Special Ed Provider Shortage Persists

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Special recruiting efforts are underway in response to a chronic shortage of speech-language pathologists.

The Department of Education and the United Federation of Teachers are holding information sessions this fall for a training and scholarship program for career changers. Because graduate programs for speech were very limited, union officials said, the union and education department launched their own training program 10 years ago which has trained 175 providers.

The city currently has about 2,500 speech providers, 1,165 occupational therapists and 620 physical therapists, according to education officials. How many more they need to meet demand is not clear as the D.O.E. would not quantify the extent of the shortage.

But the system has had too few traditional service providers for decades, including occupational therapists, physical therapists and audiologists. Speech-language pathologists are in greatest demand; school-based work is a tough sell. They often face large caseloads, burdensome paperwork and a lack of proper space to work with students.

"Sometimes speech therapists are working in hallways or stairwells," said Virginia Hill, coordinator of the UFT teacher center speech program. "They might be in a room with the occupational or physical therapist that might be throwing around therapy balls or there might be students riding on bicycles and things like that. So, it's not an ideal environment in many cases."

The city's special education reform was not making the problem worse, said Erin Hughes, a D.O.E. spokeswoman. She said the provider shortage should not affect students who need the services, since schools could use contract agencies to bring in providers they don't have on staff.

Hill said that does not always happen and students felt the shortfall.

"There are students who are not receiving the services they are entitled to," she said, such as students who may only get partial services. "Maybe they were supposed to be seen twice a week and they were only seen once a week."

Hill said sometimes providers felt pressure to see students in a group, even if a child should be seen one-on-one. Education officials said the shortage is more pronounced in districts with multiple languages.

The next information session on the speech training program is October 19 at the U.F.T. headquarters in Manhattan.