The Reality of Special Education in Small Towns

  • By Springible Contributor
  • Reading Time About 9 minutes
  • PostedFebruary 17, 2019
  • Category

Over the Thanksgiving holiday I was able to observe a speech therapy session with my grand daughter, Joon, who you may have met before! After her session, I was able to share some concerns about Joon and my students back home.

Speech and language has always been a topic that makes me both excited and angry. I have very strong feelings when it concerns the students I teach (3/4 of my class being Autistic). I’ve always felt that those students need​ speech and language services for as long as they are in the school system. Okay, I am not a speech therapist and I don’t pretend to know specific guidelines or regulations, but it’s a great thought, right? I can tell you that the therapists in my hometown probably have a lot to talk about when my name comes up in their team meetings.

I’m the teacher that says, “why?” “where are the guidelines that state that?” or my all time favorite question, “how come this child receives this service and that child doesn’t ?” The autistic students I teach often have major with speech and language challenges when it comes to communication. Common communication problems they experience daily are: babbling, grunting, parroting/repeating what another person is saying (echolalia), singing/humming, or using one word or simple memorized phrase.

Because of these limited ways of communication, I feel a child with autism not only needs to learn to speak, but also has to learn how to use language as a way to communicate with others. Some of the Speech Language Pathologists (SLP) I have talked to admit they have never received training or education to assist autistic students with their specific communication needs. I feel a student who is non-verbal or has limited speech can communicate using augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices.

I do feel that speech and language services can include communication devices such as a Go Talk, Proloquo 2 Go, Lamp, or a Picture Exchange Communication System, along with the traditional type of therapy. SLPs can work closely with parents, schools, and other professionals to promote communication for all, not just the lucky few.

My small town in Utah has such limited resources compared to services offered in a larger city. Rural areas do their best to work with their limited resources. We have para-educators (paras – under the direction of Speech Pathologists) who stay long hours writing IEPs, holding IEP meetings, and keeping up on daily records and data collection. The physical Therapist (the only one for our district) is bogged down with a large caseload, written reports, assessments and re-evaluations, IEP meetings, and early intervention services.

Our Occupational Therapist has 2 paras who work under her direction. Much of her time is involved with Early Intervention, Preschool, reports, assessments and evaluations, and the many IEP meetings. With the limited staff and personnel, it’s understandable that they may feel overwhelmed when we ask for their help.

Our setbacks with great services may include funding and personnel. A rural area often is not enticing to a recent college graduate. Because of the small town disadvantages, it’s difficult to employ the specialists that we need.

Our teacher wages are not comparable to what one would make in the city. One can make more money in the private sector.

Because of these problems we are forced to make creative decisions. We make due and train para-educators to do the job under the direction of “therapists.” Our small town does not offer all of the fun programs such as hippo-therapy, adaptive swim lessons, music therapy, Gigi’s place house (designed for children with disabilities-fun sensory therapy), camps for specialized children with disabilities, yearly walk-a-thons to raise awareness and funding, there are no specialized parks (like the one in Orem, Utah ), which is built specifically for students with disabilities or respite care (for elementary students). Some of my parents would like to see the recreational board offer activities for their children with disabilities. A fun swim night for the children and their family members. Imagine how cool that would be… No loud noises, more swimming space, and a chance to socialize with other families who have similar concerns and needs.

When my granddaughter, Joon (who has Down syndrome), was just four days old a young couple came to the house to assist and educate my daughter, Rondee (who lives in Salt Lake City), about Down syndrome. They brought her books, toys, and a cute outfits with cute sayings about having an extra chromosome. This couple allowed Rondee to share her intimate thoughts, fears, and sorrows. They stayed for hours listening to her concerns. When they left, Rondee had numbers of specialized services, names of doctors/pediatricians and other medical professionals, and an invitation to the DS New Parents monthly meetings. She was introduced to an online group of support and assistance, her virtual relationships have assisted her greatly. Support group members have informed her of services available throughout Salt Lake City, Utah.

After they left, I wondered do parents in my little community received such supports? In our town there are no such organizations or groups to meet with or come to your home to assist you with all those concerns or questions you may have. Support groups come from within the family and close friends. There are no seminars or monthly meetings to attend such as the DS foundation or the monthly mom and dad get togethers. Pediatricians refer parents to Early Intervention if the disability is diagnosed immediately after birth.

