Nevada State College expands speech therapy program

Cora Publow seemed uncertain about making her own Play-Doh heart creation.

She also wasn’t sure if she wanted to add yellow and orange rays to the sun.

But when student teacher Kaitlyn Nanni asked her to describe the color of the shape before her, she confidently, and without hesitation, shouted out the answer: “Yellow!”

The next one she knew, too: “Green!”

The 3-year old has made positive gains since she began her speech therapy with Nevada State College students at the RiteCare Clinic in Las Vegas.

“She was having difficulty with vocabulary, naming objects,” said Marsha Steinberger, adjunct professor and clinical supervisor at the college. “She knew what they were, but she didn’t have the name for the object. So now we’re really seeing that she’s listening, she’s understanding more, and she’s showing us that she now knows the vocabulary we were working with.”

Cora is one success story of many from a partnership between Nevada State College and the Scottish Rite Foundation that began in January 2017. The college has helped about 45 children receive free speech therapy — a private therapy session can run up to $120 an hour — but clinic supervisors hope they can expand to reach more children in the next few years.

A new master’s in speech pathology program, which the state Board of Regents greenlighted last month, will pave the way for that expansion.

“We have more kids than we can serve right now,” said Dr. Beth Meyerowitz, an assistant professor in the college’s School of Education. “One night a week is not enough. We are really hoping that the Scottish Rite will work with us and continue to grow the clinic.”

‘Bold commitment’

While the clinic is just over a year old, the graduate program is a decade in the making.

Vickie Shields, provost and executive vice president for Nevada State College, said school officials began planning for the advanced speech pathology degree in 2008, but the Great Recession put a halt to that.

With student enrollments and the economy picking up pace, Shields said now is the time to go back to the idea, especially as the small state college also works to bolster the number of qualified teachers in the Clark County School District.

Dennis Pothoff, dean of the School of Education, agreed.

“Our president has really made a bold commitment, and our campus has made a bold commitment to building out the School of Education,” Pothoff said. “The rationale is that the state of Nevada is in a situation where we need to find more teachers and more speech pathologists.”

In 2016, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association placed Nevada last with respect to the number of per capita speech-language pathologists in the nation.

The state also falls below the national standard of requiring speech-language pathologists in schools to have a master’s degree.

“In Nevada, because of the extreme need, we allow graduates of baccalaureate programs to work in schools — not by desire, but by need,” Pothoff said. “We just don’t have enough speech pathologists.”

The Clark County School District employs 324 speech pathologists, and 35 vacancies are posted for the 2018-19 school year. About two-thirds of the district’s pathologists hold a bachelor’s degree, Meyerowitz said, adding that Nevada State College has customized its bachelor’s curriculum toward preparing students to work with children.

“They learn about adults, and we try to take a lifespan approach to classes, but in terms of therapy, we focus really heavily on children and primarily preschool through middle school,” Meyerowitz said.

Quest for accreditation

With board approval in hand, Nevada State College officials are now knee-deep in the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association’s accreditation process.

Meyerowitz said she should receive feedback from the association early next month on whether the school’s lengthy proposal is approved, denied or needs to be revised. Once approved, the association will conduct a site visit in the fall, and by that time, the college hopes to have in place two new full-time speech language faculty members.

“My guess is we’ll get a few revisions, and as soon as we get the word, make sure the curriculum is in place, faculty is in place,” she said. “It will really kick into high gear at that point. But we’ve been so blessed with so much support from the community, that we can do it.”

If all goes according to plan, the association will award candidacy status next spring, and the college can begin accepting applications for a fall 2019 start date.

Getting to that point is arduous work, but when it comes time to find students to fill the open slots for Nevada State College’s first master’s program, the college will have no trouble, Meyerowitz said.

“We hear all the time, ‘If there was a program here, I would apply,’” she said. “Most of the programs we’ve spoken with, they get a minimum of 150 applications for 20 spots.”

The college plans to accept 20 part-time students — slots geared toward those who are already working in the Clark County School District — and 20 full-time students for its first cohort. School officials eventually would like to expand to 106 students a year by 2024.

“It’s kind of writing one more new chapter for Nevada State College,” Shields said. “We really have authority in our mission, from our inception, to become a middle-tier and regionally comprehensive college.”

Makayla Nichols, a senior at the college, hopes her name will be on one of those open seats.

“I really just want to learn more, know more,” she said.

Nichols had changed her major six times before discovering her passion for speech therapy and sees a master’s degree as the next logical step, especially if she ever needs to leave the state for work.

“I started taking the classes, and it just resonated with me,” she said. “I didn’t want to change my major again.”

As she and Nanni wrapped up their speech therapy session with Cora, they asked her to choose a Minnie Mouse sticker.

“What is Minnie holding?” Nichols asked.

“Duck,” Cora squeaked, and proudly showed her sticker to the visitors in the room.

Contact Natalie Bruzda at nbruzda@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3897. Follow @NatalieBruzda on Twitter.

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