Jessica Rodriguez, a bilingual, speech-language pathology graduate student at UT Dallas, comes from a family of educators. Her mother and two aunts are teachers, and her uncle is a principal. All have taught elementary school students with English as a second language in the Dallas Independent School District (DISD).
Rodriguez follows in her family’s footsteps through her work as an intern in the Urban Speech and Language Initiative, a partnership between the UT Dallas Callier Center and DISD. The initiative gives speech-language pathology graduate students at UT Dallas the opportunity to work with children in the urban public-school setting. It also empowers DISD to recruit, employ and retain speech-language pathologists (SLPs) that offer children high-quality, consistent care.
Under clinical supervision, Rodriguez provides bilingual speech-language evaluations, speech-language therapy and literacy intervention to elementary school children throughout the district.
At Obadiah Knight Elementary School, Rodriguez leads groups of children ages 4 to 5 through a literacy intervention program called TAB4I — Talking About Books Builds Big Brains Intervention — developed by retired UT Dallas researcher, Dr. Anne Van Kleeck. TAB4I is a scripted approach that fosters academic language skills in children while reading a book aloud. Teachers refer children who are behind in their language development.
“Typically, children receive language input from a parent who reads to them before bed or through everyday conversations at home,” Rodriguez said. “However, we see many children from low socioeconomic backgrounds who aren’t getting that input.”
Rodriguez reads to children twice a week and asks them questions about the book to build their literacy and story retell skills.
“Many children come in the first day saying only one-word utterances,” Rodriguez said. “We ask them simple questions like, ‘Who do you see on the cover of this book?’ There’s a bear on the cover, but some children aren’t able to identify that it’s a bear. Some may even say ‘sun,’ because they didn’t understand the question.”
The program gives children the language input they need to increase their receptive skills, vocabulary and literacy.
“By the end of the semester, we see that some children probably have a communication disorder and need to see an SLP to determine if they need therapy,” Rodriguez said. “Many children progress significantly. The child who could not identify the bear can now say, ‘The bear is holding a ball.’”
A second-year graduate student, Rodriguez expects to graduate in May.
“After graduation, I hope to work in the urban school setting, providing bilingual services to children from a similar population,” Rodriguez said.
Since the inception of the Urban Speech and Language Initiative in 2015, the decades-long shortage of SLPs in DISD is over, due to the employment of more than 30 UT Dallas graduates.
“Our partnership with UT Dallas is highly valued by teachers, administrators and parents alike, and it has made a tremendous difference in the lives of the children that we serve together,” said Blanca Rojo, principal of Obadiah Knight Elementary School.
“We’ve provided language and early literacy intervention that has prevented placement in special education, and we’ve identified children early, who may need speech-language pathology services,” said Dr. Judy Rich, UT Dallas professor and president of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. “I don’t know of any other place in the country that provides such a unique partnership between a university program and the local school district.”
In the future, UT Dallas aims to expand its partnership with DISD by providing intervention to children in pre-K, building their oral language skills as early as age 3.
“Our partnership with UT Dallas is highly valued by teachers, administrators and parents alike, and it has made a tremendous difference in the lives of the children that we serve together.”— Blanca Rojo, principal of Obadiah Knight Elementary School, DISD
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