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La Junta Middle School: La Junta, Colorado

By: Paul A. JebePublished: March 14, 2010
Topics: Literacy, Mathematics, Middle School, Tiered Instruction


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Paul A. Jebe, Principal of La Junta Middle School (LJMS) in La Junta, Colorado, has been a Grade 6–8 principal in Colorado for 4 years. He has a background in business and manufacturing and serves on the boards of the Colorado Association of Secondary School Principals (CASSP) and the Colorado Association of Middle Level Educators (CAMLE).


La Junta Middle School (LJMS) has about 280 students in Grades 6–8. There are approximately 1,350 students in the entire East Otero School District. We are small, which means that we do not have any "extra" personnel devoted to implementing RTI — it has to be done on the shoulders of existing personnel. There are advantages to this, in that RTI will be an embedded process for all of our staff, not a "special project" of an RTI director. The biggest disadvantage: It takes a great deal of time to implement in phases that can be absorbed by the staff — including the administration, which must play a leading role in RTI.


Philosophy


We have changed our focus at LJMS. Instead of concentrating on the "bar" that kids are supposed to be clearing, we're focusing on taking students from "where they are and moving them forward." Of course, we still need to consider the parameters of that curricular "bar," but more important, we need to focus on where a student is and how he or she can move forward.


It doesn’t do any good to teach calculus to a math student who is functioning at the 5th grade level. The purpose of formative assessments, pre-assessments, diagnostic assessments, probes, and so on is to find out where a student is in his or her learning and focus instruction just above that level. Through scaffolding to higher levels you can begin working on closing the gap between a student and his or her peers.


This philosophy applies to students and to staff. Administrators need to take their staff from "where they are" and help them grow. It isn't fair to treat them any differently than the way we expect them to treat students.


Universal Level


The first thing we did is make sure that our universal level, or Tier 1, was working for 80% of our students. If it's not, you’ll need to make changes here so you don't overload the other tiers.


LJMS has a split approach to literacy, with separate reading and writing classes. This creates a structure with five core classes — writing, reading, math, science, and social studies — for all students. The writing class uses Writer's Workshop as a format, with grammar/mechanics instruction embedded into the writing process. Writing curriculum pacing guides are based on units of study that require students to study different genres, take their own pieces through the writing process, and then "publish" them. The published products are often shared in events like parent-teacher conferences and publishing parties where parents are invited to celebrate their student’s work as they present them in front of their peers. This focused approach to writing has improved our proficient and advanced scores on the state exam. The average growth since implementing this method has been 22 percentage points in the 6th grade, 17 in the 7th grade, and 16 points in the 8th grade.


The reading classes are focused on four components: guided reading, shared reading, read-aloud, and independent reading. A guided reading library with levels has been established to instruct students in reading at levels appropriate to their skills. Within the leveled reading groups, students have shown significant growth and have moved to higher lexile levels. Our students' attitudes toward reading have changed significantly — now they focus on what they are going to read, not whether they are going to read! Our average growth in proficient and advanced scores since implementing this program has been 5 points, 8 points, and 8 points in the 6th, 7th, and 8th grades respectively. We also have reached the category of high growth on our annual School Accountability Report.


LJMS is also in the first year of a 2-year trial approach to a math program that is similar to our reading program. Students with good numeracy skills are moving through a rigorous curriculum that allows them to complete Algebra I in the 8th grade. Students who require more assistance with numeracy are using a cyclical curriculum. The key to this approach is that a topic cycles back through at least 12 lessons before dropping out of the practice sets. This gives the students the repetitions and time they need to cement these concepts into practice. After examining recent Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) test results, we believe that we are serving these students much better. They may not "cover" as much content, but they will understand and be able to use a substantially greater amount of mathematical skills as they continue to close the gap on their peers. Some may think of this as an intervention; we think of it as a "split universal level of instruction."


Our science teachers have also created a separate universal approach for students who struggle with reading. The vocabulary of science is a difficult foreign language in its own right, and it becomes the main stumbling block for struggling readers when accessing science content. These classes attempt to break the barrier of vocabulary through focused instruction on science terms and concepts and then applying those concepts to the curriculum.


Social studies teachers rely on and coordinate with the strengths of the reading and writing instruction to help students succeed in their classes. Interdisciplinary units are often created with final products being evaluated and scored by both teachers. This approach provides the literacy support and the extended time necessary for students to absorb complex historical and social concepts.


Interventions: Targeted


Our district has focused on providing double-doses of interventions in reading. Initially, only students scoring unsatisfactory (U) on the Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP) were included in these double-dose classes. When we started in 2005, we had two targeted reading teachers and we didn’t even have enough seats for all of the students who required assistance. Now, after 3 years, we have one targeted reading teacher and seats for students all the way through the partially proficient–high range!


