G.T. Norman uses specialized interventions to improve students’ reading skills

REED CITY – Two special education students entered Vicky Bowman’s second-grade classroom at G.T. Norman Elementary School unable to read at the beginning of the 2011-12 school year. By the end of the year, both students had caught up to or exceeded their reading grade level thanks to specialized, small group lessons offered by the Response To Intervention program. “It was amazing. I was so proud of them,” Bowman said. Bowman is one of six teachers on the elementary school’s RTI team. The RTI teachers work closely with classroom teachers to identify skills students struggle with and then provide the one-on-one or small group support to help students master those skills. The RTI team is made up of “Title” teachers, meaning they are hired through federal grants designated for schools with a high population of students in poverty or with other at-risk factors. The RTI team focuses on reading and math skills, testing students three times each year to monitor their progress. Of the 11 fourth graders identified as at-risk students in at least one reading area at the beginning of last school year, only three still were considered at-risk in any reading area by the end of the year. One student who still was considered at-risk improved from reading 38 words per minute to 89 words per minute by the end of the year, for example. Students at other grade levels have shown similar improvement in reading skills that range from speed to comprehension to fill-in-the-blank. The key is in catching struggling students early and dedicating the effort and time to teach students individually, said Tonya Harrison, G.T. Norman principal. “The earlier those interventions happen, the stronger those students are by the time they get to the upper grades,” Harrison said. “We are hoping to reduce the number of special education students by having those interventions at an early level. ... We’re fortunate the (school) board and (superintendent) Steve Westhoff are supportive of having six Title teachers.” While teachers have begun to see short-term results of the interventions, Harrison is expecting more long-term improvement among grade levels. The school established an RTI team for kindergarten through second grade five years ago, and the team expanded to work with all elementary grades three years ago. Each grade level has at least one RTI teacher designated to work with those students, and then all the RTI teachers also spend time with the kindergarten classes. “Our school district decided we need to put our biggest emphasis on the youngest kids so we can try to catch them early,” said Tracie Koopman, a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher who also is part of the RTI team. The RTI strategy is very data-focused, with teachers reviewing test scores to identify specific concepts each student needs to work on. The students then are divided into small groups – a practice called “pulling out” – and they spend time reviewing those specific concepts. “They don’t even realize they’re learning, they’re having so much fun,” said Jo Knack, an RTI kindergarten teacher. “We make decisions based on (test) data on whether they should stay in that skill group or move up or if it’s just not working for a child.” If a whole class is struggling with a skill, the RTI teacher will assist the general classroom teacher in reviewing the skill with the group – practice called “pushing in.” “The teachers are so thankful (for the RTI time),” Koopman said. “When you’ve got 25 students and their needs are all different, of course you do what you can, but (it helps) to have a teacher who can test and identify specific needs and target that.” Knack said she has heard positive feedback from middle school teachers that the interventions are working. “The RTI teachers are better able to target kids who are two or three years behind,” she said. “Before we did this, we had more kids going to the middle school who weren’t at level.” Seeing such significant student improvement is a positive experience for the teachers as well as the students, Koopman said. “We get test results, and you almost get tears in your eyes,” she said. “You want to dance it’s so great. It can be very rewarding and very exciting.”