August 30, 2012 |

Stevens named director at Domino Project

Former Whitworth instructor gives up tenure track in order to help provide special education service needs at EWU collaborative preschool

By JOHN McCALLUM

Editor

If you're going to give up a tenure-track teaching position at a good university, it better be for something you love.

That's the spot Dana Stevens found herself in early this summer. After five years on the faculty at Whitworth University teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in special education, “Teaching teachers how to teach,” the Iowa native decided to get back in the trenches by becoming the new director at Eastern Washington University's Domino Project Preschool.

For Stevens it's a return to her roots. Growing up in Iowa she said her parents stressed the importance of inclusiveness, exposing her to opportunities to interact with special education children that carried through to adulthood.

“That changed my life,” she said. “I had friends like that (special ed) and with me it grew and developed into a profession.”

Stevens received a bachelor of arts in special education and early childhood education from Lesley College in Cambridge, Mass. She worked in special education in inner city Boston and at a New York City center for kids with safety and challenging behavioral issues.

“They were usually members of gangs,” she said. “It was a lock down facility.”

From there she went to a place that couldn't be more distant from New York City in any variety of ways – St. George Island in Alaska's Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea near the International Dateline. The island is sometimes featured in the TV show “Deadliest Catch.”

Stevens taught special education to children whose parents couldn't afford to send them to the mainland for instruction. In 1996 she went from St. George halfway around the world and to another hemisphere, spending time in South Africa to help that country set up a post-apartheid special education system.

After returning to Alaska for a bit Stevens eventually landed in Western Washington, starting a program for children with challenging behaviors in the Issaquah School District just east of Seattle. She received her masters in special education from the University of Washington while there, and in 2007 moved with her family to Spokane after accepting the position at Whitworth.

Stevens also was president of the Northwestern Association of Behavior Analysis from 2011-12, is a member of the Washington State Interagency Coordinating Council and sits on the state Personnel and Training Committee for Infants and Toddlers with Disabilities and Their Families. It's this wide spectrum of special education experience that she thinks will be an asset to Domino.

“The good thing is I have that background and have been in the trenches,” she said.

Located in EWU's Martin Hall, Domino Project Preschool is a collaboration between Eastern, Northwest Autism Center and Sacred Heart Medical Center. The preschool uses a research-based approach to education, stressing positive reinforcement, proper language and verbal behavior, employing what Stevens called “the three I's: Inclusive, Individualized and Intensive.”

One key to Domino's method is the student mixture, which also includes non-autistic children; something Stevens said many people don't understand about the school. With a maximum enrollment currently of 16, eight autistic and eight non-autistic, it's the non-autistic students that play a vital part in the instruction, helping the autistic students learn to interact and relate to others.

“Autistic children learn from their peer models how to socialize with others,” Stevens said. “They pick up behavior patterns and it becomes normal to them over time.”

Stevens feels it's important because the rate of autism is increasing. A report released in March by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that 1 in 88 children in the U.S. has autism or a related disorder, an increase of 25 percent since the last analysis in 2006. The study noted the autism rate among boys is 1 in 54; almost five times higher than among girls.

Why the rate has increased is the “billion dollar question” to Stevens. Environmental circumstances are suspected, but experts also point to better awareness and diagnosis of the condition among health officials.

“Doctors have gotten better at diagnosing the condition and communities have gotten better at providing services, so I think we can say it is possible that the increase is a result of better education,” CDC director Thomas Frieden said in a March 29 Reuters story.

It's the providing of services that Stevens said got her back into the field at Domino, and it's one made more difficult. A 2008 Cheney Free Press story noted that the preschool received $685,000 in state funding during the 2007-09 biennium.

That amount has since been slashed by over half to $250,000 in the current biennium, Northwest Autism Center community connections director Jill Ide said. It's forced the preschool to charge tuition, $500 for children on the autism spectrum, $400 for peers, as well as become more aggressive in outside fundraising – all while enrollment has increased.

“We did expand our program to be bigger, and with less money, so it's challenging,” Ide said.

Stevens believes it's important to meet that challenge, and said she and others are ready to talk to people about Domino and NAC. Besides the children, she said the school is also there to help the parents as well.

“The goal is to enable the kids with autism to make a successful, smooth transition into regular public schools,” Stevens said. “The ultimate goal is that it improves their quality of life.”

John McCallum can be reached at jmac@cheneyfreepress.com.

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