School & District Management

A Custom Fit

By Elizabeth Rich — April 09, 2010 5 min read
Laura Kelley, a 5th grade teacher at Fulton Elementary in Aurora, Colo., took on the newly created volunteer role of RTI coordinator at her school last fall.  Kelley runs the school's Instruction Support Team weekly meeting where teachers discuss intervention strategies. <br/> — Nathan W. Armes

Last fall, Laura Kelley, a 5th grade teacher at Fulton Elementary in Aurora, Colo., accepted a newly created volunteer position as the response to intervention coordinator at her school. Kelley, who has been in the classroom for 10 years, knew the position would be a big job when she accepted it. And, in fact, in just the first few months, she clocked some 800 hours in unpaid overtime.

If she was unnerved by the amount of time she had to spend managing her new responsibilities and learning about RTI, though, Kelley never lost her enthusiasm for the RTI process. “Student achievement is growing because we are able to plan together to meet the needs of our learners,” she says.

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Kelley’s stalwart efforts to find her way in RTI are somewhat representative of what is happening in her district as a whole.

Midway through their first year of district-wide implementation, Aurora district officials see early signs of success with their RTI model, but admit to some growing pains, including the familiar complaints about excessive paperwork and time demands.

Located on the east boundary of Denver, Aurora is Colorado’s third largest city. It has a student population of 34,000 and operates 54 schools. Aurora faces the challenges of many urban districts: Sixty-four percent of its students receive free or reduced lunch and 34 percent are English-language learners who, all told, speak 95 different languages.

Since RTI is mandated by Colorado, using the framework was not a choice for Aurora. But district instructional leader Charlotte Butler believes that the 10 or more years the district has spent emphasizing “good first instruction”—informed, reflective instruction that is often synonymous with Tier 1 best practice—and student progress monitoring has helped to smooth the K-12 transition to RTI. “We’re already far along the road, in terms of what we already have in place to support all students as learners,” she explains.

Classroom Support

To support the disparate learning needs of its students, APS took the state’s three-tiered RTI model and tweaked it—mostly noticeably, by adding a fourth tier, between the conventional Tiers 1 and 2. Lisa Escarcega, chief accountability and research officer, describes the insertion of a “Tier 1a,” which is intended to prevent or delay Tier 2 placement for at-risk students, as a path to “encourage success.” Tier 1a includes providing classroom teachers with coaching support on intervention strategies.“It keeps the focus back on good instruction at that first tier level until our achievement improves,” Escarcega explains.

Get materials on Aurora public schools’ four-tiered RTI model, including the district manual, flowchart, assessment tools, and parent resources.

As part of that focus on instruction, each school in Aurora has its own RTI coordinator. At Fulton Elementary, Kelley now spends a more reasonable 30 hours a month in her role, having “learned to manage the team and resources” in her building.

Because Kelley is both a classroom teacher and the school RTI coordinator, she serves a double role. In addition to teaching and monitoring her own students, she delivers professional development to teachers using videos, podcasts, and articles about RTI. She also runs the school’s Instruction Support Team weekly meetings. “It’s where we look over what’s been tried to see if we missed something, to figure out if there’s something else we can do,” says Kelley.

Before intervention strategies reach the IST, however, teachers must monitor students—documenting both behavior and academic performance—in order to identify what kinds of problems students are having in the classroom. “If math homework is not getting done, is it an academic problem or is it an organizational problem? Is it affecting how the student is performing in math?” Kelley says.

If the teacher can isolate the problem, she explains, it’s that much easier to identify what intervention strategy will be most effective. To work through their intervention strategies, teachers at Fulton discuss their concerns at their weekly grade-level meetings and with literacy and math coaches. Once all school resources have been exhausted, the IST steps in.

A Customized Approach

As a school-based RTI coordinator, Kelley can take advantage of special professional development opportunities, which run from inquiry-based problem solving to training on the district’s new tracking software, even as its bugs are being worked out. She also has the ear of one of the district’s three RTI coordinators, Kim Patten.

Patten, who meets regularly with each school-based RTI coordinator in one of the district’s three “student achievement zones,” is generally pleased with the district’s progress with RTI, and notes that the customized approach the district is taking to implement the framework is a plus. “What I’m really happy with is that we have a structure and foundation in place,” she says. “Buildings can tailor what it looks like based on the needs of their students. Teachers are having a chance to look at what their practice looks like and they can help each other. [Teaching] is no longer happening behind the closed door. We’re sharing the successes, the challenges, and the support.”

But even with a hefty RTI manual, a handsome flowchart that outlines the intervention delivery process, and the new Web-based tracking system, Patten sees the district still has work to do. “We are in our first year of implementation, so we will continue to learn and grow in our knowledge and expertise as we go,” she says.

One area the district has yet to conquer is one that many schools have struggled with: assessing reading in older students within an RTI framework.

To remedy this, Charlotte Butler and a district secondary literacy coach plan to meet with literacy gurus Yetta Goodman, Ken Goodman, Debra Goodman, and Alan Flurkey to study the use of retrospective-miscue analysis, an instructional tool that helps struggling readers to better understand their own strengths and weaknesses.

“We know that as students get older the ability to assess their reading is more complex. And, in fact, there are no effective standardized assessments that work for secondary readers,” explains Butler. “The nature of the work we’re about to embark on with Debbie and Alan and Ken and Yetta is very exciting. If we can develop something specifically for secondary students, it could be groundbreaking.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 12, 2010 edition of Teacher PD Sourcebook as A Custom Fit

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