TWU tackles shortage, growing demand for speech therapists
Lone Star State's public schools benefit from cost savings, guaranteed pipeline of high-demand professionals
Texas Woman’s University—one of the nation’s top producers of speech therapists—will place 124 new graduates in public schools across the state, the largest group of speech-language pathologists to graduate in Texas this year.
These new speech therapists are part of a biennial distance education master’s degree program that creates a guaranteed pipeline of graduates assigned to Texas public schools, from El Paso to Brownsville, Houston to the DFW Metroplex and points in-between. Hundreds of school districts across the state — and thousands across the nation — struggle to hire enough speech therapists to meet federal law standards that require them to provide services to students who have difficulty with speech, language and swallowing resulting from physical and developmental delays and disabilities.
“Our collaborative distance speech-language pathology master’s program is capturing national attention because it’s helping our state increase the number of available speech therapists in public schools,” explained Erika Armstrong, chair of TWU’s communication sciences and disorders department. “Plus, it’s saving school districts the higher costs associated with contracting with more expensive staffing agencies or private practice therapists to provide speech therapy services to students in order to comply with the law.”
This distance education program — created more than 20 years ago — was the brainchild of TWU, the Region 10 education service center and the Texas Education Agency, in collaboration with 19 other education service centers and hundreds of school districts across the state. Since its inception, TWU has graduated almost 1,000 speech-language pathologists committed to working in public schools across Texas.
“In Texas alone, there’s a need for speech therapists to assess and treat more than 200,000 public school students, ages three to 21, every year,” Armstrong said. “Our program has helped reduce the number of districts that have a shortage of speech therapists from an estimated 81 percent in 2003 to about 51 percent last year.”
Armstrong said the program is unique because it allows speech-language pathology students to continue living in their community and working in their sponsoring school district while earning their master’s degree via distance education. This is especially important to smaller rural districts where speech-language pathologists are few and far between.
“This gives school districts the opportunity to grow their own speech therapists, who get to know the children and hone their skills as they complete the required 375 hours of practicum,” she said. “Most of these therapists decide to stay for years, and many of our graduates move up to become the lead speech-language pathologists in their districts and supervisors in this program.”
Wendy Wiser, the lead speech-language pathologist for Mesquite ISD, commented, “We are completing our fourth cycle with speech therapy graduate students. Of the 12 TWU graduate students sponsored through Mesquite ISD, eight are continuing to work for the district. For the upcoming school year, Mesquite ISD will have zero contract positions and a full staff — but if an opening does come available, I would gladly hire a graduate student in this program.”
In addition to this biennial distance program, TWU also will graduate another 32 speech-language pathologists from its Denton-based program this year. These graduates will work in a variety of settings, including schools.
“This profession has such an important impact on so many people,” Armstrong said. “The demand for speech-language pathologists in schools, medical facilities and geriatric health care settings is greater than the supply.”
According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job outlook for speech-language pathologists is growing much faster than that of most other occupations.