Special Report
Special Education

Calif. District Uses RTI to Boost Achievement for All

By Christina A. Samuels — February 28, 2011 10 min read
School psychologist Anna Quintanilla works with 1st grader Martin Salazar at Lone Star Elementary School in the Sanger Unified School District near Fresno, Calif., where response-to-intervention techniques are being incorporated districtwide. Educators in the district say the new approach has expanded the role of counselors like Ms. Quintanilla.
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The 2004-05 school year didn’t start off well for the Sanger Unified School District.

The 10,500-student district, located about a dozen miles east of Fresno, had entered its first year of “program improvement”—a gentler way of saying that Sanger was among the 98 lowest-performing districts in the state based on the success criteria spelled out in the federal No Child Left Behind law.

The district fell short because it had failed to make adequate yearly progress. Hardly any group of students was doing as well as they could be, administrators said.

“We recognized we had some weak areas. We didn’t recognize how profound they were, and that was a shock for us,” said Marcus Johnson, who has been superintendent of Sanger Unified since 2003.

The district, set among the vineyards and citrus groves of California’s Central Valley, has some children with high needs: Seventy-six percent are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch and 24 percent are English-language learners. But in 2004, the system hadn’t aligned its curriculum to state standards, had a fractured system of professional development, and had no real way to expand or sustain the random bursts of improvement that would appear in an individual school or classroom, according to local educators.

It’s a sad story that Sanger administrators don’t mind telling six years later, because the district’s turnaround since then has been so dramatic. In two years, it exited program improvement and racked up honors at its schools for academic achievement.

California measures its schools on an “academic performance index,” an annual measure of test-score performance that starts at 200 and tops out at 1,000. The target is 800 points or more. In 2004, Sanger’s API was 599 points. In 2010, it was 805. And Mr. Johnson was named the 2011 Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Superintendents.

One key piece of the district’s success, administrators here say, was committing to response to intervention. RTI is an instructional practice that involves identifying students with specific learning or behavioral weaknesses and then providing progressively intensive interventions to help them improve. Here in Sanger, response to intervention was not put in place solely to address lagging special education achievement; instead, the process was seen as a way of improving education for the entire district, including students with disabilities.

Q&A on RTI

Q: How has your job as a school psychologist changed to adapt to response to intervention and other reforms going on in your district?

MITCHEL CASADOS, school psychologist, Washington Academic Middle School, Sanger, Calif.:

A: “Before we began the process of implementing systems-level interventions, I would have needed to have bought a Dalmatian, painted my car red, and added a siren because, honestly, I operated more like a firefighter, only being able to address the most pressing behavioral and academic issues in crisis mode. After some initial analysis, we quickly realized that many of our support and administrative staff were facing the same issue. With a middle school population of 1,700, reacting to discipline issues was far more of a priority than preventing them.

“After systematically creating a multi-tiered intervention system founded on the idea that prevention is a more fruitful investment than reaction and that the school environment can be programmed to systematically respond to student and staff needs, our site made significant progress (i.e., we cut our discipline rate by 50 percent in two months!) ...

“I view the principal role of the school psychologist as an engineer of prevention and intervention, with the direct delivery of services provided for the most needy of students. If constructed properly, the school environment itself, in which people are one element, should be the primary service provider.”

Sanger’s experience is one practical example that can help answer some questions that have swirled around RTI ever since its inclusion in the 2004 Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. The increasingly popular educational framework is described by its supporters as a “general education initiative,” but what does that look like in operation?

To answer that question, it’s necessary to look at where the district was, and where it is heading.

Diving In

The response-to-intervention framework can be implemented different ways, but there are some common elements. It requires that all students be evaluated and that those with identified academic weaknesses be given specific lessons or interventions that address those weaknesses. Students are monitored closely for their response to the interventions, and if they improve, the extra interventions are scaled back. The process is often represented as a pyramid, where all students are in the bottom tier, getting strong instruction, while the smaller groups of students who need extra help are represented in higher tiers.

Sanger considers RTI one leg of a tripod of interventions that it put into place after getting the bad news from the state about its poor academic ranking. The other two changes were the implementation of Explicit Direct Instruction and the creation of professional learning communities, a collaboration framework designed to make student instruction a collaborative effort among school staff. The benefit of Explicit Direct Instruction’s systematic approach, Sanger’s educational leaders say, is that all students in a particular grade end up being taught the same information, aligned closely to state standards. Bringing Explicit Direct Instruction to the district was a way of bolstering instruction in RTI’s “Tier 1,” the instruction that all students receive, said Mr. Johnson, the superintendent.

