Speech therapy issues at AHS

Emma Kaber, A&E Editor

27th October, 2022

The lack of Speech-Language Pathology in Northern Humboldt Union High School District (NHUHSD) was detrimental to my speech. From the beginning of last year until March, this district was unable to provide me and other students our right to free and accessible education.

I have a stutter that I’ve been living with since I could speak. Severity ranges from kind of annoying to down right debilitating, but I can live with it with therapy. NHUHSD has historically provided speech-language services; however, over the summer between the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years, the Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP) that provided services stepped down.

As a result, NHUHSD couldn’t provide speech-language services for the majority of last year, and I still have more than 1,000 missing minutes of therapy as a result. The district was finally able to start offering services again on March 16th, 2022 after struggling to find a new speech therapist.

NHUHSD’s former speech therapist, Tracy Hardy, reported that she felt underappreciated while she worked here. Hardy entered into the public sector after an internship where she learned she likes the schedule more than what the private sector could offer her.

She decided to leave the district following the pandemic, when she realized she liked online therapy more than in-person therapy. “I like it because it’s a real time-saver. I had to sometimes go to four or five classrooms to get all the students,” Hardy said.

In addition to going from classroom to classroom for her appointments, Hardy went from school to school. NHUHSD wanted her to return to in-person therapy, so she decided to step down.

Herding cats isn’t the only reason she decided to leave. California, and most other states, require a master’s degree to become a speech therapist. Despite the high qualification, some SLPs only get paid $47,000 per year.

“Schools need to treat Speech-Language Pathology as the specialty it is instead of just lumping us in with teachers,” Hardy said. Receiving a teacher’s salary, Hardy didn’t feel like she was being paid or appreciated enough.

Current SLP Lindsay Ciaramitaro has worked in many fields of Speech-Language Pathology, and has many clients varying in age from 2 to 103, with some working in person and others online. She said that she sees pros and cons of working online versus in person.

“I really like the flexibility of online work but you just can’t replace the human touch from in-person,” Ciaramitaro said. She said schedule flexibility was also the reason that she chose to contract with a private company instead of working directly with the school.

Ciaramitaro reported that she works about 35 hours per week, as opposed to Hardy’s 40. She said that Speech-Language Pathology is a field with good job satisfaction, high demand, and incredible variation.

Despite these benefits, she concurs with Hardy’s complaint regarding salary. In addition, she notes that there are a lot of barriers to entry. “I spent most of my time at my old job doing reports and other paperwork, and that’s not what I went into the field for,” Ciaramitaro said.

Freshman Skyler Collenberg has been receiving speech services since middle school at Pacific Union. Collenberg said that speech services in middle school were “pretty normal” and he prefers Speech-Language Pathology to be in person, as opposed to online.

Director of Student Services Gayle Conway began her search after Hardy stepped down. However, with the nationwide shortage of SLPs, finding one willing and able to work in-person proved to be impossible.

After she was forced to consider online SLPs, there were still quite a few hoops to jump through. The first step was to find a company to contract with.

“We entered into a contract with Presence Learning.” Conway said, “only to find after about a month of not hearing back…that they did not actually have an SLP available (which they had never stated at any of the meetings we had).”

After terminating the contract with Presence Learning, it took a while for another opportunity to arise, at which point Conway started to become desperate.

“I had reached out to both the Humboldt-Del Norte Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA) and Humboldt County Office of Education (HCOE) for any recommendations,” Conway said.
She was finally able to find Ciaramitaro in mid March, and assigned her to Arcata High. A few weeks later she found Dorothy Polite and assigned her to McKinleyville High.

“It is very difficult for a school district to compete with what SLPs can make in terms of salary/wages in the private industry,” Conway said. Some school districts have moved their speech teachers to the admin salary schedule for this reason.”

It may seem at first glance as if the problem was fixed with the hiring of Ciaramitaro and Polite, but that’s not exactly the case.

The school had no way of verifying attendance for speech students last year, so students who chose to attend their services ended up receiving cuts for Flex time. The district hired another staff member, Shaelyn McCready, this year to take attendance and write hall passes.

In addition, even though I am entitled to speech services every week, that has not been happening in practice.

This part of the speech problem still exists to this day. Because Ciaramitaro only works part-time during school hours, there are inevitable conflicts between all the meetings she has to conduct.

In the common event of a conflict between an Individualized Education Plan(IEP) meeting, assessing and revising students’ plan, and a standard therapy session, the IEP meeting takes precedence.

Since the start of the school year, three such conflicts have displaced my therapy appointments and my own IEP meeting displaced another student.
If students prefer in person therapy, and SLPs prefer online therapy, how can schools reconcile the two opinions?

The solution is to have in-person therapy, while not expecting the SLPs themselves to go hunting for students.

For this to work, there needs to be enough SLPs to support this plan. In order to draw more SLPs, they need to be treated with the respect they deserve.