The Road to RTI

Cohoes City School District is a small city district in upstate New York that educates approximately 2,100 students in three elementary, one middle, and one high school. The students range from low- to mid-income status, with 10% being minorities, 4% English language learners (ELLs), and 60% getting a free or reduced-price lunch. Over the past 6 years, the implementation of Response to Intervention (RTI) in the district has enabled us to provide services to students who struggle with how to learn in a more efficient and effective manner. Our operational definition of RTI is a multilevel approach to instruction and intervention provided to all students in need based on progress monitoring and data analysis.

Paving the Way

We (the special education director and the assistant superintendent) realized the benefits of developing an RTI model collaboratively and worked closely to represent a unified direction while building administrators and key staff joined us for the ride. Forthright discussions among stakeholders ensued to analyze results of state and local assessments and to identify existing structures, instructional programs, and interventions within the district that would align with the RTI process. This information, along with implementation of curriculum-based measures, helped us determine the gaps in our curriculum and inconsistencies in instructional practices. Our next steps included:

  1. assessing staff needs and providing professional development in areas such as effective instructional practices, universal screening, progress monitoring, data analysis, and research-based interventions;
  2. providing refresher trainings throughout the district to strengthen the instructional support team’s role within the RTI process; and
  3. holding focus group discussions with the building principals and key teachers to determine an appropriate universal screening tool, establish procedures for administration, and develop a data collection plan as well as criteria for eligibility determinations.
These carefully executed side trips resulted in a district road map for RTI implementation while taking into consideration the differences between and within buildings.

Each leg of the journey brings us closer to the realization that full-scale implementation does not come without its pit stops and detours. At each juncture in our RTI expedition, we have remembered to celebrate our successes and continue to address the obstacles as we encounter them.

Bumps in the Road

  1. Identifying research-based interventions for specific deficit areas can be time consuming (Kemp & Eaton, 2007).
  2. One size does not fit all—this applies to staff, students, and interventions alike.
  3. Implementation with fidelity of both the overall process and the interventions is very difficult to monitor.
  4. Instructional consistency among schools and staff is even harder.

Highlights of the Trip

  1. We have experienced a decrease in the number of overall referrals to special education, from 50+ per year to no more than 25 yearly. The appropriateness of staff referrals is now at 100%.
  2. RTI has contributed to an increase in the number of students achieving benchmarks in reading across elementary schools. The achievement gap is closing.
  3. RTI has led to greater collaboration among all educators and service providers and has significantly improved the problem-solving process for the school-based instructional support teams.
  4. RTI has led to an increased focus on “Whatever it Takes” in curriculum and instruction to meet the needs of students (DuFour, Eaker, Karhanek, and DuFour, 2004).
  5. Parents are on board with the shift from a “waiting to fail” model to a philosophy that supports a new ideal—that of “what the student needs now.”
  6. School psychologists are now considered liaisons for special education instead of the gatekeepers. They are also no longer viewed as “test jockeys,” but have become integral members of the overall school teams.

Six years later, our RTI trip continues. Each school brings its own distinct personality to the process, and the middle school has now joined the caravan. The high school promises to be another curve that must be approached slowly in order to get staff up to speed.

While not yet over, our journey has proven worthwhile for everyone involved. Students are now viewed as individuals who may take different routes during their travels, while staff and parents have a common purpose—helping all students successfully reach their achievement destinations.

DuFour, R., Eaker, R., Karhanek, G., & DuFour, R. (2004). Whatever it takes: How professional learning communities respond when kids don't learn. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Kemp, K. A., & Eaton, M. A. (2007). RTI: The classroom connection to literacy. Port Chester, NY: Dude Publishing.
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