UCF has received an interdisciplinary personnel preparation grant from the Office of Special Education Programs at the U.S. Department of Education to again deliver Project SPEECH, a program designed to prepare students with the unique and high-demand skills needed to help children with high-intensity needs, such as those with autism, dyslexia, and other language disorders and learning disabilities. The grant funds tuition costs for a highly specialized graduate certificate for students pursuing degrees in exceptional student education or communication sciences and disorders.

A partnership between the College of Health Professions and Sciences and the College of Community Innovation and Education, the project addresses the workforce shortage of fully qualified special educators and speech-language pathologists in local Central Florida school districts. According to the Florida Department of Education, 19% of students with disabilities were taught by teachers not certified in the appropriate field during the 2021-22 school year, an increase from 12% during 2018-19.

Florida data also indicates that during the 2022-23 school year, almost 27% of special education teacher positions and 5% of speech-language pathologist positions were vacant. In the UCF program, students are trained as intervention specialists and earn a certificate in interdisciplinary language and literacy intervention.

“This innovative, interdisciplinary preparation program enhances and supports both the quantity and collaboration among ESE teacher leaders and speech-language pathologists to provide instruction and interventions in language and literacy for students with high-intensity needs in our schools,” says Mary Little, professor in exceptional student education and principal investigator of Project SPEECH.

As with the first delivery of the program which began in 2020, Project SPEECH 2.0 will fund the tuition for about 40 students enrolled in the certificate program over the next five years as well as require them to complete a service obligation. For each year of funding received, scholars will be required to work with children with disabilities for 51% of their time or caseload. Many of these scholars choose to work in a school setting after graduation.

The first cohort of students in the second iteration begins in January 2024.

The 36-credit hour certificate incorporates a combination of coursework and hands-on learning. Students are required to take four specialized classes that cover topics such as classroom development of reading proficiencies, diagnostic assessment and intervention in special education, techniques for addressing severe reading and writing disabilities, and professional collaboration in language and literacy. The classes aim to provide students with a comprehensive and holistic understanding of the competencies needed to effectively work with children with high-intensity needs who require sustained interventions and instructions.

“Project SPEECH provides the scholars with the opportunity to learn in the classroom and then apply their knowledge and skills working with children who need the language and literacy interventions to enhance their academic success now and in the future,“ says Debra Knox, associate instructor in the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders and co-principal investigator on the project.

In conjunction with their coursework, students put into practice the skills and strategies acquired in the classroom by working with youth attending specialized speech and language programs offered through the Communications Sciences and Disorders Clinics and UCF’s iREAD programs, including an intensive camp offered in the summer for kids. This immersive approach allows students to gain first-hand experience working with those who require additional support with reading instruction – thoroughly readying them for their future roles as special education teachers and school-based speech-language pathologists.

Since the launch of Project SPEECH three years ago, 46 students have earned the certificate, with many transitioning to careers in local school districts. An additional seven students are expected to graduate in December 2024 as the first cohort concludes.

In addition to preparing students with the necessary skills to succeed in a setting where speech-language pathologists are highly sought and actively employed, the service obligation also reflects the job markets students will face post-graduation. According to a 2022 survey from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, 50% of speech-language pathologists work in a school setting.

Shanese Campbell ’19 is a speech-language pathologist who works with children in preschool through eighth grade  in St. Lucie County schools.

“Project SPEECH equipped me with the knowledge and tools that I need,” says Campbell, who was part of the first cohort. “I learned extensive information about Individualized Education Plans, tiered interventions and interdisciplinary collaboration. I was able to apply what I learned by collaborating with other professionals who are involved in the care of my students and patients.  These professionals include occupational therapists, interventionists, school psychologists, special education teachers and general education teachers.”

Nancy McIntyre, assistant professor in the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders, and Elsie Olan, associate professor in the School of Teacher Education, are also co-principal investigators on the project.