RTI and the Budget Crunch

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        As I have taken my school, Ocean View Elementary School in Norfolk, Virginia, deeper and deeper into Response to Intervention (RtI), I have faced many challenges to full implementation. The initial struggle with teacher buy in, providing sufficient professional development, and building a culture of personal accountability for student achievement often seemed like a mountain that would never be scaled. Then, the selection of appropriate and affordable assessments and the search for research based instructional strategies was a hurdle. Next, deciding on the who, when, and where for tiered interventions was a major headache. Finally, the constant monitoring to ensure fidelity of implementation and sustainability in our program seemed to consume all my time. But… the payoff in steadily increasing student achievement was worth every single sleepless night. Ocean View was named a 2008 National No Child Left Behind Blue Ribbon School and, for 3 straight years in 2009, 2010, and 2011, a Virginia Distinguished Title I School, as well as a Virginia School of Excellence. 

        Now, when everything is finally in place, when student proficiency rates on the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) Tests are consistently above 90%, when my staff is trained and assigned, and when tiered intervention schedules are in place, a new and even more challenging problem confronts me—the same escalating budget crisis facing school districts across the country hit my school district. At the end of our last school year, we saw salaries and steps frozen, the elimination of our science and technology resource teachers, and an increase in class size in 4th and 5th grades. However, that was just a preview of the cuts that our shrinking school budget was to bring this year. 

        The summer brought the elimination of multiple resource (intervention) teachers and coaches in math and literacy. Worse, our district closed two schools and then used a reduction in force (RIF) of nontenured teachers to create positions in the remaining elementary schools for the teachers from the closed schools with more seniority. In one afternoon, I had to deliver RIF letters to six high performing young teachers. The district’s need to quickly place 123 teachers from the closing schools (in seniority order) in new positions in our remaining schools meant no time for principals to interview teachers or participate in their assignments. The opportunity to carefully select teachers who would fit smoothly into the high-accountability culture of an RtI school was not possible. Instead, a large influx of new classroom teachers unfamiliar with RtI and not necessarily committed to the concept of personal accountability means an initial shift in already reduced support resources. 

        At Ocean View, professional development—sharply focused on data driven decision making, research based instructional strategies, and all components of RtI—has always been a priority, especially during the first quarter of each school year. However, during this year, with so many new classroom teachers joining the staff, much more training, coaching, and monitoring time will need to be devoted to assimilating our new teachers into our program. We will be doing this with fewer resource specialists. So, at a time when we will already need to learn how to continue our school-wide intervention program with fewer resource staff, we will also be forced to stretch these same resource teachers even thinner with the added responsibility of training so many new teachers. 

        Certainly, everyone at Ocean View Elementary School has faced many challenges in our continuing journey to achieve our vision of universal student proficiency. However, to finally have all the pieces in place and then watch them slipping away is difficult. We know one way to design a successful and mature RtI program that really does increase the academic achievement of all of our students. But now we must backtrack and find new ways within the current (and ever increasing) budget constraints that will equally meet the needs of the demographics of the students in our school. Fortunately, we have already begun the search for alternatives and started putting some new strategies in place. In my next blog, I will share what we have already done and the adjusted plan we put in place to allow us to continue to provide tiered intervention for our students.
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