In alignment with the No Child Left Behind Act, former President George W. Bush reauthorized the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 2004. This legislation laid the groundwork for a framework called Response to Intervention (RTI), which uses tiered instruction and evidence-based interventions to ensure students get the help they need. The State of Illinois is requiring that all schools have RTI programs in place by the beginning of the 2010-2011 school year.

Becky Michel, principal of Princeville Grade School, said it’s unfortunate that RTI was first introduced through a special education law. “It’s really a general education initiative,” she explained. “What I think is important for people to understand is that RTI is really about good instruction that’s differentiated to meet the needs of the kids.” Because of this, RTI can be implemented differently in different schools to meet the needs of each school, classroom and student.

Based on regular assessments of students’ progress, RTI helps teachers and administrators determine whether there are problems with a school’s core instruction—known as Tier I instruction within the RTI framework—and which students need extra help in specific areas of study. If a student is struggling with a certain phonics concept, for example, the assessment will catch it, and that student can receive interventions, called Tier II, targeting that specific skill. After another assessment, if the student seems to understand that skill, he or she no longer needs the intervention and can move back up to Tier I.

If, however, Tier II doesn’t markedly improve the student’s understanding, he or she will be moved to Tier III and receive more intensive interventions. After additional individualized help, if the assessments show no forward progress, it may be determined that the student has a learning disability, and may need to receive special education services. But “in order to move into the special ed process,” explained Michel, “we have to show that we’ve done everything that we could [to help a student learn]—and that we’ve done it with integrity.”

A Head Start
Michel herself is a key reason why the school is so advanced in RTI practices. “I’ve been here for five years,” she said, “and while it wasn’t called ‘RTI’ at that point, we started dabbling in it back then—having some meetings for struggling kids, playing around with it.” Her previous experience as a literacy coach told Michel after a year at Princeville that the school needed to enhance its reading instruction. Under her direction, the school hired a literacy coach who helped the teachers hone their skills. This has been the foundation of Princeville’s successful RTI program for the past several years.

Princeville Grade School meets state standards, with 80 percent of students meeting the mandated test scores, 15 percent almost meeting, and five to 10 percent needing serious intervention and help in building basic skills. Also fitting this profile is Limestone Walters Grade School, which started its own special education program last year. Angela Barth was tasked with leading the special education department and getting the district’s RTI program up and running. She has been hard at work readying the RTI program to meet state regulations for the 2010-2011 school year.

A firm believer that RTI is a program not just for struggling schools, Barth praised the framework’s ability to indicate which students need help with specific skills in any given school. Using RTI, teachers can work with students as soon as they begin to have trouble, and do so until they are comfortable with the skill. Prior to RTI, by the time it became apparent that a student was struggling, the teacher may have already moved on to the next lesson. “For example, if a student doesn’t understand times tables when taught the skill in third grade,” said Barth, “without RTI, they won’t get more practice with it until the lesson comes back around in the curriculum three years later.”

While RTI consists of both academic and behavioral strands, the focus at both Princeville and Limestone Walters has been on the academic side of the framework, as neither school has many behavioral problems. Michel noted that in the junior high grades, most RTI interventions deal with homework and work completion issues. “We’ve been playing around with that piece of the behavioral strand for a couple of years, but we’re not very formalized on that end of the process,” she said.

Early Interventions
Just as the RTI framework looks different in different schools, so do interventions. Interventions even vary from grade to grade within schools, based on factors like staffing, student needs and population. At Princeville, students who need Tier II interventions are pulled out of their classes into small groups based on the skills with which they need help. “Typically, we attack the skill a little bit more in-depth if they’re struggling, and they move on pretty quickly,” said Michel.

“We’re more developed with reading interventions than math, which is true nationwide,” Michel added. “Reading is about 15 to 20 years ahead in all of the research.” Math interventions, she explained, tend to resemble tutoring sessions focused on specific skills students struggle with. Because reading programs are so much more advanced, Princeville uses several different materials in interventions. Some programs are very scripted, while others are more open for teachers to customize for individual needs. One student might work by him or herself on a computer program while others work together in small groups, or one-on-one with a teacher or teachers’ assistant.

For the 80 percent of Princeville students who meet state standards, accelerated classes are offered at the junior high level. In the rest of the population, all students receive instruction in a given subject at the same time, but are separated into groups based on their level of learning.

At Limestone Walters, interventions in lower grade levels tend to focus on reading, comprehension and times tables. In the higher grades, interventions are more focused on content and specific skills in social studies or science, for example. Because of the school’s small size, Barth said most of the interventions she conducts are one-on-one with students.

While Barth doesn’t conduct many behavioral interventions at Limestone Walters, her training as RTI coordinator has included this side of the framework. She explained that behavioral interventions are conducted one-on-one, and often use positive reinforcements like point systems and rewards. If a student has trouble staying in his chair during class, for example, he may begin each class with 10 points and each time he gets up, a point will be taken away from him. If, at the end of the class, he has eight points left, he may be given a reward.

As education efforts continue to focus more on providing individualized education and legislative mandates come into play this year, we will see an increase in RTI programs state- and nationwide. As Michel noted, the success of a school’s RTI program is greatly determined by its leadership and their understanding of the framework. Because Princeville has focused on this effort for years and has brought its teachers on board, and because Limestone Walters provided Barth with the necessary resources to get its program up and running, both have become leaders in the region. iBi