Creating professional learning communities allowed teachers, administrators, and support staff members to interact in a way they never had before, Mr. Johnson said. Teachers and school psychologists could get together, for instance, to share information about students who may need extra support.

The RTI process, along with other reform efforts, were rolled out in what district administrators call a “loose-tight” model of leadership: All of the district’s 13 schools were expected to adopt the changes, but the specifics were left up to each school.

Kimberly Salomonson, a program specialist who provides support services to several schools in the district, remembers being worried at first that each school wouldn’t be given a specific series of steps to follow.

“What we realized was that it just wasn’t going to be necessary,” she said. The fact that schools were trying some different elements allowed the district to experiment with a broad set of resources, she said. Principals and teachers were able to learn from their counterparts at other schools.

“If you own [the process], and it’s not successful, you really have an incentive to fix it,” Ms. Salomonson said.

How RTI looks

To those who argue that RTI sounds just like good teaching, Ketti Davis and the staff at Sanger’s Lone Star Elementary describe how a struggling student might have been helped before the district reform initiatives. With 560 students, the school is about 40 percent Hispanic and 40 percent Asian, with the remainder white, African-American and Filipino. Three-quarters of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, and around 40 percent are English-language learners, the principal said.

Ms. Davis and her colleagues said the school has good teachers, who would recognize if a student was struggling and would try different activities to nudge the child into better achievement—but there was little coordination of that work. The result was that everyone at the school would be working hard, but not seeing the kinds of improvements that could boost the school’s performance overall.

Veronica Flores, a 2nd grader at Lone Star, leans back to answer a question in teacher Allison Holt’s class. Lone Star is one of the schools in the district where academic performance improved following the introduction of response to intervention.

“There was no real coordinated information. Behavioral issues would be mixed in with the academic,” Ms. Davis said. Some teachers referred many students for special education evaluations; others referred relatively few. And if a student was found ineligible for special education, there was no set plan for what to do next.

Under Lone Star’s restructured process, students who need extra help may now work with the same teacher who provides special education services without having to be identified as a special education student. Frequently regrouping students helps keep all of them from feeling embarrassed by labels, said Leslie Hoffman, the school’s resource, or special education teacher.

“It’s like a revolving door in my classroom. There’s no stigma attached to that,” she said.

Parents are notified when their children move into “Tier 2” or “Tier 3” interventions, so they can know they are receiving extra help.

But the process can be a juggling act between giving students extra interventions and making sure they’re not missing other instruction that can leave them behind. The third tier of instruction can be individual instruction on a daily basis, but teachers try to make sure students aren’t missing so much regular class time that they fall behind in other subjects.

“Do we want to move students out of standard instruction to give them remediation? That’s not always the best program,” said Anna Quintanilla, the school psychologist at Lone Star. Explaining those needs to parents is an ongoing process, she said.

The role of school psychologists is one element that changed at all Sanger schools when response to intervention was introduced districtwide.

School psychologists often spend a lot of time evaluating students for special education. In Sanger, the school psychologists see their work as much more expansive. They’re the ones who have the professional training to evaluate the mountains of data that an RTI process yields on each student, they say.

Q&A on RTI

Q: Why did you join the RTI committee in your school district?

TARA PHIEFFER, mother of four and member of the RTI committee for the 2,600-student Seaford Union Free School District, Long Island, N.Y.:

A: “I have a child who is in general education and has an [individualized education program] for speech and reading. He’s struggling with one of the pieces of the core curriculum. I had to bring it to the attention of the teacher [in October]. In February they started his intervention. [The delay produces] a snowball effect. One concept builds on another. He didn’t master a concept he needed to get to the next one. It’s very frustrating and overwhelming for him.

“It’s a frustration not just for parents and children, but also for the teacher[s] ... they are so pressed for time.

“That’s why when an RTI plan is put in place [teachers will] know. If we see [a child] not mastering the concept in this span, then [we decide] what we need to do to intervene.

