MARSHALL - The Southwest/West Central Service Cooperative was recently recognized with a 2010 Profiles of Excellence award of distinction for its speech language telepractice program through the Minnesota Rural Education Association. But the real winners are the students receiving the services.
The program - which is geared for deaf and hard of hearing students living in different parts of the state - uses innovative technology in light of a shortage of speech language pathologists in rural Minnesota.
"As of right now, it's been a huge success," said Josh Sumption, manager of information technology at SWSC. "For 26 years, we've used video conferencing, but it's always been classroom to classroom. Now we've taken that concept down to an individual level, with one teacher and one student."
Photo courtesy of Minnesota Rural Education Association
Pictured with (former) Minnesota Education Commissioner Alice Seagren, right, are speech pathologist Deb Moorse and SW/WC Service Cooperative information technology manager Josh Sumption, who have been instrumental in pioneering a speech language telepractice program in Minnesota and recently accepted a Profiles of Excellence award of distinction from MREA.
Sumption researched the software and hardware requirements necessary for the speech language telepractice program, and contracts were established with a handful of school districts.
"We piloted our program in Canby, Marshall, Clarkfield Area Charter and Belview Learning Center," Sumption said. "Traditionally, a district would try to find a teacher at a nearby district, but that can be a barrier they're more than 30 miles away. We've rather have the pathologists with the students than on the road."
Russell-Tyler-Ruthton, Lynd and Ogilvie also have contracts with SWSC. Speech pathologists Deb Moorse, Kaye O'Hara and Janell DeVries currently provide services through the telepractice.
"Deb came on board with the program about three years ago," Sumption said. "Kaye is doing telepractice at RTR. Rather than driving from school to school, she gets more time with the students. We contract Janell part time. She's an employee of Pipestone Area."
In addition, a paraprofessional is available at each of the sites to assist students. The web based instruction is structured in the same manner as face-to-face sessions, with similar progress reported.
"I did face-to-face therapy for 32 years before making the switch," Moorse said. "I was pretty excited about it and I certainly enjoy working with it. For me, it's been an exciting professional growth."
Twice per month, the pathologists provide face-to-face sessions, which also allows them the opportunity to work directly with district staff.
The program currently serves students - aged from preschool to high school - with cognitive delays, language disorders, articulation and phonology disorders, autism, behavior disorders and stuttering issues.
"I'm able to serve any student with speech or language disorders," Moorse said. "It's a whole different approach and it can be used when services aren't available or if the district's caseload is too large."
Each participating district is required to have high speed Internet access exceeding the speed of a T-1 connection, a computer with a headset and a web camera that can consistently be used for telepractice.
"We've found that kids are so screen literate," Moorse said. "The administrators were surprised at how much more intense the telepractice sessions are. The students are so focused."
Sumption initiated a complete solution for the therapy program, balancing both cost and quality, and ensured correct set up in each school. Some of the technologies used are Vidyo personal conferencing software, SMART Notebook software, SMART Document Camera and various free and low-cost curriculum development tools.
The population of deaf and hard of hearing students is quite low, especially in rural areas, so social interactions can be very limited. With the use of the telepractice, Minnesota students will have the ability to interact with signing peers.
"It's still in the early stages, but we want to get those kids talking to each other," Sumption said. "We want to build communication between students. They can't play a board game together, but they can converse and do some online activities together."
The American Speech Hearing Language Association approved the use of the telepractice to provide services in school and hospitals, and so did parents, students, teachers and administrators in a recent survey, which indicated a high level of satisfaction.
"We're trying to make real good use of the dollars," Sumption said. "There's just no value that you could put on that human interaction, but in a case where we can't get services out there, it's definitely been worthwhile. It's been successful everywhere we've tried it."
Moorse and Sumption have also traveled around the country, spreading the word about the program.
"We're mentoring the Midwest Special Education Cooperative in Morris and we've been to New Mexico and Texas," Sumption said. " It kind of puts a shining star on our organization. We're kind of viewed through the Education Service Agency as being a pioneer in the area of telepractice. Deb and I are pretty proud."