It’s ‘Elementary’ My Dear

Aid Katie Kirkpatrick, working on word study with first graders, helps TOW’s full-time reading intervention specialist Triana Ramazan.

Jane began second grade reading about 20 correct words per minute, far from the benchmark for her grade level. Since she had trouble decoding words and needed extra help with spelling patterns and letter sound combinations, her teacher assigned her to an intensive intervention group for four weeks.

By then, Jane, a pseudonym to protect the student’s privacy, had improved her fluency to 50 correct words. She was then moved into the strategic group and continued to improve, so that after another six weeks she performed above the benchmark of 65, attaining a score of 80 correct words per minute.

“With just a few weeks of intervention, collaboration with the classroom teacher and parental involvement, Jane began practicing reading more frequently. Jane was able to catch up with her peers in class by the middle of the school year instead of continually falling behind,” said Triana Ramazan, a reading interventionist at Top of the World School and the school’s coach for a districtwide program credited with making tangible improvements in student performance.

TOW teacher Peggy Lynch teaches her first graders with whisper phones in a learning intervention group to improve reading fluency.

At a recent school board meeting, teachers outlined results of the program, known as Response to Instruction and Intervention (RtI²). It’s being used for the first time this year at the high school also.

At the elementary level, children are grouped and regrouped as they progress from intensive, for students who need a lot of help, to strategic, for students who need some intervention, and benchmark, for students who don’t need any particular intervention.

At the beginning of the 2008 school year, 68 percent of first-grade students read at the grade level benchmark, 25 percent were in the strategic category and 7 percent were below grade-level in the intensive category. Coached under the RtI² program and examined in third grade, 87 percent of students hit the benchmark, 13 percent were considered strategic, and none were in the intensive category.

“We know from the research that the average half-life for use of one-size-fits-all educational programs is 18 months,” said Nancy Hubbell, assistant superintendent for instructional services, whereas the RtI2 approach works and even improves over time.

Laguna Beach Unified School District

First grade teacher Kimberly Mattson’s students, having finished working on reading comprehension, head back to their regular classrooms.

Piloted at TOW in 2005 under principal Ron LaMotte, RtI² provides “a framework to structure instruction and intervention around, so that the needs of all students are met at every level,” Ramazan said. The program is not prescriptive and will look different at every school based on its students and teachers, she said.

For first grade TOW students, the program takes shape four days a week as they regroup for 45 minutes in a learning group with another teacher. The assignment is based on an evaluation of their reading skills. Students are reevaluated at least three times throughout the year, moving to different groups as their proficiency changes.

During an intervention period last month, teacher Peggy Lynch led students in a reading fluency exercise using plastic “whisper phones” that helped them hear how they sound when reading aloud. Margaret Arnold worked with children on word study and spelling patterns.  Kimberly Mattson’s students focused on reading comprehension.

The groups lack stigmatizing labels. Neither are kids labeled as slow or fast learners. Instead, students receive instruction in the areas that best meet their needs. And the teachers, too, shift to different learning groups periodically so no one teacher bears responsibility for instructing “slow kids.”

In the case of math, rather than breaking into learning groups, students spend time on a specialized math software program, SuccessMaker Courseware, which allows each student to progress at their own level and enables teachers to keep tabs on student progress. It is now part of the curriculum for grades 3 through 7.

The program succeeds by identifying and addressing learning hurdles as soon as they become apparent. Importantly, as each class advances, fewer and fewer students are struggling, Ramazan said.

Incorporating RtI² into schools has built upon a sequence of district initiatives, key to later successes.

The foundational layer was an initial push in 1999 for positive learning interventions for struggling students. In 2004, the district began Professional Learning Communities, paid weekly collaboration time for teachers to meet, share notes, compare strategies and learn best practices for instruction and intervention. By the time, district administrators began to implement RtI² at TOW in 2005, a framework for collaboration and for intervention was already in place. El Morro began the following year.

Two years of the staff’s working at RtI² to understand its framework and build consensus paid off. “I was amazed at the level of collaboration and trust between the staff members,” Ramazan said.

Collaboration was the centerpiece of a recent PLC meeting for kindergarten teachers, who seemed to embrace an opportunity to discuss their students, their techniques, which kids needed to change their level of instruction and how to rework class schedules to accommodate everyone’s needs. For example, they determined that a few students who needed more help with phonetics could spend time on “ear-robics” with reading specialist Tracy Slater without disrupting other activities.

RtI² thrives because of extraordinary district support. “I told principals and teachers that my job was to say ‘yes’ when they needed something,” said Hubbell.

Teachers are paid for their time collaborating and resources are made available, from training to useful new learning tools. When the district attends conferences, Hubbell and her staff usually try to send a team of teachers, who come prepared with a plan to disseminate to the entire staff the new-found skills and information they expect to absorb.

At least one teacher in a neighboring district said their schools technically follow an RtI² program, but lack the resources to make it work. New teaching tools or training come out of their own pockets, said the teacher, who declined to be identified for fear of career reprisal.

LBUSD’s evolution mirrors the national model, which began in elementary schools. TOW has been a model for other schools in southern California and is a part of a training consortium in Orange County.

Thurston started incorporating RtI² in 2008 and teachers are collaborating on tweaking the program to suit different student needs. Laguna Beach High School began the program this year.

“It is rare for high school staffs to look to elementary schools for answers,” admitted principal Don Austin. Even so, his staff returned energized from a visit to TOW. “Leadership comes in many forms,” added Austin. “In this instance, it came from great teachers with little chairs.”

He is enthusiastic about the initiative’s global approach, improving learning strategies for all students, from those performing poorly academically to those taking AP courses. High school teachers are finding ways to implement it, such as jointly raising student vocabulary school-wide.

Hubbell said the district’s aim was to build expertise horizontally, year after year. “From the get go the plan has been to embed this system into the school’s curriculum so that it can take on a life of its own.”

Judging by teachers who seem invested in its success, it already has.


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