AppleTree Early Learning Public Charter School: Washington, D.C.

Mary Anne Lesiak is the Director of Education at the AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation in Washington, D.C.  AppleTree's mission is to close the achievement gap before children enter kindergarten.  Mary Anne worked to implement RTI at AppleTree beginning in 2006 through an Early Reading First grant.  Before working at AppleTree, Mary Anne taught in the District of Columbia Public Schools and worked for the U.S. Department of Education.

What did you do?

AppleTree Early Learning Public Charter School serves three-and four-year-old children with the overarching mission to close the achievement gap before children enter elementary school. Our original data proved that, despite the fact that children were learning at AppleTree, those who came in already behind their more advantaged peers were still not catching up.   We began exploring RTI as a means of accelerating learning for these children.

In the beginning, a small group of coaches and school leaders worked to develop our RTI model by gathering available tools, researching and adopting processes, and implementing professional development.

We already had a strong core curriculum that covered language, early literacy, and foundational knowledge in math, science, and social studies, and decided that, because of the age of our children and the diversity of their needs, the problem-solving model of RTI would work best.  (In our problem-solving model, teachers, parents, and coaches consider the current performance, strengths, child interests, and classroom context when designing interventions.)  This led to developing a bank of research-based interventions that would work in the context of the regular instructional day.

Additionally, we needed progress monitoring tools to effectively measure children's learning.  A few tools (like the Individual Growth and Development Indicators) were available.  Others had to be developed and validated internally.   We also needed a data system to help teachers and coaches analyze data.  Initially, we had one person whose main function was to enter and manipulate data on Excel spreadsheets.  Recently, we adopted a new data system designed specifically for RTI that tracks children's data and the RTI process.

We also developed processes that included regular progress monitoring intervals and procedures, standardized meeting protocols with accompanying forms, and a procedure that links Tier 2 with our state-mandated Student Support Team process.

Professional development is provided to teachers through various means. We hold a series of 6 large-group, half-day workshops throughout the year.  Teachers receive in-class coaching bi-weekly and small group, site-based professional development monthly.

One of the crucial decisions we made was to include social-emotional development and approaches to learning along with those more traditional academic outcomes in the RTI program.  Helping children develop skills such as attending to instruction or exhibiting curiosity in the world around them are just as crucial to their later academic success as early literacy.

What challenges did you face?

While there was significant information and resources on how to implement RTI at the elementary level, there was little in the way of support for doing it at the pre-school and pre-kindergarten level. Because of that, we ended up making a lot of it up as we went along. There were very few established tools out there for progress monitoring, which made it challenging to train teachers on a process that we were still trying to develop.

Another challenge we faced was getting those teachers to buy-in. They had to adjust a lot of what they were doing and participate in data collection along the way. We also had to stress patience and help them realize that RTI implementation was not going to change things overnight, but was more of a long-term solution.   While we have made great strides with RTI, the learning process continues.

What was the outcome of your effort?

We assumed we would spend most of our efforts working with Tier 2 children; however, we were surprised to learn the extent to which implementing RTI created a focus on Tier 1. While we continue to seek ways to improve our efforts, the results so far have been successful.  Implementing the RTI framework has made teachers better observers, assessors, and instructional planners.  Teachers saw the positive results of their hard work and this led to greater support for RTI in the classroom and an overall stronger framework for students.

What data could you share reflecting improvements due to RTI initiatives?

Thus far, our data are very encouraging. The trajectory of learning for children entering in the bottom quartile, especially in language, has increased significantly.  In the 2008-2009 school year, over 90 percent of all children who entered "at-risk" on a standardized measure of vocabulary were not at risk by the end of the school year.  Approximately 93 percent of all children achieved early literacy benchmarks for kindergarten readiness.

What advice would you give others?

Integrating RTI into your classrooms is not a quick fix. An open mind and a lot of patience are essential, as it often requires a paradigm shift for educators. Ultimately, if you stick with it, the results will be positive and powerful for students, teachers and administrators alike.

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