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Speech-language pathologist Katie Stoddart works on sequencing with Carter Sterling, a student at Owen Marsh Elementary.
By Erica Cusumano | STAFF
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Mastering the words
By Diane Schlindwein

As speech-language pathologists in the Springfield School District, Sandy Koepke and Katie Stoddart agree that not much surpasses giving a child the gift of becoming a better communicator.

Koepke, a veteran in her field, has been working with children nearly as long as 25-year-old Stoddart has been alive. In fact, a few years back Koepke was Stoddart's fellowship supervisor. Yet, both women seem equally enthusiastic when it comes to helping local children learn to speak more clearly.

Stoddart, who works at Owen Marsh Elementary, says as the daughter of two teachers, she also felt compelled to work with children.

"I love kids," she says, "but it wasn't until I took an introductory class (in speech pathology) that I fell in love with it."

Koepke, who is at Vachel Lindsay Elementary, says her family influenced her career as well.

"My brother had to have speech therapy, and we didn't have speech in school then," she remembers. "My parents had to pay for a private therapist."

Today, about half of this country's 110,000 speech-language pathologists work in schools. They can also serve in hospitals and rehabilitation facilities, treat children 0-3, assist stroke patients and people with traumatic brain injuries or work in private practice.

"That is another nice thing about this field," Koepke says. "You have the opportunity to try different settings and figure out what you prefer."

A master's degree in speech-language pathology is the standard credential required for licensure in most states. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, excellent job opportunities are available in this growing field.

Often, a speech-language pathologist can set his or her own schedule - which is nice for parents who want to work part time when their children are young or when some other family member needs assistance. What is required, both Koepke and Stoddart point out, is the patience to work with people of all backgrounds and the ability to meet the emotional needs of clients and their families.

"We are limited to 60 caseloads," explains Koepke, adding that she and other speech-language pathologists develop an individualized plan tailored to each patient's needs. The number of speech-language pathologists working in a school is directly related to the enrollment and needs of the particular school building.

Still, working with children has its special rewards.

"It's very exciting when they make progress," says Koepke, who like Stoddart has her master's degree from Illinois State University. "Kids are so fun to work with, but each child is different and how we work with them varies with the individual. They progress at different speeds, too.

"Sometimes a child picks something up right away or all of a sudden, and other times you build on it," she says. "Even a little progress is important. What might seem like a little step to most people might be a huge step for the child."

In the Springfield School District, speech-language pathologists work with children with many different needs.

"We work on articulation, voice problems, language or auditory processing, stuttering and syntax," Koepke says. Some of our students have autism."

While speech-language pathologists often work one on one with students, Stoddart says she sometimes teaches several students at a time. "Because we are a smaller school, I am here at Owen Marsh by myself," she says. "I do one-on-one therapy, but I have some small groups that I work with. I also go into classrooms and do whole group lessons."  

No matter how a student is being served, parental involvement is important. Speech-language pathologists meet individually with parents on a regular basis and make sure parents are kept up to date on their child's progress.

"It's best if they carry things over from (school) therapy to the home," Koepke says. "We dismiss them from speech when they've met all their goals."

"I get excited when I am able to tell people about speech pathology. A lot of people don't understand what we do. When you think about it, communicating is one of the most important things that people do," Stoddart says.

"That's why it is so important to help kids learn to communicate better. I can't think of any other career I'd rather have." 


Story published Friday, December 5, 2008 ( Volume 3, Number 7 )

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