This success has come from the discreet reading instruction at the universal level coupled with a true double-dose intervention for those students who are significantly behind their peers. We have come so far that we now have to use a combination of double-dosing and in-class support to allow students who score proficient on the state test to break free of their double-dose class. We feel it is important to support them in their goal to make progress.


Our math program is behind our reading program by about 2 years, as we are just getting our double-dosing strategy worked out along with our split universal approach. However, it is already showing great promise.


In both reading and math, we have had to quicken our pace of assessing and changing student placements based on their needs (progress monitoring). A double-dose class was originally set up for a year. Then we began getting data that allowed us to make changes after a semester. We continue to work on our data-gathering ability, and our goal is to be more fluid with assessing a student’s growth or need for support. This will allow us to quickly move the student to the appropriate setting and enhance their ability to achieve.


Interventions: Intensive


Intensive interventions were commonly referred to as Special Education classes in the past. We have stripped that title away and students are now placed in the intensive (and targeted) classes based on their skill level, not on a label.


The intensive classes differ from targeted classes in that both the intensive reading classes and the math classes have a lower student-to-teacher ratio. These classes are for students who are three or more grade levels behind their peers, and in the case of mathematics we have chosen to make this the student's primary level of instruction.


Gifted/Talented


With the advent of the advanced learning plan (ALP) in Colorado, we are beginning to create some targeted and intensive opportunities for students who need to be challenged beyond the universal classroom. These include alternate curricula, compacting of the curriculum, and choices for students on how to demonstrate their mastery of a topic.


Behavior


Behavior may be one of the best areas for a school to begin analysis if RTI concepts are just beginning to be implemented. The reason is that inappropriate behaviors require intervention, so a school likely has some tiers of common practice in place already.


By identifying the existing practices and communicating the structure to all players, uniformity will increase. It will also show the beginning school where they are lacking support for students. Perhaps all your behavioral interventions occur after a student has been removed from a classroom. Then you have a "hole" in your universal behavior supports. When you see this hole you can begin to research how to fill it. Much of our behavior support at LJMS is planned in what we call Student Support Team meetings, or SSTs.


Student Support Teams


I feel that the Student Support Teams (SSTs) are a critical element that keeps us from overloading the Problem-Solving Team (PST). The SSTs hold grade-level meetings that are scheduled once a week. Teachers discuss students who are having difficulty with either academics or behavior.

The SSTs are led by our school counselor, and she keeps constant "pressure" on the team to suggest ideas and solutions. As the "gate-keeper" to the targeted level, the counselor challenges teachers to try academic and behavioral solutions in their classrooms before a case is passed up to the PST.


Students also know of our counselor’s role as the gate-keeper and they realize in a behavior situation that if they have been referred to her, the next step will be to an administrator. They often are willing to put forth some effort and solve the problem without escalating it to the targeted level.


Problem-solving Teams


One of the key factors in the implementation of RTI is the involvement of parents and the home. Many times, our parents are not able to make it to a PST meeting. We often deal with single-parent homes in which the parent can't afford to take off work to meet with us. My advice is not to get "locked-up" in your PST meetings because a parent can’t come.


For us, it works well to do the meetings in a piecemeal way in these situations. First we get input from teachers, intervention specialists, and the student. Then we contact the parents to ask for their input and share some ideas with them for supporting their student. At that point, we report back to the student and staff and begin the interventions. This process has worked well for us whenever we aren't able to gather all the stakeholders around a table at the same time.


Our Accomplishments


As mentioned previously, our limited staff of targeted instructors (one for reading and one for math) are reaching farther and farther "up the scale" when looking at CSAP test results. We must now give birth to a new approach for part of the reading teacher's day because we have so many students who have reached the proficient range (a nice problem to have).


We have also increased our student's reading abilities by so much that we have "out-lexiled" our library — meaning we need to buy more books that are at the 1200+ level to keep our students challenged (another nice problem).


Our growth rate as measured by CSAP and reported by the state is high, and we hope that our weighted index score (a calculation of all students' CSAP tests in all subjects) will increase enough to have our achievement rating be high as well.


In math we only have one round of NWEA test data showing us that we’re headed in the right direction. On a more subjective level, it is truly amazing to me to see students in targeted math classes and split universal math classes who actually get engaged with math because it now seems possible that they will have some success. These were the students in the back rows who were more often counting ceiling tiles than doing math. Now they play the math game with us and actually get work done.


Finally, we have also been designated as the 2009 School to Watch for Colorado!


What's Next


We need to do more work on serving our gifted and talented students. We need to get better at our documentation in SST and PST meetings. We need to continue to encourage a culture that doesn’t support "kicking a kid out" of the classroom, but that engages the teacher as part of the solution. We need to get better tools to do progress monitoring, and we need to adopt the revolving-door philosophy of providing interventions to students in a fluid fashion. RTI is a BIG ELEPHANT to eat. It is the right elephant, so take it one bite at a time!

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