FSU speech pathology program lifts students and impoverished children

Denisha Campbell is a graduate student in FSU's School of Communication Science and Disorders.
Denisha Campbell is a graduate student in FSU's School of Communication Science and Disorders.

A federal grant helped Florida State University speech-language pathology student Denisha Campbell learn one of her most valuable academic lessons during her internship working with preschoolers.

Campbell, a graduate student in the School of Communication Science and Disorders, recalled an eye-opening experience in which a 3-year-old boy felt painfully embarrassed in class every day because he didn’t know the words to the alphabet song, something most children have mastered by that age.

She knew the boy lived in a chaotic home — his teenage mother was absent; his father was not in the picture; and his caregiver grandpa was inattentive. The boy had become withdrawn and was not interested in learning or making friends.

“That was sad for me to see, so I made a point to pull him aside and work extra with him,” Campbell said. “A little by little, week by week, he learned more of the song and showed he was retaining information. He kept progressing, learned the song and eventually went to Florida’s Voluntary Prekindergarten program.”

The experience left an indelible impression. Campbell saw she could make a positive difference in the life of a child who needed a helping hand.

“I was overjoyed,” Campbell said. “I was so happy to know my student had a better chance in school now. That’s a great lesson — there’s an opportunity to save a child at every step if you don’t give up on them. My attitude is: As long as I’m here, I can do something about it.”

Campbell got the opportunity to develop that attitude with the help of a continuing grant from the U.S. Department of Education. FSU is one of only a handful of speech pathology programs to receive the funding — there are more than 200 such programs nationwide. The money helps train master’s-level students to teach language and literacy skills to students at risk of developing problems in language, reading and writing.

Florida State is in the fourth year of a five-year, $1.2 million federal grant that provides specialized training for five graduate students per year. The grant money covers their tuition, travel to a research conference, textbooks and pays a stipend each semester. The total academic package is worth up to $70,000.

In return, graduates commit to work in areas with children who speak English as a second language or who live in low-income households.

Associate Professor Toby Macrae directs the federally funded speech-language pathology project at FSU.
Associate Professor Toby Macrae directs the federally funded speech-language pathology project at FSU.

“Research shows a strong link between poverty and poorer speech, language and literacy outcomes at school and, therefore, poorer academic outcomes,” said Associate Professor Toby Macrae, who directs the project at FSU.

Macrae’s students typically serve at least two years. Their length of service is based on the number of years they receive federal funding.

The project directs students to use preventive strategies primarily in low-income preschools.

“They work with teachers to bring more literacy-related activities into the classroom, or they might work with children who don’t get that kind of learning stimulation at home. Our speech-language pathology trainees read with children and try to get them interested in reading because that can prevent the academic problems these children are at risk to develop.”

Macrae said speech-language pathologists with this type of training are virtually guaranteed to land a job when they graduate because there’s so much demand for their skills.

“There is a real need for these services, especially in low-income communities and preschools,” Macrae said. “The federal grant helps build capacity for specially trained educators, who can work directly with children, families and preschools to maximize their chances for success.”

Campbell is eager to take on that challenge. She wants to be a speech pathologist who can come into a school and have an immediate, positive impact on the academic culture. Now, she has the training and confidence to lead such an effort.

“My main goal is to work with children from impoverished backgrounds or who come from chaotic family situations where it’s not easy for them to learn,” Campbell said. “I want to support students and make sure they get necessary resources because they can be easily forgotten and counted out. I’ve seen firsthand how the right attention can help so much.”

Campbell believes this federal grant program is producing speech-language pathologists who can help boost the academic trajectory of youngsters.

“It’s super fulfilling,” Campbell said. “The experience broadens your perspective. I’m glad I did it and am grateful for the opportunity.”

For more information about the School of Communication Science and Disorders, visit https://commdisorders.cci.fsu.edu/.