Panel 1 Speaker: John Carruth - Vail School District (AZ)

RTI Leadership Forum
Washington, DC
December 8, 2010


…We have been implementing an RTI process in our district since 2002, and let me just tell you a little bit, I’m not sure people are familiar with Vail, we were a small district, rural in nature but we’re on the growth band of Tucson which is a rapidly growing city, was a rapidly growing city.  At the time that we began this process we were a happy place to be.  We enjoyed each other, but we quickly realized that our instruction and practices were broken.  And what I mean by that we, the first state-wide testing data came back to us, in Arizona that’s AIMS, and here are some indicators:  In 8th grade only 18% of our students passed the math portion at AIMS.  Now the state was actually about 23%.  We were below that, but we were, our students, over 80% of them were not proficient in math in 8th grade.  We were doing better in reading but only 60% which when we look at that, we had 40% of our kids who were not proficient, all kids were not proficient in reading.

Our general demographics have remained constant through this change process, and I’ll just run through them so you can have some context for that.  We have about a 20% low SES population.  It’s climbed a little bit now over the last couple of years.  We have about a 40% Hispanic population, but a relatively low ELL population.  And at the time in 2002 we had about a 13% special education population and that was growing.  In August of 2002 I probably did the smartest thing I’ve ever done in my career.  I put an ad in the paper for a part-time middle school psychologist, and Dr. Amanda VanDerHeyden responded to that ad and I hired her.  You’ll see Amanda if you’re not familiar with her here in a few minutes.  And it was through Amanda’s work that we were able to craft the kind of change that has taken hold in our district and I’m hoping that we continue to this day.

But as far as some of the system change pieces and as far as realizing the potential of RTI, we really did sit back as a leadership group and spurred by this comment by our long-time superintendent who said, How do you all like working in one of the lowest performing districts in the state?  We didn’t.  And we went about crafting a common vision of what good instruction should look like.  We crafted a very strongly held belief that all students, all students, should learn.  And we had high expectations for all students, not just a sub-group.  Actually we believe that sub-groups should be a beneficiary of that high quality instruction, and we can adjust what we do from there.

Two fundamental changes occurred.  The first was that we focus on student outcomes and not on teaching practices or lessons.  All those teachers who had firmly held beliefs that their lesson was the best, that’s all gone.  We focus now on are the students performing, and what does that look like.  And how do we share that, those successes, through data team meetings in our schools.  And the other thing is that we guarantee, we have a guaranteed viable curriculum.  You cannot come out of one of our grade levels with not having been taught and demonstrated mastery on an understood core set of instructional standards.  And that is very powerful for us.  And then there’s a system that if you miss it, how does that layer back in so that that can be re-taught, it can be adjusted, whatever it is that you need.  I really appreciate the tiers, but in my mind they’re very rigid when we think of individual students and I stole this so I’ll preface it with that, but I saw somebody do a presentation where they held up a lava lamp or presented a lava lamp and the globs of oil represent kids moving up and down, and I’ve got one on my desk now.  But that’s truly where it is.  All kids sometimes need differentiated instruction.  And how are we meeting their needs?  And what does that look like?  It is not that you’re nailed into one particular level.

We have a common shared vision around curriculum instruction, assessment, and intervention, and I will tell you, I think some of the biggest challenges that Response to Intervention faces is in regards to Tier 1 and in regards to working with curriculum departments in schools.  This is sponsored by the National Center for Learning Disabilities.  When I talk to colleagues in school districts, it is often felt I believe that this is, that RTI is a special education process and so how do we break that down?  How do we have that conversation and how is that common language utilized so that we can move beyond those barriers and work together?  One simple thing that I did, my counterpart he’s a curriculum director, and I, we spent two days over one summer, we just asked each other really stupid questions.  Everything was off the table until we had full understanding of what that was like.  It was a simple matter of building trust.  But that has carried forward significantly in the way that we practice our craft.

I think that that’s primarily what the focus is.  I will just quickly end with I am a special educator, a middle school special ed teacher working primarily with students with learning disabilities.  I’m in emotional disabilities, and I do believe this process has a huge effect for our special ed kids and just where we are now as far as some of our data, 55% of all of our special ed students who are identified are passing our state assessment.  That number has shrunk from 13% to 11, we’ve cut our number of LD students in half who we identify.  And all of our students, those 8th grade numbers that I talked to you about, we have 93% of our 8th grade students are passing the math assessment now.  And 88% of our 8th grade students are passing the reading assessment, so we have a similar population, but we’ve seen a huge shift, and I do believe that that is attributed to many of the core tenets that we’ll be talking about today. So thank you.  (applause)


John Carruth is the Assistant Superintendent of Special Programs and Projects for the Vail Unified School District in Tucson, Arizona.

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