“We’ve talked about time scales and measurements for each intervention. Progress monitoring could be two weeks or four weeks—smaller increments to see growth, so it isn’t a snowball effect. We can see growth and give kids positive reinforcement quickly, or if they haven’t grown and they need to go on to the next intervention. That’s where I think a lot of the problem lies from our own experience here.

“We haven’t seen other people’s RTI plans to see what time scale they have for each intervention. It would be interesting to see how that works. I think that time frame has to be of the essence. It’s a lot of work I’m sure, but I think it would help the kids.

“I feel bad for these teachers. They keep saying, ‘When are we going to find the time for this?’ But it’s going to be mandated. The pressure’s on.”

Mitchel Casados, the school psychologist at the 1,700-student Washington Academic Middle School, the district’s sole middle school, says he sees school psychology shifting in the direction of “more systems-level consulting and less individual service delivery” as a result of the district’s move to RTI. Washington Academic has been honored this year as a “school to watch” by a national alliance that promotes middle-grades reform.

Before the reform process, “my role was a firefighter,” Mr. Casados said, noting that he and other administrators processed discipline referrals all day long.

“Teachers didn’t get the sense that discipline was something they could address themselves,” he said. The middle school put in place a behavior-focused, tiered-intervention system, which cut down on students’ acting out in classrooms. Students still get sent to the office for misbehaving, but the reduction in referrals gives administrators time to leave the office and visit classrooms, too, Mr. Casados said.

The district credits RTI and other initiatives with its improved performance on state tests. In 2004-05, 35 percent of all students were proficient or above in English/language arts, and 44 percent were proficient or above in math. Last school year, the proficiency rates were 58 percent in English/language arts, and 67 percent in math.

In special education, where RTI is often focused, Sanger also has seen improvement. In 2004-05, the proficiency rate for that student group was 18.6 percent in English/language arts, and 23 percent in math. Last school year, those rates had risen to 36.5 percent proficiency in English/language arts, and 48 percent proficiency in math.

The California Comprehensive Center at WestEd, part of a federal network that provides assistance to the California education department to implement the NCLB law and improve student achievement, has profiled Sanger and three other California districts for having better-than-expected performance among special education students, considering the district’s demographics.

Positive Results

Even with the improvement in special education test scores, Sanger officials struggle with closing the achievement gap completely.

“If you exit students out of special education who can learn in a regular setting, we’re left with the kids who have really intensive needs,” said Matthew Navo, the director of pupil services for the district.” But keeping students in special education is expensive and doesn’t serve those children well, he said.

The district credits the reform effort for reducing “encroachment,” a term for when the district has to draw from general funds to pay for special programs. W. Richard Smith, Sanger’s deputy superintendent, says that encroachment was reduced by $640,000 in the first three years of the initiative.

Lone Star Principal Ketti Davis greets students. Pupils at the school who need extra help can work with special education teachers, even if they are not identified for such services.

Sanger still is working on how to incorporate RTI into a process for identifying students who possibly have learning disabilities. The idea, which introduced response to intervention to federal education law, says that states can allow districts to use RTI as part of a special education evaluation. The federal Education Department since has issued guidance clarifying that RTI cannot be the only method that a school uses to make such a determination, but it can be part of a comprehensive evaluation.

This year, Sanger is piloting at two elementary schools an identification process that includes RTI. District administrators said they want to avoid a situation where a student might be considered learning disabled in one school, but not another, because of differing RTI practices. Eventually, some interventions, and the length of time that students spend in them, will look similar districtwide, say central office staff.

District officials do say that RTI has cut down on special education referrals. “We’re constantly problem-solving,” said Elizabeth Dobrinen, an intervention teacher at Madison Elementary School in the district. “If this program doesn’t work, it doesn’t mean we’re on the way to special education. It might mean we haven’t gotten quite the right thing for every kid.”

Time will tell what happens to those students as they move through middle school and high school. Sanger staff members say that the process will continue to adapt to the changing needs of its students.

“I’m sorry, but business as usual is not doing the job for our kids,” Superintendent Johnson said. “We’ve created a support structure where it’s harder for a child to fail than it is for them to succeed in our system.”

Special coverage of district and high school reform and its impact on student opportunities for success is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
A version of this article appeared in the March 02, 2011 edition of Education Week as A Calif. District Employs RTI to Boost Achievement for All


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