Heavy caseloads, mounting paperwork, and increasing responsibilities—these challenges are what speech-language pathologists in the Carson City School District in Nevada were facing. Much like SLPs everywhere, many of the district's 14 SLPs were performing extra duties such as teaching classes unrelated to speech and communication and working with students with no documented speech and language needs. These extra demands were leaving little time to provide services for students with documented needs, write individualized education program reports, and tackle their mountain of paperwork. Something had to change in this 7,760-student district.
"We saw ourselves as student support services, but because we were onsite more, we were seen as more of a teacher than a support therapist," said Kristina Britt, the SLP at Bordewich Bray Elementary School in Carson City. "And without giving up eating and sleeping, there really was no time for us to get our jobs done."
Then last fall Britt went to ASHA's 2011 Convention in San Diego and happened upon a presentation about ASHA's new policy document, Roles and Responsibilities of Speech-Language Pathologists in Schools. The document was exactly what she was looking for to take to her district's administrators and show them what SLPs were actually supposed to do.
Britt enlisted help from the Nevada State Education Advocacy Leader (SEAL), Nancy Kuhles—a member of a network that supports the work of SLPs and audiologists in the schools (see sidebar, p. 23). Kuhles helped Britt and the district's other SLPs create a professional job description, present the document to the district's human resources department, and establish a way to advocate for their responsibilities. The group also disseminated the information to each SLP at each school and explained exactly how to use the document.
"Their situation was really coming down to their ability to do their jobs," said Kuhles, who is also a SEAL Champion for the Western region [PDF]. "Their main responsibility is to provide services to the children with documented needs, and these extra 'jobs' were killing them."
Shifting Priorities, Shifting Demands
As experienced by Kuhles and her colleagues, the landscape of schools is changing with the advent of response-to-intervention models and the Common Core State Standards for curriculum teaching, now adopted by 48 states (see article, page 12). As a result, the expectations and responsibilities of school-based SLPs have evolved and will continue to change—and SLPs are seeking information on how best to redefine their roles within a school setting. In 2010 a new document was released—replacing the previous version from 2000—to reflect the ongoing and upcoming changes. According to Kuhles, the release of the newest document couldn't be better timed.
"With the wide range of individuals we serve and with response to intervention and the Common Core State Standards stepping in, there are a lot more collaboration pieces coming into play," Kuhles said. "Even if you don't think your role is changing where you are, it's only a matter of time before you hit a crisis and need to advocate for yourself."
A Proactive Response
In 2011, four SEALs—one from each of the geographic regions of ASHA's State Advocacy Team—were designated "regional champions." The champions work with SLPs in their own states and with other SEALs in their region to help disseminate the new roles and responsibilities document. They explain the new roles outlined in the document through technology and discussion at state conventions, regional association workshops, and ASHA conferences. Or, as in the case of Carson City, they work with districts one-on-one to make sure SLPs have the resources to do their jobs. These champions are getting the word out.
Southern Region SEAL Champion
The Southern region SEAL champion, Lissa Power-deFur, says SLPs in the region are publicizing ASHA's new SLP roles and responsibilities document via listservs, e-mail lists, and presentations to state association meetings and other regional groups. Power-deFur provided office supply gift cards to each of her SEALs to help cover the cost of presentation materials.
In Power-deFur's home state of Virginia, she has been included on the agenda of a speech-language pathology coordinators' meeting, held twice yearly by the Virginia Department of Education, which last October included 80 representatives from the state's 132 districts. Virginia's state guidelines had recently been revised to match the criteria on the roles and responsibilities document so the audience's reaction to her presentation was quite positive.
"Folks were delighted that they aligned with the new document and some even commented how lucky they were to practice in Virginia," she said.
Still, she said, getting the word out remains challenging for Virginia and its neighbors in the Southern region.
"We have more than 1,500 speech-language pathologists in the state of Virginia, and you can put something in the state newsletter, but it still doesn't capture everyone," she said. "We need to help each other and keep the information flowing."
Midwestern Region SEAL Champion
The Midwest region also is using the network of listservs, websites, and state associations to get the roles and responsibilities document into the schools, and none too soon, according to JoAnn Wiechmann, the region's SEAL champion. Even though her home state of Texas is not adopting the Common Core State Standards, many Midwest states are, and the document will be crucial for SLPs to support the standards.
"With more districts using response to intervention and then the Common Core, it's necessary to clarify the SLP's role for everyone," said Wiechmann.
The document helps educate administrators and allied education professionals about SLPs' unique contributions in these areas, Wiechmann said. Various states in the region have been collaborating with administrator and superintendent associations. In Texas, for example, the Texas Speech-Language-Hearing Association (TSHA) has established an ongoing relationship with the Texas Council of Administrators of Special Education. The two associations meet regularly to address topics related to speech-language intervention. TSHA also has created a brochure outlining the roles and responsibilities that SLPs can use with teachers, parents, and supervisors.
"Honestly, I think educating others about what we do is how we will get the most bang for our efforts," Wiechmann said. "If we increase the understanding of other professionals and parents regarding the SLP's role, it will build stronger relationships and yield benefits for students."
Gloria Roth, MA, CCC-SLP
Northeastern Region SEAL Champion
The Northeast region is also using e-mail blasts, websites, and state association communication channels to get the message out to school-based SLPs, but the region's SEAL champ, Gloria Roth, says one standout initiative is dissemination of the roles and responsibilities document across Ohio's 10 master's-level speech-language pathology programs.
"There are districts where these new SLPs will be and they may be the only SLP, especially in rural areas," said Roth. "They need to know what is expected of them, so that they start to change things in their districts and more effectively meet the needs of their students."
And the Northeast Region SEALs have more work to do to ensure that school-based SLPs get the message: According to a recent survey of Ohio school-based SLPs, 64% are aware of the new document, but only 32% have downloaded or reviewed it.
"It's easy to get into a rut of doing the same things, and we have so much education to do within our own districts," Roth says. "We have to rethink the way we are providing services. An important part of this is gaining the support of our administrators and team members. They need to know what we do and why we are doing it, because change is hard to do on your own. I am working with a group of SLPs to come up with more resources to provide functional ways SLPs can implement the document into their districts. Seeing it isn't enough—they need practical tools or ideas to help them implement it."