Special Education Leader To Learn From

A Colorado Leader Taps Teacher Specialists to Serve All Students

By Sarah D. Sparks — February 24, 2016 9 min read
Steve Sandoval
Recognized for Leadership in Specialized Instruction
Specialized Instruction
Executive Director of Special Services
Success District:
Adams County District 50, Westminster, Colo.
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Steve Sandoval loves jazz: the beauty of highly trained instrumentalists supporting each other in experimentation, the trading-off of who plays lead, and the weaving together of their individual work into a more creative whole.

Replace “instrumentalists” with “interventionists,” and the same description would fit the framework that Sandoval, as executive director of special services, has created for the Adams County 50 school district in this Denver suburb, where teachers are learning to integrate supports for English-language learners, gifted students, students with disabilities, and those in poverty.

Adams 50’s “interventionist framework” cross-pollinates educational specialties that in many other districts are isolated by separate funding streams and certifications.

Teachers and other district leaders say Sandoval’s dedication to bringing people together and helping staff and students alike play to their strengths has helped raise student achievement dramatically in the district during a time of demographic and pedagogical change in the community.

‘Complex Beings’

Sandoval started his education career as a school psychologist in another district. He recalls being frustrated by how often students’ identities got flattened by the need of adults to fit them into categories for available services.

Lessons From the Leader

  • Avoid Labels: Identify and group students for interventions based on the specific skills they need. Assign teachers based on their ability to improve those skills.
  • Collaboration Is Key: Set up professional-development systems to encourage teachers specializing in general education, English-learners, gifted learners, and students with disabilities to find common strategies.
  • Blend Funding Streams: Look for flexibility in state and federal rules when it comes to supporting student learning. Document and justify what you’re doing.

“In working with students, you learn that they are incredibly complex beings. Our students come to us with dozens of things, strengths as well as things they are not as strong in,” Sandoval, 48, says. “School systems ought to be looking at the whole child—we say that in rhetoric—but we aren’t really doing that if we are acting in silos.”

In 2001, Sandoval earned his special education certification. He experimented with ways to bring together specialist colleagues as a special education administrator in Fort Collins, Colo., before coming to Adams 50 to build the interventionist framework seven years ago.

In the interventionist framework, specialists in English-language learners, special education, gifted education, and support for students in poverty have ongoing, joint professional development to share approaches and techniques.

Every six to eight weeks, the specialists and general education teachers meet to review the progress of every child and identify common, specific skills that need extra support. Then students are grouped for interventions based on the skills they need, and interventionists are tapped to lead those student groups based on their expertise in teaching them.

A teacher who supports students in poverty under federal Title I grants might be adept at improving reading fluency, for example; she may lead a small group including English-learners, general education students, and a student with dyslexia who all need to work on that skill.

“No one teacher has truth in a bottle; no one teacher can do it all, regardless of how great he or she is as a teacher and how well they differentiate in the classroom,” Sandoval says. “It really does take a variety of people to support kids that are enrolled in our school district.”

Support for Competency Levels

A holistic approach is critical for Adams 50, a 10,000-student district, which seven years ago made the ambitious decision to switch from traditional grade levels to a competency-based-leveling system. In part, it was a strategy to retain students as the district’s gentrifying community increasingly chose private schools and the neighboring Denver public schools over the overwhelmingly poor and diverse Adams 50.

In every subject, from mathematics and reading to art and physical education, students must master specific skills to progress from one level to another, at their own speed rather than once a year by age. The district did away with both social promotion and retention in grades; students simply pick up in the fall where they had left off the previous year. It took years of experimentation for district leaders, including Sandoval, to adapt learning progressions, develop assessment measures, and compile materials to provide level requirements for every subject and grade—but there was still a problem.

“Oftentimes, the question was asked, ‘How are you going to support students with special needs in a competency-based system?’ ” Sandoval says. Working with the district’s leaders for ELLs and impoverished students, “it didn’t take long for us to realize we needed to have a flexibility in our approach, ... that a siloed system will not work in a competency-based model.”

For example, in a traditional district, an 11-year-old English-learner with math disabilities in 6th grade receives all his instruction at a 6th grade level. If, by the end of the year, he is struggling badly in math, he might fail the grade, but he still receives the same level of instruction for all classes the following year. In Adams 50, the same student could be on Level 5 in math, level 6 in reading and social studies, and may even join a different class for level 8 science. Each classroom typically has students spread across two or three levels.

