School-Based Scholars Program

Jessie Bricker, OTD, OTR/L, leads the School-Based Scholars Program to serve children with high-intensity needs

by Michele Berhorst • March 25, 2024

School-based occupational therapists work with students who have a wide range of diagnoses and conditions such as Down syndrome.

It’s estimated that 18.8% of occupational therapists in the United States work in the school system.1 Yet, the need for highly trained occupational therapy (OT) practitioners who can work with school-aged children and youth with high-intensity needs, defined as barriers to learning and functioning, continues to grow. High-intensity needs may also involve complex or multiple disabilities related to physiological, emotional, cognitive and developmental factors, as well as exposure to social determinants of health and other environmental barriers that may significantly impact a child’s ability to learn, develop and transition into adulthood.

To address this gap, the Program in Occupational Therapy applied for and was awarded in Sept. 2023 a five-year, $1.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Special Education – Personnel Development to Improve Services and Results for Children with Disabilities Program. The program provides grants to institutions of higher education and private nonprofit organizations to prepare a diverse workforce in early intervention, special education and related services to be successful and skilled in serving children with disabilities.

“The grant funds the School-Based Scholars Program, designed to improve the recruitment and retention of OT students from diverse backgrounds while increasing competencies to serve children with high-intensity needs in school-based settings,” says Jessie Bricker, OTD, OTR/L, principal investigator and project director. “There is promising research that shows that children learn better from people who look like them, talk like them, that they can relate to. So the question is: Can we get more diversity in our workforce so that we can maximize our ability to reach out to those kids who are struggling in school?”

Children aged 3 to 21 are eligible for special education services, so the OT workforce needs to span preschool through high school populations and represent a wide range of diagnoses and social determinants of health. “Regardless of age, a child’s primary role during the day is being a student. If they're struggling in school, everything else is impacted by that. When kids are developing, part of their identity formation is tied to their sense of competence. Our scholars will be helping a child who may have a different path through life figure out who they are right in the context of where they spend the bulk of their day – school.”


The School-Based Scholars Program will train up to 20 scholars over the five-year grant period. The program can fund up to five students per year who are in the clinical occupational therapy doctorate (OTD) program. Scholars will receive funding to cover 100% of tuition costs for their third year of the OTD program, which consists of two 12-week Fieldwork II rotations and their capstone experience. In addition, each scholar will receive a $3,680 stipend to offset expenses such as childcare, housing, living expenses or transportation at their sole discretion.

“The stipend is focused on giving the scholars customizable support, acknowledging that not all students need the same thing. We want to help the scholars transition into being self-directed in their professional paths and felt it was important to put them in the driver's seat of how they spend that money,” says Bricker. “This helps reduce the likelihood that scholars will need to work outside of their full-time clinical rotations and will promote their occupational balance.”

The funding aspect of the grant resonated with Bricker on a personal level. “When I was an OT student, I was struggling financially. I would have loved to have had that kind of support during my fieldwork experiences and the reduced loan obligations after graduation,” she shares. “Scholars will be required to commit to practicing in a school setting for a minimum of two years after graduation. Graduates will have seven years to fulfill their service obligation. The tuition scholarship and stipend offset some of the OTD degree educational costs to make it possible to take a nine-month contract position in a school where OT services are needed.”

During the first grant year, Bricker is leading a Project Team of key personnel (Lenin Grajo, PhD, OTR/L, and Steve Taff, PhD, OTR/L, FNAP, FAOTA), staff (Jenny DeBourge, MSOT, OTR/L), and other educators (Wanda Mahoney, PhD, OTR/L, Sarah Cheatham Oberle, OTD, OTR/L, and Quinn Tyminski, OTD, OTR/L, BCMH) to develop the curriculum, actively recruit for the first cohort, develop community partnerships with regional educational organizations and their stakeholders, and expand fieldwork placements in sites that will support scholars in their hands-on experiences.


Before applying for the grant, the Program in Occupational Therapy was already in the process of revising the curriculum to span the pediatrics course content over two terms instead of one. Bricker explains: “In the past, we haven’t had a dedicated pediatrics course. However, as more graduates enter school-based practice, we need to focus on specific content. What do our students need to know about how the education system works? How can they look at development as a primary driving force outside of a medical model?”

There are two one-week Fieldwork Level I placements for first-year students. The first one occurs in the spring semester in a community mental health setting. The second is in the summer semester and is in a pediatric childcare setting. Scholars must participate in at least one Level I experience with local partnering agencies and schools that serve school-aged children and youth with high-intensity needs so they can get the practice experience to carry into their Fieldwork Level II.

While it has always been an option for students to take electives, the new curriculum has two specialized electives in the spring semester of year two. “This gives all students the freedom to be specific about what they want to learn about. For the scholars, we are creating an elective focused on serving children and youth with high-intensity needs,” Bricker says. “It allows us to bring our clinicians into the classroom so that they close that ‘academic-to-practice gap’ and then talk about what all these concepts look like when they play out in practice settings.”

Scholars are required to do one of their two 12-week Fieldwork Level II placements in a school-based setting so that they gain that entry-level competency. Their doctoral capstone project and experience will be focused on something that relates to their success as a practitioner working with children and youth who have high-intensity needs. “It doesn't necessarily have to be practice-focused and can be complementary. Students can complete projects in areas such as leadership, administration, research, education and program development. All of those are going to build critical capacity skills for high levels of collaboration and advocacy in a school-based setting,” Bricker says.

