At Saucedo Elementary, two 1st-graders, a boy and a girl, were having so much trouble sounding out words and rhyming—two key steps in learning how to read—that their teacher worried they had a learning disability.
Over three years, the school tried a host of strategies to help them, including one-on-one work with a reading specialist and assigning them to small groups for instruction. The school even held the children back in kindergarten, a practice reading specialist Holly Krueger says she sometimes suggests as a way to give children an extra year to mature and perhaps overcome the difficulties they are having in school.
Along the way, the school charted the children’s progress on assessments. Finally, this year, the school staff decided to have the girl, who is still performing below grade level, evaluated for special education services. The boy is improving and will be monitored further.
Before referring children for full special education evaluations, “we have tried everything,” says Krueger.
Saucedo, located in Pilsen, handled the two children’s cases with a new process called Response to Intervention, or RTI. Saucedo is one of six CPS elementary schools to participate in a five-year, pilot launched by the Illinois State Board of Education during the 2005-2006 school year.
The other five schools are Brighton Park, Dever in Dunning, Lloyd in Belmont-Cragin, Shoesmith in Kenwood, and Whistler in Pullman.
Staff at schools in the pilot program say that the process of collaboration between special education and regular education teachers has helped improve instruction for struggling students. As a result, they say, RTI has helped cut down the number of special education placements.
Gathering data, tailoring support
RTI, like school-based problem-solving, encourages educators to consider a variety of different instructional techniques before recommending that a student be evaluated for a learning or behavior disability. RTI also requires schools to go one step further and gather data to monitor the child’s progress, bolstering the decision to either continue interventions or refer the child for evaluation.
At Saucedo one spring day, Krueger shows how data informs decision-making. Walking over to two big filing cabinets full of portfolios of students who have been in RTI, she pulls out the file of the girl who is performing below level and will be referred for evaluation. Inside the file are graphs with straight or dipping lines, showing her lack of progress on assessments, despite the interventions.
There are also examples of the child’s writing. Though the girl is now 8 years old, her handwriting exhibits the large, loopy letters characteristic of a much younger child, and the words are misspelled. A log of contacts between the girl’s teacher and parents is also included, detailing their reactions as their daughter’s struggles were discussed. At the back is a referral form for special education: In this case, the data showed that the girl needs more specialized help than a regular education teacher could provide.
“The success varies,” says Krueger. “Interventions don’t always work, but at least we know that we aren’t needlessly putting a child in special education.”
To capture more of the academic data that RTI calls for, some pilot schools are expanding use of a primary reading test called DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills). CPS requires schools to use DIBELS through 2nd grade, but several pilots are now using it for 3rd- and 4th-graders as well, or testing more often those children who are have difficulty with literacy.
At least one school has already gone beyond the state’s policy on RTI to address another concern: providing timely referrals for children who need special services. (ISBE currently has put no limit on the length of time children can remain in RTI.)
At Whistler, students placed in a group for children who need the most intense interventions typically remain in the group for a maximum of 10 weeks before being referred for evaluation if they show no progress.
“If the light bulb doesn’t go off in the third or fourth, sixth or seventh [week],” says Trisha Knox, the special education teacher at Whistler, “then we know something is wrong.”