Speech pathologist retention growing concern for Arkansas Schools

Published: Aug. 17, 2022 at 5:26 PM CDT
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HARRISON, Ark. (KY3) - Public school districts in the state of Arkansas have observed a growing issue in the retention of speech-language pathologists year-to-year.

According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, Arkansas has the second highest number of speech pathologists per capita. Yet, most schools are contracting positions without companies outside of the district.

The Arkansas legislature initiated a study on recruiting and retaining speech pathologists in public schools through the Arkansas Speech-Language Hearing Association. Those findings were presented to the state committee on education last week, which solidified its assumptions.

“For the last couple of years, we’ve definitely seen an increase in the number of speech kiddos we provided services for,” said Danielle Lee, Special Education Director for Yellville-Summit Schools. “Our speech pathologists can only provide services to a certain number of kids on their caseload.”

Lee says the learning gap caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has created a more significant need for speech classes, leading districts to seek help to assist in student instruction.

“We have to go through the state and provide a speech aid,” said Lee. “She’s not a pathologist, she’s just an aide. She helps provide some of the drill practices that the students need.”

School districts say recruitment and retention of school speech-language pathologists come down to relatively low salaries, especially when compared to other sectors within the field, in addition to increased demand and paperwork that comes with a state-mandated caseload.

“We have one that’s on staff and has been for quite a while,” said Dr. Stewart Pratt, Superintendent of Harrison Public Schools. “But the remainder we’ve not been able to retain and keep on staff. So we contract service out for the remaining speech pathologists.”

Several districts, like Harrison, prefer to hire staff speech pathologists but have to defer to other options when open positions cannot be filled.

“We have three total positions, one of which was open this summer and was not filled before classes resumed,” said Dr. Matt Summers with Green Forest Schools. “We feel as a district that our pay scale for speech pathologists is above the state average, and still had to contract out our final position of this current school year.”

Salary.com says the average school pathologist makes $44,676 per year, compared to Missouri, where the salary is $47,695.

“The rehabilitated and medical community will pay significantly more than the educational route,” said Dr. Pratt. “What we find is by contract services we have better opportunity to retain them because their salary is more in tune with what their profession requires.”

So a solution seems pretty straightforward.

“If districts can be competitive with the outside agencies, that would be great,” said Lee.

But that funding would likely have to come from a state level, where no steps have yet to be taken.

“Here’s why I think it’s really important. We need in-person speech pathologists,” said Pratt. “There are online programs done virtually through a zoom system. They are good, very good. But at Harrison, we feel we really need that in-person speech pathologist working with our students.”

Speech pathology is just one piece of the puzzle. Districts in northern Arkansas also struggle to find certified special education teachers and paraprofessionals. Law requires special education instructors to have an education that differs from teachers, including a bachelor’s degree, special education certification, and passing three Praxis Core Academic Skills for Educators exams.

In the last month, Arkansas has passed bills for funding for school security and increased teacher pay. However, that legislation does not address speech pathologist employees.

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