Saving RtI from the Budget Ax

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    Last fall in this blog I discussed the impact of continuing budget cuts on the staffing of interventionists for the RtI implementation in my school, Ocean View Elementary School in Norfolk, Va. In the past two years, many of the teacher positions which have provided tiered intervention support, especially at the Tier 3 level, have been cut due to ever increasing budget short falls. Over the summer, my leadership team met to review the strategies we began to put into place last year after the first round of cuts to evaluate how well they had worked and what else we could do, even as a second round of cuts was announced. We are looking at numerous strategies to close this ever widening gap between student academic needs and staffing resources.

    First and foremost, it is the classroom teacher who is responsible for the academic achievement of all students in her class. Teachers must do three things. First, they must provide high quality instructional lessons each day so that the numbers of students requiring extra tiered support is contained. Second, they must differentiate during lessons to meet the needs of students across all three tiers of supports. Third, they must become creative in finding time during the day to pull small needs groups or individual students and deliver some of the tiered interventions themselves. They can have students come into the classroom 15 minutes early in the mornings for extra support. They can partner with grade level team mates so they some teachers monitor recess or visits to the library while others use the time for intervention lessons. Classroom teachers can and should accept responsibility for providing the first line of intervention for their students.

    This is also the time for all staff members to step up and provide intervention lessons. This means everyone up to and including the principal.  Both my assistant principal and I are responsible for conducting intervention groups in critical needs areas as determined by monthly progress monitoring data. We help to fill in the holes in intervention support, along with our media specialist and other resource staff (PE, music, art) during some of their planning time. Everyone on our staff has been challenged to find the time in their schedules to offer academic support to struggling students.

    New thinking about how we allocate our shrinking budget is essential. Over-priced, expensive prepackaged programs and materials are out. Channeling our limited funds into staffing is in. Nothing is as effective in improving student achievement as having small group and one-on-one instruction from a professional educator.  Also, taking a fresh look at how we staff is important. Part time teachers (retired or out of work due to budget cuts) can be a big bang for limited budgets. This past year I hired two retired teachers (four days a week, six hours a day from October through April) for half the cost of a full time teacher. They provided Tier 3 reading and math support in state accountability tested grades 3 – 5 and were funded with ARRA (stimulus money).  I had already been using this idea for a number of years using state SOL (Virginia Standards of Learning Tests) funds for three part time teachers each spring for interventions. However, I knew I needed these teachers to start earlier so that they could be an integral part of our RtI program all year. ARRA is gone now, but I requested ALL my school’s Title I funds (materials, field trips, etc.) be reallocated to teacher salaries next year for part time instructional interventionist. I can get four of these interventionists for the cost of one full time teacher (salary plus the expensive benefits part time teachers do not receive). These teachers will work with Tier 2 and 3 students 100% of their time.

    Another strategy is to increase the number of volunteers in our school. Norfolk Public Schools has always highly encouraged schools to both tap parents for support and to form community partnership. In Norfolk, we are very fortunate to have a large and supportive military presence. Ocean View School currently has active partnerships with three military partners who provide mentoring and tutoring for our students. In addition, this past year I recruited a group of neighbors from the East Beach community in which I live who call themselves the East Beach Buddies. Twenty strong and growing, these wonderful men and women come to our school twice each week. Each volunteer is paired with two first or second grade students that they meet with individually for thirty minutes of buddy reading. They even applied for and received a grant so that they can actually give the books that they read to each student to keep. Although these volunteers obviously cannot provide direct instruction in reading skills, their work is creating a love of reading in the struggling students that, paired with extra tiered support, is having a very positive affect on student achievement.

    Finally, although we really like the way we have organized our tiered intervention program, we must now look at new models of intervention that adjust for the loss of intervention staff. We have already begun experimenting with various types of what we call PII (push in intervention) during math. In this model, similar to other programs called All Hands on Board and Walk to Reading that many innovative schools are already using, a team of interventionists (teachers, administrators, and support staff) join classroom teachers on a grade level where students are already sorted based on tiered levels of need. They come for a set time on a set number of days and provide a wide range of differentiated intervention from intensive one-on-one support to struggling students to accelerated learning activities for larger groups of advanced students.

    Public schools and their students are increasingly becoming one of the first targets for escalating budget cuts. However, educators must still continue to strive to provide the best possible instructional program for all of our students. To do this, we must be willing to make changes and become very creative with those resources we have left. Both funding and staffing need to be viewed through a new lean lens to ensure that every penny spent goes directly to the most urgent needs, that teaching staff are spending 100% of their time providing instruction, that all possible community support is tapped, and that everyone in the school setting is willing to jump in and help out when needed. We can run an RtI program on a shoe string, but it will be a lot of hard work for all of us.
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