More Flexibility

Before Sandoval’s interventionist framework was put into place, school leaders found it difficult to schedule time for that support without interfering with core whole-class instruction, says Roger Vadeen, the principal of Sunset Ridge Elementary. “If you want to do competency-based [levels], you have to do individualized learning. And you can’t do individualized learning by asking a teacher to take 30 students and do individualized learning for everyone on their own; you need to have small groups for every child, at every level,” he says. By putting all interventionists into flexible groups, he says, he can add eight more adults to work with those groups.

Steve Sandoval

Ryan Hartgerink, an interventionist, is in his first year of teaching in Adams 50, at Sherrelwood Elementary, after teaching special education in another district. “At my other schools, we would look at the caseload and see where we could meet their required minutes [of interventions for the individualized education program] in reading or writing or math,” he says. “Here, working with an interventionist team, there’s more flexibility because there are more groups and people doing it. We’re seeing where the kids fit, and who is teaching which strategy or skill. If a kid is moving faster than we thought, he can move to a new group the next week.”

Celeste Kellenberger, another interventionist teacher at Sherrelwood, says working with other specialists and the general-classroom teacher has helped her use data for instruction more naturally.

“We’re always digging into different parts of the data and looking at it in different ways,” she says. “Data drives the instruction, but what’s neat about blending services is we really get to know the students. We’re looking at reading and asking, ‘Well, is this a decoding issue, a word-structure issue?’ One teacher might say, ‘Oh, I’ve found this [intervention] really works with him and really builds him up [in confidence],’ ” Kellenberger says. “That’s really important; it helps us not lose sight of whether the student is feeling successful, feeling whole and complete as he progresses, rather than just moving him through boxes.”

Because students receive interventions based on specific skills and change groups frequently, Hartgerink and Kellenberger also say they have seen less bullying and stigma for students who have disabilities or are English-learners.

“Before, I heard kids say, ‘Oh, why am I in Mr. H’s class? This is all the dumb kids.’ Here, I’m always moving kids in and out, and they don’t think about who’s labeled as what,” Hartgerink says.

Every fall, some 60 to 80 new teachers go through a five-day training on the competency-based leveling and the interventionist framework, and interventionist teams participate in annual retreats at their schools as well as a symposium to share successful practices across schools, according to Cindy Davis, the principal at Sherrelwood.

Each week, teachers also meet in professional learning communities to exchange ideas across specialties—an ELL-trained specialist sharing ways to teach students to define academic vocabulary from context, for example, or a special-education-trained specialist discussing ways to calm a student with rage problems.

Sandoval’s model “creates leaders,” Davis says. “He’s helped build the foundations for this community and culture.”

School systems ought to be looking at the whole child—we say that in rhetoric—but we aren’t really doing that if we are acting in silos.

Sandoval and the rest of his district team regularly meet with the interventionist teams in each school, both to observe classes and model instructional techniques, sharing best practices that have worked in other schools. Always ready to improvise, Sandoval says he often offers to fill in as a paraprofessional, on one day cramming into a pint-sized chair to play word bingo with two level 3 and level 5 students working on their vocabulary. The levels, while not equal to grade levels, still fall in middle elementary school.

“There has to be cross-pollination of professional development,” Sandoval says. “If I come out of school as an [ELL] specialist, I’m going to need to learn a bit more about research-based instruction strategies for students with a learning disability or with a social-emotional disability.”

Hartgerink says Sandoval gives teachers a sense of support from the district office that helps them experiment together without feeling judged. “You need to have the openness and trust and honesty. ... If I’m not doing something well, am I willing to have you come in and observe me and help me improve?” Hartgerink says. “That sense of community is very prevalent when it’s there and very obvious when it’s not there.”

Sandoval says he is still working with state and federal officials to find ways to pool different funding streams to support the framework, and has found opportunities in the push to ensure students are ready for college and careers. At a recent meeting in Washington, he said, federal Title I and special education officials “gave their blessing” for Adams 50 and other districts to propose and experiment with ways to blend funding streams.

However, the district did come under scrutiny early in 2015, when Sandoval says a U.S. Department of Justice official visited the district because its ELL student-to-specialist ratio was higher than that in surrounding districts, without taking into account the added interventionists in each school. The Justice Department has so far not required changes to the system.

“What’s important is our staff [knows] what we are doing is right for our kids ... [and] not to be afraid when someone sees only part of what we are doing and judges it,” he says. In the past five years, the district has seen steady increases in both achievement and growth rates for students with disabilities and ELLs on state tests, and a steady decline in the number of “unsatisfactory” schools on state report cards.

While Sandoval contends that any district could use a similar framework to provide support for its students, he admits it requires a lot of teamwork and planning.

“We can’t just send this out as a vision or a philosophy and hope it will work out,” he says. “Hope’s not a strategy.”

Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the February 24, 2016 edition of Education Week

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