NEW BEDFORD — On Tuesday, more than two months into the school year, 3-year-old Zachary Bernardo could get speech therapy for the first time, even though his special education plan requires him to receive it twice a week.

What's more, none of the children at Elwyn Campbell Elementary School, where Zachary is a preschooler, have received adequate speech services this year, according to his mother, Morgan Bernardo.

The trouble is, qualified speech therapists are hard to find, said Kim Bettencourt, director of special education for the school district. The schools must compete with non-school employers, notably in health care. Health-care settings tend to pay more, she said.

Since September, Bernardo has been trying to bring attention to the problem. She wrote to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and spoke at a School Committee meeting.

On Monday, things finally seemed to be coming together. She said a new therapist started at Campbell that day, and children should begin receiving services Tuesday.

"I have mixed emotions," she said after visiting the school and meeting the new therapist. "I'm happy that he's getting speech ... but I'm frustrated that, A) it took this long, and B) it took this much of a fight."

On Sept. 11, she wrote to the state to report that Zachary, who has autism, was not receiving speech.

Zachary is an exceptional reader, she said, but his words do not always sound as fluid as they should. He could use some work on tongue placement when he speaks, she said.

Campbell parents received a letter from Bettencourt, dated Sept. 18, in which she explained that the school's speech therapist had resigned.

"Although it was short notice, we were able to replace the position within a few days. Unfortunately that replacement has decided not to take the position," Bettencourt said in the letter.

October came, and Zachary still was not receiving speech, his mother said.

Then, on Oct. 17, the Department of Elementary Education notified the school district that it had failed to comply with Zachary's Individualized Education Program. An IEP spells out the services a special-needs student must receive.

The following week, his mother saw nothing changing, and she said she felt like the district was not doing enough to solve the problem.

"It's all smoke and mirrors in my opinion," she said. "My children have IEPs for a reason. They're legal documents, and they're not being followed."

Her older son went for a time without speech therapy last year at a different school, she said.

But behind the scenes, the district was doing what it could, Bettencourt said. She said she contracted with two agencies that provide staffing in speech therapy — one local, and one in Florida. The local agency had only two days a week available.

"I don't want to minimize it, but this is an annual occurrence," she said.

But gaps in service generally don't last very long, and children will get makeup services to fulfill their IEPs, she said. Families can choose makeup services within the school day, after school, or in the summer.

"It's meaningful and appropriate. It's not just for compliance's sake," Bettencourt said.

Heather Emsley, the schools' human resource director, said the district remains committed to full staffing as the budget allows.

"I think we have some of the best speech professionals in the area working for New Bedford," she said.

But Zachary's mom said make-up sessions can never fully compensate for a block of time without therapy.

 

Follow Jennette Barnes on Twitter @jbarnesnews.