control the students’ computer mouses if needed. They can magnify their own faces when they want students to see how tongues or lips should be placed to make certain sounds.

The teachers have a wealth of content and keep records of student progress that can be tracked for the district. And the online therapists are assigned to particular students and develop a rapport just like classroom teachers do. They talk to parents by phone or web chat.

Shearer said the biggest plus is that the students get consistent therapy. “There are no lag times when the district tries to replace employees that leave,” she said. She also said the district loses time when therapists must drive from school to school. “Now if we have two students at different schools, they can be grouped into one session online.”

The cost of an online therapist is about $100 per student per month. “It is similar to our cost if we are able to hire someone as a district employee. But if we can’t and have to contract with an outside agency, the cost can be $170 per student per month,” Shearer said.

PresenceLearning was started three years ago by Jack Lynch and Clay Whitehead. Whitehead, a graduate of Princeton and Stanford Business School, had speech therapy as a child. Lynch has a relative with autism, company spokeswoman Katie Povejsil said.

“They saw a tremendous need,” she said, noting there is a shortage of more than 7,000 speech-language pathologists nationwide, which means 250,000 students are not getting adequate help.

Part of the problem is that those working in schools usually have high case loads. “It’s a burn-out job, so schools need more than they can get,” Povejsil said.

The company has 300 speech therapists, who work from their homes across the country. The company helps them get licensed in the states where the clients are. Harrison is the company’s first foray into Colorado. The state does not have any rules prohibiting such instruction, said Cindy Millikin, director of results driven accountability for the Colorado Department of Education. “As far as effectiveness, it depends on the quality of the technology available.”

Shearer said there have been a few glitches, including an audio delay in a couple of the school buildings. Those were solved by increasing Internet speed.

The students love the online work, said Teran Trausch, a Turman speech assistant. “I thought we might have some problems with the students focusing on the online work. But we don’t. The problem is all the other kids want to be on the computer, too.”

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