In addition to the existing supports available to all OT students, each scholar will be matched to a faculty or staff member who shares at least some aspect of identity and can speak to their experiences navigating academic spaces as marginalized persons. Mentors and scholars will meet monthly to discuss progress in the course of study, any barriers to success or belonging, and to brainstorm ways in which the mentor can be of best support. Mentors will also share resources and serve as the point person to connect scholars to their larger network, creating a web of care for a wide-ranging number of situations and needs.

“I think one of the best advantages to being a scholar is that you have access to whatever you need to be successful. There will be somebody helping you to decide what's working and what's not working for you and problem-solve solutions. The mentors can also help identify additional responsibilities or life stressors that might be a barrier to successfully moving through the program,” Bricker says. “We have emerging data from the research our faculty members have conducted that is informing this type of ‘scaffolded support’ we want to make available to students. Students will still need to decide for themselves what resources and support they need, but we plan to structure it in such a way that it's sort of built into what they're doing, and the scholars feel supported throughout.”


The first cohort of scholars will be admitted to the program in fall 2024. Recruiting efforts are underway as Bricker has been actively communicating with the incoming 2024 class and meeting with current students who have expressed interest in the School-Based Scholars Program. She is also planning to host information sessions and other events to answer questions and determine eligibility for the program.

“Our recruitment events include preadmissions advising and support for prospective applicants, assistance with application submissions, and a coordinated and proactive advising strategy that will focus on early identification of student support needs with regular, structured support throughout the program,” Bricker shares. “But to sustain the program long-term, we need to recruit a wide variety of diverse undergrad students, including those who may not even know about the OT profession.”

To enhance outreach efforts to these students, the Project Team will be launching a series of events open to prospective students co-sponsored by our Chapter of the Coalition of Advocates for Occupational Therapy Diversity. In addition, the team will collaborate with the Missouri Black Occupational Therapy Caucus to develop a pre-OT exploration group for undergraduate minority students that will provide resources, information and opportunities for networking for students considering a career in OT.

The Project Team will also engage in targeted outreach and recruiting visits to four-year colleges and universities in the Midwest that have been awarded funding through the TRiO Student Support Services (SSS) Program. The goal of the SSS program is to increase the persistence and graduation rates of low-income students, first-generation college students and students with disabilities. In Missouri and Illinois alone, a combined total of 24 four-year colleges and universities received SSS program funding in 2022, serving nearly 4,500 undergraduate students.2

“Partnering with TRiO programs will allow us to share information about careers in school-based OT, and the School-Based Scholars program specifically, with underrepresented students from diverse backgrounds,” Bricker says. “It also provides collaboration opportunities with college counselors and advisors to streamline advising and admissions support to ensure that prospective OT students meet prerequisite requirements and receive support during the application process if needed.”

Engaging community

“One of the things that we're doing in this first year is determining what knowledge, skills and experience our scholars should have when they graduate,” Bricker explains. “Part of that process is engaging with our community partners, stakeholders and fieldwork sites to form an Advisory Committee. As part of the grant application process, we received support from some of our existing regional educational organizations including Lift for Life Academy, Epworth Children and Family Services, and Family Forward, who have all agreed to partner with us.”

“We look forward to continuing our partnership with WashU OT and commit to providing fieldwork and capstone placements for OT students training to support high-needs children and youth. We are excited to continue developing this project through the Advisory Council and look forward to welcoming a diverse group of OT students for future fieldwork and capstone experience,” wrote Deanna Allsman, Epworth Vice President of Older Youth Services. “The students and supervising faculty who have worked at both our locations have enhanced the quality of the services provided.”

Bricker is also talking with regional school districts and working with a select group of primary fieldwork educators to get feedback about what current OT practice looks like in underserved communities: “I want input not just from current occupational therapists in those positions, but families, administrators and other related service professionals so we have a voice from all of our stakeholders to help inform our understanding of what skills our scholars need to be prepared to work with high-intensity-needs children and youth.”

“The other advantage to this widespread community engagement is that it allows scholars to gain school-based OT experience anywhere in the country where they feel they will have the most impact,” Bricker says. “They are not isolated to just St. Louis and the surrounding areas. The first job they take for their two-year service commitment can be wherever they want it to be.”

Interested in the School-Based Scholars Program? Please contact Jessie Bricker, OTD, OTR/L, assistant professor of occupational therapy and medicine, at [email protected].

 1. American Occupational Therapy Association. (2020a). AOTA’s Salary and Workforce Survey

2. United States Department of Education (2016). Fast facts report for the student support services program Office of Postsecondary Education, Student Services.

Close Get Started Panel

Get Started

We welcome inquiries from prospective students, potential collaborators, community partners, alumni and others who want to connect with us. Please complete the form below to begin the conversation.

Close Schedule a Visit Panel

Schedule an Info Session

We are excited that you are considering applying to the Program in Occupational Therapy at Washington University. Please join us for a Zoom Information Session for either our entry-level MSOT or OTD degrees or our online Post-Professional OTD. Current faculty members will discuss the degree program and answer any question you may have. We are offering these sessions on the following days and times. The content is the same for each one, so you only need to sign up for one.

Upcoming ENTRY-LEVEL Degree ZOOM Info sessions:

Schedule an Entry-Level Info Session

Upcoming PP-OTD Degree ZOOM Info session:

Schedule a PP-OTD Info Session