Early Intervention is so important for our kiddos. We have a great Early Intervention program in our community. Once the kiddos turn three they go to our specialized preschool. The preschool educates students three-five years old. There are only three certified teachers that manage large caseloads. Para-educators teach the classes under the teacher’s direction. I’ve been very impressed with the programs they have. This age group receive daily/weekly services such as Physical Therapy, Occupational Therapy, Speech and Language. All therapist are located at this school.

Services start to decrease in amount of time once the students enter their neighboring elementary. Some of those reasons may include: a lack of adequate number of SLPs per school/district. We currently have two SLPs for our area which includes six elementary schools and three secondary schools. Many of our SLPs are assigned to specific schools making the services spread thinly. In our district we have para-educators who have been trained by the SLPs, who are providing direct or consult services for the students. Some of the students may never see the licensed SLP during the school year (unless the reevaluation process is needed.) Para-educators have communicated their frustration with their large caseloads and their many responsibilities.

Unfortunately, decisions for Speech & Language services becomes a battle about whom can benefit from direct services or who can go without services. Often, the answer to the latter is based on placement in an enriched language environment, like the one that I teach. There also is some discrepancy discussion between achievement and cognitive functioning, this being the one topic that upsets greatly because, the discrepancy rule of thumb eliminates many of my students from ever receiving or maintaining speech and language services. This is a team decision that we face each day concerning speech and language services.

But it’s not all bad… Recently our local hospital hired a private speech pathologist. One of my parents advocated the need to have him hired. I have not met him, but I have heard that he is wonderful. I throw his name out to many of my parents who are interested in private speech and language services. Years ago, one of my student’s mother started a parent group for autism. I loved attending them. I love listening to the parents side of things.

We started out few in numbers, but with word of mouth grew to a pretty decent group. Unfortunately, this group is no longer functioning, so our autism population does not have the supports it once had. Right now, adult services in our town include: two residential care facilities, Rise and North Eastern Services. Both have caregivers who are skilled in behavioral management, assisted living skills, and assisted employment training. They offer a day service program Monday-Friday, 9:00am -3:00 pm. The students get to go out in the community whenever there are fun events or if students need to shop for personal items.

We do not have a large variety of employment opportunities for students with disabilities. Most employment opportunities require a job coach who shadows them for the two-three hours they are working. Some of our higher functioning students can work independently with the job coach consulting with the employer. Occasionally, our local stores will hire some of our students. Our local Smith’s and Davis Food Store hires baggers from our employment program. The look for students with disabilities is different between rural towns and cities.

Recently, in a transition meeting that I was holding, a parent wanted their child to learn how to use the local bus system. We were dumb-founded with the request, because we haven’t thought about teaching that skill. We have a small bus that is available in our town. Unfortunately, this skill would take a job coach to teach students the steps necessary to ride the bus. The bus does not run through neighborhoods, but only stops at different locations in the town. Parents would have to get the student to the specific location to ride the bus. Because of this it defeats the purpose since it’s just easier for parents to take them to their job placement or day facilities.

A specific breakdown in all of this is the personnel needed to teach these transportation skills and perhaps a larger group of people who maybe interested in this service would need to be discussed.

I wish our town had more resources for caregivers and parents. Support groups would be wonderful for new parents leaving the hospital that may provide parents with organizations, names, and numbers of Early Intervention specialists. I wish our recreational department offered a night of swimming for children with disabilities and their families. I wish we had more speech pathologist and that student’s services were not 20-40 minutes monthly.

I wish each school had rooms specifically build for disabled students with kitchen areas, sensory rooms, sensory items, adaptive material, spaces that are large with windows. I wish we had better PE equipment for adaptive PE and a new curriculum that specifically designed for students with significant cognitive disabilities. The breakdown is always due to funding and resources. But us seven teachers who teach in the functional specialized units in my town, we won’t give up. Once a month we meet to exchange ideas and discuss ways we can assist our students and help them succeed. We discuss alternative ways to be creative and how to enrich the programs we teach.

My hope is to make a lasting impact in the lives of my students, because they sure have made an impact on mine!

– Rhonda Jones, Springible Contributor

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