Lowther South Intermediate School: Emporia, Kansas

Jessica Griffin is a graduate of Emporia State University where she completed her undergraduate work in elementary and special education. She obtained an ESL endorsement while teaching as a first and second grade looping teacher for seven years in USD 253, Emporia, Kansas. Jessica also spent a year working as an instructional coach for an elementary school while she completed a master's degree in educational administration from Emporia State University. For the past two years she has served as the principal of Lowther South Intermediate School, a 5th grade center which is centrally located in Emporia. You can e-mail Jessica at igriffin@usd253.org

Lowther South Intermediate School is part of USD 253 in Emporia, Kansas. We are a fifth grade center and have nearly 300 students. Our school and the sixth grade center across the street are the intermediate campuses for students transitioning from neighborhood schools to secondary school. Students are assigned to teams and travel to core classes within the team to which they are assigned. We are a Title I school with a full-time instructional coach, two full- and one half-time strategists (reading specialists), two full and one half-time special education teachers, and six instructional aides who do the walk-to-intervention model when working with intervention groups. The walk-to-intervention model is when teachers at a grade-level group across all their classrooms and students walk to the location of their group, which may not be in their homeroom.

As shown in Figure 1, our minority population is more than 60%—truly a melting pot for Emporia. This is the first time all the students come together from their neighborhood schools. English is the majority language; however, 30% of the students are Spanish language speakers. About 9% of our population receives special education services, 57% qualify for free lunch, and another 10% qualify for reduced lunch.



Figure 1. Ethnicities and languages represented at USD 253, Emporia, KS.

Several years ago, USD 253 launched RTI. Although some schools implemented RTI last year, it was not a priority at Lowther South at that time. Therefore, when I became the principal last year, I felt that our school was a year behind the rest of the district and we needed to make some changes. As a leader, I knew that RTI had to be a priority and that I needed to show why and how to do it. So we jumped in head first by dividing the school into four teams. We implemented a new schedule and started a new intervention block.

Although at the time the initiative began I had been an instructional coach for students in one of the six K–4 buildings, I was trained like everyone else in K–6 in the first year. Together, we soon found out that there wasn’t a perfect answer for RTI. There is no set checklist to follow each month.



We are currently in our second year of implementation. In our first year, we worked very hard to implement RTI. To achieve successful implementation, we built the daily schedule around the 45-minute intervention block, rather than special area classes (e.g., physical education, music, art). We made sure that chunk of time was protected and uninterrupted—even on our early dismissal day. Because the teachers have all worked together as a team to implement RTI, students have not missed out on any core instruction or special area classes.

Although initially teachers questioned why we needed to do this, the data helped to build a shared commitment within our school. We had never administered DIBELS® to all students before. But now we had everyone do it—we laid out a plan, engaged substitutes, built the structure, scheduled the time, and trained the teachers. After administering DIBELS, we found that 20% of our fifth grade students could not decode at grade level.

How could we expect them to succeed on a fifth grade state reading assessment, which requires them to comprehend AND decode passages? How would they be successful in content areas as they progressed in sixth, seventh, eighth grade, and beyond? We had a newfound sense of urgency and shared understanding about why it was important to schedule the time for RTI and to implement this process.


We follow the walk-to-intervention model across all four of our teams. Each team includes four teachers—two who teach literacy all day and two who teach math and social studies or math and science. However, all teachers are trained in delivering reading instruction during intervention time. Our special education staff work with students who have specific IEP goals, and our gifted teacher also pulls her students during that time. We have strategists and instructional aides who also help with intervention groups, as necessary. No fewer than six staff members and as many as twelve are available during the intervention block.

During intervention, students spend 30 minutes on phonics and 15 minutes on monitored and independent reading practice. We hope that this time devoted to targeted reading instruction and practice will result in improved skill development.

Professional Development and Collaboration

Professional development has been and continues to be a critical piece of the process. We hired a consultant to train our staff in data analysis and diagnostic screening procedures. We also had monthly follow-up meetings with our instructional coach and reading strategists. Our consultant modeled a lesson so that our teachers could see an effective phonics intervention group. Because we were working with our own students, we couldn't say "this won’t work with our kids." It does work!

We also have early dismissal on Wednesdays, which leaves 2½ hours every week for collaboration. Teachers also have an 80-minute block of planning time almost every day. We use 40 to 45 minutes of that 80-minute block for common team planning time, where the grade-level teams look at data, intervention groupings, etc. We also have RTI time, 30 minutes a week during the 2½-hour collaboration block, for the teams to look at data, plan lessons, and review resources. During these meetings, the grade-level teams also include the enrichment and special education teachers, as necessary.

On one Wednesday each month, we have a team meeting that includes professional development such as discussing where to place particular students based on the results of their phonics screeners and how to use a particular phonics lesson plan.


To ensure that the RTI is progressing as planned, our teachers know that I am actively observing the intervention groups. We also track student progress every two weeks, and the data (baseline, progress-monitoring, etc.) is organized in a shared electronic file called a tier sheet. Each student has his or her own tier sheet for intervention, which makes it easy to transfer the data as he or she moves on to the next grade level or building and to share the data at team meetings.


At the end of the first year of implementation, 10% of the initial 20% of our intervention students moved into being accurate readers. When delving deeper into the data, we found that of all the students who started as "slow and wrong," 10% became either "slow and right" or even "right readers." This improved accuracy rate was a monumental accomplishment and cause for celebration—90% of our students could now decode!

Later, when the students progressed to sixth grade, the reading coach reported to us that she couldn’t find enough students to fill their phonics intervention program because we had done such a good job teaching them the phonics skills they needed in fifth grade. This achievement was another reason to celebrate—we had done something very right! These students have taken that first step; next we’ll work on fluency.

I am very excited and pleased with the growth I’ve seen. Our teachers and I are looking forward to our building-wide, winter DIBELS results. After a year and half of this program, we are excited to see the results!

At Lowther South, we will continue to ensure that we are providing every student with the opportunity to become a good reader—a lifelong reader—somebody who really truly loves to read and sees the benefit of becoming literate.


Lessons Learned

  • Don’t expect things to be perfect—it's a process you learn by doing.
  • Persevere through the tears. Get over the frustration—there is no magic bullet.
  • Plan lessons—it takes time, especially if you don't have a phonics background. Collaborating with others helps.
  • Protect intervention time. Students need daily opportunities to learn. Adapt the core reading instruction, if needed; for example, multisyllable is a very important piece for many students—may need to supplement/strengthen the core.
  • Set clear and high expectations for teachers. Set targets.
  • Take time to communicate all requirements and expectations for teachers up front—testing dates, benchmarks, progress-monitoring—and make sure they have the tools they need to do the job expected of them.

Next Steps

  • Continue refining lessons.
  • Continue professional development for phonics, fluency, and comprehension.
  • Take time to celebrate successes, but always look ahead to the next steps and what needs to be improved.

This article was originally published in Perspectives on Language and Literacy, vol. 36, No. 2, Spring 2010, copyright by The International Dyslexia Association. www.interdys.org Used with permission.

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