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Clay Whitehead '98: Figure Of Speech

Through Distance Learning, Clay Whitehead '98 Brings Speech Therapy Closer to Home 

For many, the term “speech therapy” summons the sound of a stutter. But to Clay Whitehead ’98 and the 3.5 million children who receive speech therapy each year, it’s about so much more. “This is fundamentally about how you communicate with the world around you,” says Clay. That’s why he and his four-year-old company, PresenceLearning, are dedicated to connecting children with speech therapists around the country. What’s different about PresenceLearning? It’s online. And study after study shows that this new approach really works. Clay says, “Our students are actually beating the national averages in terms of outcomes.”

Known formally as speech-language pathologists, speech therapists address not only speaking but reading, writing and hearing. Needless to say, difficulty in any of these areas can seriously affect a student’s academic and social progress. “It’s very isolating,” says Clay. “These are children who are afraid to hold up their hands in class or speak around their peers.”

Finding the right therapist to address a child’s specific needs is critical. Yet until now geographic location has severely limited the matchmaking process. Through PresenceLearning, parents can now connect their children with exactly the right specialist, while also eliminating travel time and reducing costs to overstretched school budgets. What’s more, live video chats are particularly appealing to digital natives, with therapy sessions seeming more like video games — but with a personal touch. “We hear stories about kids getting up to hug the computer monitor goodbye.”

With degrees from Princeton and Stanford, and now a successful company doing business in 22 states, Clay might strike you as someone who has breezed through life with luck and intellect always on his side. But you would be mistaken. In kindergarten at Potomac, Clay remembers carefully tracing the letters for “aardvark” in his alphabet book, only to notice that his classmates had already moved on to words like “X-ray,” “yak” and “zebra.” It was the first sign of a learning disability.

“People think of special needs as uncommon,” says Clay. “One of the things we see every day is that special needs are in many ways the most common needs.” Unfortunately in the 1980s when Clay first discovered his trouble with reading, learning disabilities were misunderstood at best. He left Potomac briefly to attend a school specializing in such challenges. In fourth grade, Potomac welcomed him back, along with a new friend: technology.

“They made some accommodations for me to have a computer in the classroom, which wasn’t too common at the time,” says Clay. “That’s really how I learned to read and write.”

Clay’s bright-sided nature leads him to believe that his difficulties with learning actually worked to his advantage. “Having a learning disability means you’re always being taught to think differently, which has been helpful in my career.” Complementary to that, says Clay, was Potomac’s culture of encouraging students to “take initiative and lead in any way you can. There was no one saying, ‘No, you can’t do that.’”

So when Clay and PresenceLearning co-founder Jack Lynch saw an opportunity to improve special education through online technologies, they thought, we can do that. Pursuing that opportunity has allowed Clay to focus on what he calls a double bottom line: growing a successful business and helping others. The latter of which, Clay says, is central to the Potomac ethos, “both the sense of responsibility for the larger world and the culture of actively doing things to improve the world around you.”

Beyond speech therapy, PresenceLearning has expanded to include occupational therapy and will continue to explore other areas of special education, always with the mission of making the best technology available to the best clinicians, therapists and teachers. “Education is fundamentally about people,” says Clay. “What technology does best is play a supporting role in helping great teachers to help students achieve their goals.”

 

Improving special education through online technologies allows Clay Whitehead '98 to focus on what he calls a double bottom line: growing a successful business and helping others. The latter of which, Clay says, is central to the Potomac ethos, “both the sense of responsibility for the larger world and the culture of actively doing things to improve the world around you.”