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What if we didn’t know the rules…or if we didn’t feel tied to the way we’ve always done things? What if we just used common sense? What if the guiding principle (our North Star) was giving students what they need most, right now? What if we prioritized that? What if we organized ourselves so that we could do more and more of that?


Here is one example. We did this when I was last a principal. The school served a wonderful community and student population, 80% of whom were English learners and eligible for free or reduced price lunch. For four years, 20% of students scored proficient or advanced on the state tests. After one year of “breaking the rules,” 40% were scoring proficient or advanced. After four years of “breaking the rules,” 80% were scoring proficient or advanced.


Here’s what we did differently.


We looked at each student. The process wasn’t burdensome or lengthy. If, for example, the student scored in the 6th percentile, we asked what we could do to target their needs tomorrow.


When students were mostly on track, we committed to improving engagement and depth. We focused on thinking, and attempted to strike a balance between teacher and student-led experiences. We constantly asked, “What’s most important for these students?” We asked, “What aren’t we doing enough?” and then committed to doing more of that, while making sure we then determined what we weren’t we gonna do or what do we needed to do differently? Finally, we believed in students. We encourage them to believe in themselves.


If, upon looking at each student, we found that the student wasn’t on track to graduate future ready, we asked: “Is there a need within one of reading domains (phonemic awareness, or more broadly phonological awareness when auditory processing difficulties seem to exist; single-syllabic phonics; multiple-syllabic phonics, fluency; comprehension)? Is it computational fluency? Is it behavior?”


We were not “diagnosing” to determine what was wrong with the student or to pinpoint the area of deficit. We were simply identifying their most immediate area of need so we could provide an intervention that meet this need. When there were multiple areas of need, we targeted the antecedent or causal set of skills. Then we initiated those supports immediately.


With behaviors, we identified the why(s). We targeted one behavior, and provided a strategy for teachers and the student that was research-based to improve that behavior. We checked in frequently and had students reflect. We provided lots of feedback throughout the day. We paid attention to progress and adjusted.


We had a singular mission: How do we give our most vulnerable students what they need…NOW?


We scheduled when to provide the support. We asked, “What can students miss? What’s the biggest priority for this student right now?” Or, what less-than-absolutely-essential times available? We need 30 minutes blocks (we can do a lot in 30 minutes if we’re targeted and emphasize intensity). We recognized that for highly vulnerable students, some things might have to take a back seat, temporarily.


We asked, “Which staff able to support vulnerable students?” We repurposed staff. We re-evaluated the way we spent money.


We asked, “What cost-effective, research-based programs specifically target student needs? What do we have? What do we need to acquire?”


We knew we needed to address how we would intervene? It had to be “All hands on deck.” We trained staff well and often. Intervention sessions were intensive and directive, with frequent mini-tasks, frequent questioning, frequent checks for understanding, and frequent feedback. We limited group size to 5-7 students.


We also frequently monitored progress, checking in on the set of skills that most closely align to student needs and to the supports we provided. It wasn’t about graphs or even numbers; we determined efficacy using our professional judgment and collective response to these questions: “Is the students adequately responding to this intervention? Is the student on track to get back to where they need to be? Is this success transferring to other areas of their school life: behavior, attendance, work completion, attitude, motivation, participation?”


We created to system so that, to the extent possible, these supports took place automatically and with great efficiently. We worked hard, but we worked collaboratively and in a coordinated manner. And we communicated, communicated, communicated.


And we never, ever gave up. We passionately believed that high levels of learning are inevitable. It may take a few months or a few years. We’ll adjust, refocus, strive to learn more…but we will help students get back on track and stay on track to be future ready.


What would you call this? It is, by most definitions, response to intervention or multi-tiered systems of supports. There may be a few elements of RTI that are not found in the preceding 850 words (e.g., Tier 2 or buffer time) but let’s not overcomplicate it. RTI is common sense.


p.s. What about English learners and students with IEPs? We viewed them as students first, and while respecting the unique needs they may have, we expected them to be equally future ready and provided supports based on their needs, not their label.

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