A Middle School Principal’s Perspective: Multi-Tier System of Supports

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    Soon after I accepted my new position at Lionville Middle School in Exton, Pennsylvania, I received word of yet another great opportunity from the RTI Action Network. Working in partnership with some other educational agencies they had set up a presentation in Washington, DC, for members of congress inside the United States Capitol to try and get language about RtI in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. More specifically, language to allowing the coordination of funds between Title I (federal funding to educate low-income students) Title II (funding for teacher and principal training) and literacy grant programs. I was being asked to come and share the perspective of a secondary principal who had implemented such programs. After getting over the shock of being asked, I agreed to come and do my part to help.

    As it turned out, I was able to benefit from this experience in more ways than one. Obviously, getting to say that I presented to an audience at the U.S. Capitol is pretty unique. One of the reasons that I enjoy doing any such presentations or workshops is the chance to network with other professionals. Joining me at this presentation were several experts from around the country. Having the chance to listen to their perspectives and asks them questions about implementation was invaluable. I think that I took more notes than most of the audience members.

    I also learned a new term as a result of this experience. Multi-Tier System of Supports (MTSS) was something that I had not heard before, but I liked it. Actually, I made it a point to use that expression several times in my presentation. It seemed to me that this was certainly a more descriptive way of getting “non-educators” to understand what we were talking about and also reminded users about the importance of recognizing all tiers within the program. Since then, I have tried to reinforce the use of MTSS whenever I get the chance.

    My objective for that day was to talk about the changes that we had made to our program at Drexel Hill, the reasons why and then highlight the successful results that we had achieved as a result. I concluded by talking about what was needed to continue the program and even take it to the next level. We were all hopeful that we would have actual members of congress sitting in our audience that day. I guess that we learned about the way things operate in Washington that day because the room was filled with a bunch of congressional staffers who made very little eye contact because they were taking notes the entire time. It didn’t help that they all looked like they were still in high school.

    In any event, it was a tremendous experience that I was very grateful to be a part of. I don’t know if we ever really got through to anyone that day since we are still waiting for RtI/MTSS to get the national attention that it deserves. If nothing else, it helped me make a great first impression in my new school district. Now it was time to find out more about the status of the RtI program there.

    As I mentioned before, leaving Drexel Hill Middle School was bittersweet for me. I had made several good friends over my 18 years there, all of whom were instrumental in the successful implementation of our RtI program. Soon after I left, I learned that we had made Adequate Yearly Progress for the second year in a row. In a short time we had raised our school-wide Reading scores along with scores in every subgroup. Obviously, we felt that the Multi-Tiered System of Supports was the main reason for our success. In a short time we had raised our school-wide Reading scores along with scores in every subgroup.

    My new school, Lionville Middle School is about 45 minutes farther away from Philadelphia than Drexel Hill Middle School. Over the years the school has been very successful at making AYP. The community, Downingtown Area School District, places great emphasis on educating children and the staff is incredible. For me, this was the very definition of a paradigm shift. My previous school made AYP only after getting RtI in place and getting all stakeholders firing on all cylinders. Lionville had very little difficulty making progress each year, but was in a similar position to most other schools when it came to some subgroups. As the cut scores for AYP were moving up each year, the achievement of these groups was getting closer and closer to not making it. In short, my focus has changed from leading a program that was necessary for a majority of my students, to one that is needed for a small minority of our population.

    The RtI program at Lionville was in its infancy when I arrived. If you have been reading my previous entries, you will remember that the principal of the other middle school in my new district actually attended one of my presentations as a part of developing his new program. The challenge for me was to try and understand what an RtI program would look like in a school at almost 90% proficiency. Rather than doing universal screening as I was accustomed to from my previous school, Lionville was screening students identified through our Academic Intervention Team (AIT). This team meets about once every six school days to discuss students that have been targeted by their teachers because they are struggling in their courses. If a team of teachers feels as though a child might need additional interventions, AIT will begin collecting some data on the student as part of a process attempting to identify the problem area(s). If identified, this could be anything from a need for counseling to a learning disability. After collecting data, the team will make a decision as to how to proceed. If it is determined that the evaluation process should begin, and the parents agree, then the student will be given a battery of tests.

    What this has led to is an identified group of students needing supports who then become a part of our MTSS. For the most part, students are already identified as needing this intervention system when they join us as sixth graders. However, some are identified while attending middle school. We also have had quite a few who have moved out of the supports system while in our school. Both our learning support teachers and reading specialists provide instruction within the tiers. In my next entry, I will go into some more specifics about what our interventions look like, as well as some of the changes that have taken place during my two years here at Lionville.
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