Speech-Language Pathologist Assistant, Tamara Ropp and Speech Language Pathologists, Sherry Rutledge and Rhianna NesSmith are part of the Douglas Education Service District’s Speech Therapy Program and pictured with speech therapy tools at Sutherlin East Primary School. Photo courtesy of Douglas ESD.

Speech and language skills are essential to learning and academic success. The Speech Therapy Program at Douglas ESD is here to help students communicate, learn, and develop social skills.

This program offers school-based healthcare speech services to students in public school districts across Douglas County at no extra cost to districts. Throughout the school year, around 1,300 students in grades K-12 receive speech therapy services.

Douglas ESD’s speech therapy team includes a total of 31 licensed speech-language pathologists (SLPs), certified speech-language pathology assistants (SLPAs), a teacher on special assignment (TOSA) and instructional assistants (IAs). Additionally, there are administrative assistants who help with daily operations.

The program’s SLPs work with teachers, parents and other educational professionals to make sure that students receive the support they need. Diagnostic and educational evaluation teams provide comprehensive communication assessments to determine the therapy needed.

Melissa Taylor-Bowen, MS CCC-SLP, Douglas ESD’s Speech Therapy Program coordinator, highlighted this collaboration. “We really work together to help each other out to best meet the needs of students,” she said. “We’re a team. It’s inspiring to see how these professionals have helped each other through challenges. We are appreciative of our partnerships with teachers, specialists, and school administrators.”

Services meet the unique needs of each student. Taylor-Bowen explained that the support offered is based on science. Therapy offered may include helping students process what they hear, improving word pronunciation, strengthening speech muscles or developing communication skills. The team uses augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), which includes tools, systems and devices. These services are provided in individual or small groups and inside classrooms as well as consultative or training sessions.

This banner at Tri City Elementary School’s playground includes pictures and words to help children communicate.

“I can’t say enough how proud I am of our department. We’ve learned about new technologies and new service delivery methods, like teletherapy,” Taylor-Bowen said. “Teletherapy means the service is delivered through different media such as video conferencing.”

Sherry Rutledge is a Douglas ESD SLP. She began as an SLPA and has been in the profession for nearly 30 years. She currently works in the Sutherlin and Winston-Dillard School Districts. She’s accustomed to adapting to technologies. “A student’s voice comes through in the different tools we use,” she said. From using pictures to express themselves or digital software, research-based tools help students communicate. “It’s exciting to see the progress. We celebrate the success.”

Rutledge also mentors other speech language professionals on the team, adapting to state guidelines and introducing new resources.

Sutherlin School District’s Director of Student Services, Debbie Foley, shared how speech services support students. “One of the great benefits of our partnership with the Douglas ESD is the Speech Therapy Services they provide for our students. Currently, we have more than 150 students in our district who are having their speech needs met by three speech pathologists,” she said. “We have two that meet with students in our district, Sherry Rutledge and Rhianna NesSmith. Both are an essential part of our Special Education team and assist us in providing the best services for our students. We have recently added a virtual speech pathologist, and we are learning how to work with this new method of providing services. The SLP coordinator for the ESD, Melissa Taylor-Bowen is always available if we need any assistance. We are thankful for our relationship and long-lasting partnership with Douglas ESD Speech Department.”

The program also works with Oregon Technology Access Program (OTAP), housed at Douglas ESD. OTAP has a technology lending library available to families and educators. There’s something for learners of all ages. The selection includes switch-adapted toys and devices to assist with communication. OTAP also provides implementation and professional learning opportunities.

Speech and language professionals understand the power of language to change students’ lives. “We serve the lifespan of a person,” said Taylor-Bowen. “Communication skills give students access to learning, which impacts their futures.”

The speech therapy field is an in-demand career in education. If you’re interested in learning about this career, please contact Melissa Taylor-Bowen at melissa.taylor-bowen@douglasesd.k12.or.us.

Many moving parts help children learn and thrive. Douglas Education Service District is one of the moving pieces. The agency partners with school districts and organizations. The goal is to increase opportunities for all children, from birth to adulthood. This article is part of an ongoing series that features programs and people who help students succeed.