Northstar Elementary School: Knoxville, Iowa

Linda Dittmer is a recently retired principal from Northstar Elementary School in Knoxville, Iowa. She has been involved in the RTI process for over six years.

We started Response to Intervention (RTI) as a way to meet the many needs of our students. Our students were at various levels of skills, our special education numbers were huge and continuing to climb, and our data showed that only one-third of our students were proficient in reading. The state allows for local control, so state standards and benchmarks are not provided. The teachers were working hard but we had a menagerie of what was being taught in each of the classrooms. There were gaps in skills being taught and very little alignment between grade levels. We were all aware of our problems, so initial consensus was sought and everyone agreed we needed to do something different.

We first looked at our data. What skills were our students missing? What skills did they consistently have? Why were our students not proficient? We then looked at our curriculum. What programs were available that would address the needs of our students? We needed to align the curriculum through each grade level so there were no gaps in skills. We researched good teaching strategies. After we chose the reading program we wanted to use, we were trained in the program and also in good teaching strategies. 

Next we looked at scheduling. We scheduled reading at the same time between grade levels. We used all available staff members during each reading period, which included classroom teachers, title I teachers, special education teachers, and building associates. We scheduled common collaboration/planning times between teachers. We became a very cohesive group, which helped us build upon our strengths and kept us all on the same page.

As we put all of these things in place, we saw our test scores begin to rise. We used screening, diagnostic, and progress-monitoring data consistently, testing some students weekly to stay on top of their needs. We truly used data to drive our instruction. We got away from feeling "one size fits all." We grouped students according to their needs, both within the classroom and across classrooms when necessary. The groups were flexible and students moved whenever their skill needs changed. We provided a continuum of support to students based on need. Some supplemental groups were 10 minutes daily, while others could be 30 minutes daily. Students moved in and out of groups as needed.

Some students fell out, indicating that their needs were more intensive and that they needed more support. We researched programs to use to meet individual needs. We adopted several programs to be used as interventions. Interventions were provided by anyone having some extra time. We used all staff members, including our music, art, and PE teachers for interventions. We found that even 10 minutes, used consistently with a student, is very helpful in building his or her skills.

We had many challenges but most were logistical. Staff all agreed we needed to change some things, so bringing staff on board was not a problem. Once we got started, we became very excited and were in a hurry to implement. There was ongoing consensus building done with the staff, however; seeing the positive changes in student achievement really enhanced staff commitment. Data were a huge part of our changes and development. All staff quickly became data oriented as they saw its importance and usefulness. We relied on data to direct our next move and we were excited to look at data to see our improvements, or lack of them. Time and scheduling were challenges. We have found the more we can meet to talk about individual student needs, the faster we can start meeting their needs. Professional development was guided by teachers’ needs. We were willing to provide "just in time" professional development if there was something the staff needed.

We are still learning and developing. However, we have seen great improvements in our data and the skills of the students. Most kindergarten students are reading books by the middle of the year and are really doing well by the end of the year. Most of our students are proficient at every grade level. Comprehension has improved. Expectations are the same at every grade level. We meet the needs of the students quickly. If the students already have a skill, they are able to move on. Students are challenged at their level. Teachers are excited and feel good about what they are doing. Our special education numbers have decreased immensely. We can meet the needs of most students without placement in special ed. Therefore, we staff the “right” students into special education and not until all other resources have been exhausted. We can show evidence to parents on the skills of their children. This has been a big plus. There are no surprises. Parents are aware of their child’s needs and can then help at home.

We were successful because we developed this process as a building. We all knew that we needed to do some things differently, so everyone was involved at the same time. We gathered and studied the right data, which moved us forward quickly. There are a lot of assessments that can give data but not all of it is relevant to what is happening. We found the data that would give us information that would help us move forward, and that is where we put our concentration. We came a long way in a relatively short time. We are proud of what we have done for our students.

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