Eagle Ridge School serves some of the poorest students in the Quad City area. Located in Carbon Cliff, Ill., most of its students live in substandard housing. Many don't get enough to eat. Some come to school telling of parents' arrests, nonpayment of rent and neighborhood fights severe enough to bring the police. It's hard for the students to focus on school when they face so much uncertainty at home.
Principal Tim Green said it is not atypical for an Eagle Ridge kindergartner to sleep on a pile of blankets on the floor because he has no bed. He might wear the same clothes to school day after day because he lacks clean ones. And almost certainly, he will eat his breakfast at school or go hungry.
A 20-minute drive from the SAU campus, Eagle Ridge is home to 278 students, 93 percent of whom qualify for free breakfast and lunch. Of that 93 percent, the vast majority come to school with academic deficits that may never be corrected.
Poverty is a major predictor of academic deficits. Research shows children from low socioeconomic groups are less likely to enjoy verbal interaction with their parents and more likely to contend with malnourishment, lack of access to health care and threats to their personal safety. Low cognitive growth and reduced academic success can be the result.
The country learned of this pocket of poverty last November, when a documentary called Poor Kids—shot partly in Carbon Cliff and at Eagle Ridge—was broadcast on the PBS show, Frontline.
But SAU Master of Speech-Language Pathology students and instructors already knew how poverty was impacting students in that small community east of Silvis, Ill. By the time the documentary aired, they had already been working with Eagle Ridge kindergartners for three months.
The collaboration between SAU and Eagle Ridge began as Principal Green participated in a school strategy meeting last summer. Once again, Eagle Ridge would face an overwhelming number of incoming kindergartners with academic deficiencies that would-without intervention-permanently impair their school success. He texted his wife during the meeting. Did she have any ideas?
She texted back, "I do!" A clinical instructor in SAU's Master of Speech-Language Pathology program, Elisa Green had been looking for ways to provide her students with more clinical experience.
Elisa Green's idea was to place two SAU speech-language pathology graduate students at Eagle Ridge to assess and treat the children at no charge. This would give the SAU students needed experience while improving the kindergartners' chances of academic success.
"Speech therapy addresses everything from here up," she said, gesturing to the area above her neck. "It's about talking, reading, writing, thinking. Speech-language therapy can help correct academic deficiencies."
Camille Ponce and Pamela English were the first MSLP students to provide services at Eagle Ridge. They began by assessing the incoming kindergarten children last fall. Ponce and English were shocked when they found that just 10 of the 40 students were ready for kindergarten. The rest struggled to identify their letters and the sounds they made. Many couldn't understand basic concepts ranging from quantity to time to opposites.
"For example, we showed the kids some pictures representing opposites," English said. "They couldn't interpret or evaluate what they saw. They said one picture was night because the child in that picture was wearing pajamas. The fact that the sun was shining through the window didn't change their minds. They weren't able to grasp the whole picture."
These deficits have a ripple effect.
"These children arrive at school feeling and saying that they are dumb," MSLP Program Director Elisa Huff said. "I've seen it extend into adulthood. The key is to get them turned around right away. Going into the schools, where the teachers can watch and reinforce what we do, helps."
If test scores are any indication, it appears to be working. Measure of Academic Progress scores received at the end of January showed remarkable improvements, with double digit increases in testing of letter identification, matching letters to their sounds, matching sounds and rhyming sounds. These scores bettered those of the kindergartners who had not received therapy by as many as 11 percentage points.
"This has been extremely successful," Principal Green said. "I've seen kids make huge gains in reading and in math as well. Thanks to St. Ambrose, we're getting the resources we need to help them improve their scores. With their help, we will be able to close the achievement gap much more quickly than we would otherwise have been able to do."
Huff is proud that SAU's program is making such a difference in the lives of children and, by extension, their community.
"Typical speech pathology programs only hold in-house clinics, where people come to them," she said. "We go out to where the kids are. Therapy works better in the children's own environment.
"Eagle Ridge is a great partner for us. It's a little oasis for the kids. It provides consistency and structure. And it provides our students with incredible experience. Together, we really are making things better."
To watch the PBS documentary Poor Kids and learn more about the St. Ambrose Master of Speech-Language Pathology program, visit sau.edu/scene.
‘A Great Win-Win'
Students in the Master of Speech-Language Pathology program have been helping Quad Cities youngsters overcome communication problems since the post-graduate degree program debuted in 2009.
The program at Eagle Ridge School is one of many opportunities for MSLP students to gain practical clinical experience. More than half of the current MSLP cohort work off-campus at least twice weekly at schools, pre-schools, daycare clinics and after-school facilities. And all of the students gain experience working with young clients at the SAU Children's Campus.
All Saints Catholic School in Davenport was an original outreach partner. A year ago, SAU partnered with the Rock Island (Ill.) School District, where each semester three students assist the district's speech-language pathologists in providing speech and language therapy and literacy intervention at three elementary schools. MSLP students also help children with communications needs at three Davenport daycare facilities as well as through the Lydia House after-school program.
"The practical experience is a benefit to the SAU students and a vital gift to the organizations and children they are helping," said Stacie Greene, program clinical director. "It is a great win-win," she said.