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School of Outreach

New autism clinic and camps for gifted youth change children's lives, equip education students for jobs

By Julie Riddle, '92

The Whitworth School of Education prepares its students to become tomorrow's effective educators and visionary leaders. But the school is also working today – through community partnerships and grants, as well as the centers and camps it operates – to meet the needs of hundreds of area children and their families.

The school lives out Whitworth's mission, and education students gain valuable practical experience, through initiatives such as the Marriage and Family Therapy Center and the Literacy Center. Here we highlight the school's new autism clinic and summer camps for the gifted, which are making an indelible impact on Whitworth students and the children they serve.

Meeting Needs, Defying Odds

A dire need exists nationwide to provide early intervention services to children with autism spectrum disorder. Yet a lack of board-certified behavior analysts has sidelined thousands of children on waiting lists for treatment, including more than 1,500 children in Washington state.

In response, the Whitworth School of Education partnered with Spokane's Northwest Autism Center last year and opened a treatment clinic on campus. The center hires students in the Whitworth Graduate Studies in Education applied behavior analysis master's program to work at the clinic in intensive one-on-one therapy sessions with children ages two to six years. Not only does the Whitworth clinic help meet a critical need to provide area children with treatment, but Whitworth students receive paid employment while fulfilling the requirement for supervised field experience in order to become certified behavior analysts.

"This collaboration doesn't just put a Band-Aid on the immediate problem, but seeks to remedy the larger problem, which is a lack of BCBAs," says Assistant Professor of Education Kira Austin, who is the ABA clinic coordinator. Whitworth students' rigorous supervision at the clinic has been approved by the international Behavior Analyst Certification Board as an intensive practicum, allowing the students to complete their master's degree in as little as two years and preparing them to sit for the international examination.

Four children at a time receive 48 days of treatment at the clinic for three hours per day, four days each week. The Northwest Autism Center's downtown clinic and the Whitworth clinic have served more than 75 children since their launch. Austin says that the center and Whitworth's clinic are unique in that they also provide three hours of weekly training to family members and caregivers to equip them to support their child at home and in the community. At the end of the treatment period, staff members coordinate with families to transition each child out of the program and into less intensive services.

Jessica Thomas, '15 (elementary education), turned down two teaching jobs in Spokane so she could work and gain practicum hours at Whitworth's clinic. She is on track to earn her master's in applied behavior analysis in spring 2017 and plans to sit for – and pass – the BCBA examination.

"Because I'm able to work with amazing children and learn from knowledgeable professionals at the clinic, I feel prepared to work with children with a variety of needs," Thomas says. "One of my career goals is to help my students defy the odds and focus on what they can do, rather than on what they can't do."

The center and clinic staffs are currently considering offering an after-school social-skills program for school-age children, and they are planning to collaborate with the Whitworth Aquatics Center to offer adapted swimming classes for children with autism spectrum disorder.

Where Imagination & Innovation Intersect

On a sunny summer day on Whitworth's campus, teams of highly capable grade-school students raced to map Cartesian planes by placing themselves on a 50x50-foot grid. The students were participating in a "Mathemagics" class as part of Camp Metamorphosis, one of two weeklong day camps the Center for Gifted Education holds for gifted youth each summer.

Camp Metamorphosis, for students in grades 4-6, focuses on exploring students' gifts and talents through interesting academic areas such as robotics, forensics investigation, and creative writing. Camp Opportunity, for students in grades 7-9, engages students' creative and innovative abilities through sustainability-based projects involving science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics.

The instructors for both camps comprise School of Education students and graduates, as well as Whitworth faculty members from a range of academic disciplines. During the 2015 Camp Metamorphosis, April Payne taught the Mathemagics class, in which students learned how to plot points and graph lines, complete Benjamin Franklin's magic squares, and work logic puzzles. The students also created original products by applying the mathematical principles they had learned.

Payne says her practicum experience was invaluable as part of earning a Gifted Education Specialty Endorsement from Whitworth. She since has been hired by the Libby Center in Spokane as a Tessera program teacher; the program serves highly capable students in grades 3-6.

"The practicum allowed me to turn theory into practice and solidify my understanding of gifted education," Payne says. "Having so many gifted educators and mentors available made it easy to have my questions answered, and I was able to observe and be inspired by some of the other classes that were offered. The whole experience created a wonderful culture of learning about gifted education."

Working with a large group of gifted youth is a rare opportunity, according to Jann Leppien, who holds Whitworth's Margo Long Chair for Gifted Education. "Gifted students have unique characteristics and learning needs," she says. "The camps allow Whitworth students to practice strategies to appropriately challenge and engage gifted students, and to experience the positive impact on student-learning that comes with teaching through interests."

The camps are a boon to gifted students as well, as they come together to learn, play and explore their interests. "The camps focus on enrichment," says Kathryn Picanco, director of outreach for the Center for Gifted Education, "but they're most beneficial in giving students the time and opportunity to work with their intellectual peers."

Camp Metamorphosis, now in its fourth year, serves 60-70 students and involves approximately 10 returning camper-alums in junior counselor positions. Camp Opportunity, which began in 2014, is expected to have 30-40 participants this summer.

For more information about the 2016 Camp Metamorphosis, July 11-15, visit; for Camp Opportunity, July 18-22, visit

Learn about two new School of Education grants that are strengthening education programs in schools locally and throughout Washington state.