MONTICELLO — Twin Lakes School Corporation’s new director of special education received a daunting, if not impossible, task June 11.
The Twin Lakes School Board gave Donna McIlrath permission to find speech, physical and occupational therapists before going with an outside firm that would cost the district twice as much in pay.
“I wanted the opportunity to hire directly before I had to look at a contracting agency,” she said.
Speech therapists, occupational therapists, physical therapists and even school psychologists are scarce, and they tend to go to clinics and hospitals, which pay more.
“All of those occupations have the ability to provide school services or medical services, and due to the limited number of professionals in the state, it’s difficult to hire staff,” she said.
These professions require at least a master’ degree, while physical therapy licensing requires a doctorate and occupational therapy is going in that direction.
“They want a salary to match their educational level,” McIlrath said.
Recent graduates also know that even if they want to work in schools, they can make more through a contracting agency than a school district, she said.
The contracting firms have an advantage because they also recruit from all over the country, she added.
There’s also the matter of how much time Twin Lakes could need each therapist, which depends on the number of students and their needs.
For the coming school year, Twin Lakes needs to find a physical therapist to work one day a week but an occupational therapist would work more frequently.
The district has a speech therapist, but McIlrath is looking for two more full-timers to fill current needs.
The school district formerly relied on a cooperative formed in 1970, the Logansport Area Joint Special Services Cooperative, with Logansport Community School Corporation and six other school corporations sharing resources.
But that is dissolving July 1.
McIlrath has looked at the possibility of sharing new hires with another district.
However, special education requires a multi-disciplinary team that works closely together to meet each student’s special needs.
Frontier Schools Superintendent Dan Sichting agreed that it’s difficult to fill positions in his district and for the same reasons.
“They can go to the hospital and make more money,” he said.
Frontier, Tri-County School Corporation and North White School Corporation still rely on another association of schools, Cooperative School Services of Rensselaer.
Besides serving the three school districts in White County, the organization also handles the needs for Benton Community, Kankakee Valley, North Newton, South Newton, Rensselaer Central and West Central.
Patricia Kem, director of special education for Cooperative School Services, said it’s not just pay.
Hospitals also offer year-round work with the better pay, where schools work therapists for nine months.
“If they have a family, it’s a great calendar to work,” Kem said.
School therapists can also work weekends, summers or part-time at a hospital, she said.
“These people always have places to go,” she said.
They can also find jobs in more metropolitan areas where young people like to go, so rural areas have the most difficulty finding therapists.
She’s heard that even local hospitals have trouble finding enough of them.
Cooperative School Services employs eight therapists, half of which are through contracting companies.
They use three contracting companies, which does about double the costs, she said.
The scarcity isn’t limited to rural Indiana, either.
“This happens on a national level,” said Tamar Greenwell, a clinical assistant professor at Purdue University’s College of Health and Human Sciences.
She is part of the speech therapy program at Purdue and has worked in public schools before that.
Being a fully licensed speech pathologist requires a master’s degree from a nationally accredited program, Greenwell said.
The number of students who earn their bachelor’s degree is about twice the number of openings for master’s programs around the country.
“There are never enough spots as there are graduates,” she said.
With the degree, those who want to teach in schools need to do an educational externship, and she coordinates those.
However, Indiana has an emergency permit for people who have earned their master’s degree in the speech pathology and are needed by a school corporation.
But the scarcity is also from those who leave education jobs.
“It’s extremely common that qualified therapists are not staying in the schools because of caseload, support and other things,” she said.
The state doesn’t put a cap on the number of cases that school therapists handle.
“Indiana is among the highest caseloads in the nation,” she said.
According to a survey of speech and language pathologists by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, the 2018 median caseload was 48 students.
However, the largest median caseload for those working in schools in Indiana was 76, more than three times the size of the median load in New York at 30.
White County schools did see one advantage of location when it was with the Logansport cooperative.
McIlrath said, “We have the benefit of Purdue having a master’s program locally.”
Greenwell said it’s true that sometimes recent Purdue graduates do hire at local schools while they wait for a spouse or significant other to graduate from another program.
There’s no longevity, and there’s no guarantee of a replacement.
Kem said her cooperative, which is further north, doesn’t see candidates like that from Purdue.