Why RTI Works for Sanger

Matthew J. Navo is the Director of Pupil Services in the Sanger Unified School District.· As Director of Pupil Services, Matt is responsible for overseeing countless programs, including Special Education, Section 504 ADA, GATE, Health and Nursing, Response to Intervention and home hospital coordination. In addition, Matt is responsible for ensuring district compliance in all programs and ensuring that the needs of all students are met. Matt has been featured in the January 2011 issue of "Lessons from California Districts Showing Unusually Strong Academic Performance for Students in Special Education", the March 2011 issue of Ed. Week featuring RtI in his district, and featured in the 2011 issue of The Special Edge for Sanger's work with RtI implementation and was a featured speaker at "Schools that Work, West Ed. webinar in January of 2011 as well as a presenter under "Closing the Achievement GAP for students with disabilities" in 2010.

Snapshot of Sanger

Sanger is located in the heart of Fresno County and enrolls approximately 10,500 students. Over 76% of our students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch and 25% are English language learners (ELLs). Approximately 82% of our students are racial–ethnic minorities, 7.3% receive special services, 49% of parents do not speak English, and 28% of our city’s residents is lacking a high school diploma. Sanger was most notably recognized in “America’s Forgotten Children—Child Poverty in Rural America.” This 2002 report identified four regions of profound rural poverty in the United States: the Mississippi River Delta, Appalachia, the Navajo Indian Reservation, and the California Central Valley. Sanger Unified School District is in the heart of the Central Valley, where the child poverty rate is two to three times the national average and families have been locked in a cycle of poor educational outcomes and poverty for decades.

Challenges in Sanger

In 2004, Sanger faced many challenges. We had just entered Program Improvement Year 1 (PI 1) as a district due to the poor performance of our English learner subgroup. Seven schools were identified as being in PI status: one was in Year 4, two were in Year 2, and one intermediate school was in Year 2. In addition, Sanger was one of the first 98 schools in California to enter PI status. The district had not maintained adherence to the state textbook adoption cycle or maintained focused staff development around any key principles. Schools in our district had little fidelity to state curricular standards. There was no districtwide assessment system to track progress toward state standards or universal screening system to determine initial student need with-in and RtI system. To better understand how we got to this point, we need to look back to the middle of the 2000–2001 school year.

In the 2000–2001 school year, the district was in a cultural struggle with the teachers’ union, the school board, and the superintendent. Consequently, we arrived at a point of total dysfunction. This was most clearly apparent for anyone entering the city of Sanger from Fresno via Jensen Avenue. Right above the “Welcome to Sanger” sign was a giant billboard that read “Welcome to Sanger, Home of 400 Unhappy Teachers.” This sign depicted the internal cultural struggles we were facing. By 2004, our district had hit rock bottom and we badly needed a solution. A change in the system that could refocus our district was long overdue. Sanger was able to turn the corner by adopting a Response to Intervention (RtI) philosophy as one of the driving principles of our effort. In conjunction with RtI, we also addressed the need for professional learning communities (PLCs) and explicit direct instruction (EDI). Our district has found success with the above initiatives, but RtI has been instrumental in changing the way we address our unique student needs and special education challenges.

Sanger faced the same challenges most schools face when it comes to the implementation of RtI and special education issues. Since we were overrepresented with ELLs and faced with an increasing number of students qualifying for special services, our service providers were being stretched to deal with the needs of an ever-increasing special population of students who were already very far behind benchmark. More importantly, general education and special education weren’t yet communicating to meet the unique needs of students across our district. Combined with ever-decreasing budget allocations, this growing population of students needing special education was slowly becoming a significant subgroup of students for whom adequate yearly progress targets were a struggle to meet. RtI became one of the pivotal pieces in our improvement movement. Ultimately, our movement toward an RtI philosophy created a synonymous connection with general education teachers as they struggled to meet the needs of their students receiving Tier 2 and Tier 3 services. Special education found purpose in serving both the students needing special education and the general education students who struggled to meet learning goals. We found ourselves being proactive about addressing the needs of the students in our district instead of continuing with the reactive “waiting to fail” model that had so plagued our district. RtI gave us strategies to address these challenges and pull our school site teams together.

What Did Sanger Do?

Sanger’s turnaround was based on 1) developing each school’s capacity to strengthen their own school leadership, 2) building principals’ skills in using data in an RtI system to identify areas of unmet student needs, and 3) building teachers’ skills in using data to inform strategies for meeting a range of student learning needs within their classrooms. This model was built around the philosophy of full-inclusion, to the extent possible, of all students with special needs and PLCs, RtI, and EDI strategies. These elements worked together to create a district environment in which teachers in PLCs collaborated to ensure that all students were working on grade-level standards and had ample opportunities to bolster their skills if they fell behind. Also key was how the creation of common lesson design language enabled teachers to target specific skill deficits within a lesson using EDI. Moreover, this shift created a proactive approach and a symbiotic relationship for special education and general education to fluidly react to students’ needs using RtI. As a result of the movement toward EDI, PLCs and RtI implementation, the positive outcomes included moving all schools out of PI status and an increase in scores that exceeded state adequate yearly progress expectations for our district, schools, and subgroups. Secondary outcomes included increased district administrator knowledge of school needs, principals’ increased use of data to implement schools’ RTI plans, and increased use of data by teachers to diagnose and meet the needs of individual students within an RtI philosophy.

To address RtI, our district developed a districtwide leadership structure that is founded on a “loose/tight” leadership model. The “tight” model was the message of the district or initiative that all schools would have an RtI model for meeting the needs of all learners. Rather than being flexible, the tight model was explicit in its direction. The tight model explained that this is not a special education initiative but, rather, a general education initiative that needed the cooperation of special education to be successful. The “loose” model was based on a philosophical system that allowed schools to own the direction they chose to go with regard to attainment of an RtI initiative. The loose philosophy allowed each individual school to structure what RtI would look like, which methods a school could use to implement the RtI philosophy, how universal screeners would be used to meet their unique school needs, and what research-based materials and staff would be utilized to implement RtI. As a result, 90% of schools had an RtI philosophy in place within 2 years. Each site developed their own unique model based on the needs of each school site. They designed an approach based on the types of student challenges they faced and personnel available for implementation. Training was provided to sites by district staff, and support for the purchasing of research-based intervention materials was provided by the district. Consequently, Sanger was able to assess the level of implementation and each school was able to achieve, identify what challenges schools shared, design specific staff development needed for continued improvement, and, more importantly, determine which similar elements were necessary for successful implementation of RtI.

Outcome of RTI Implementation and District Improvements

As a result of the creation of a loose/tight leadership model for implementation of RtI, all schools created ownership of their own RtI philosophy. More importantly, the school site RtI teams learned from each other and quickly found similarities in the universal screening tool Diagnostic Indicators of Basic Early Learning Skills (DIBELS). They also shared the combined use of general and special education staff together  toward  implementation and success of the RtI philosophy. Ultimately, the onset of RtI in 2004 was the beginning of an incredible improvement journey in our ability to address our special education needs and general education challenges.

These practices reduced the percentage of students needing special education services from 8% to 7.3%. This is low compared to the statewide average of 10% and the over 13% nationwide average (Huberman & Parrish, 2011). Despite this concentrated population of students in special education, which is primarily serving our most severe student needs, our special education population and district population perform substantially better than the state average and other districts with similar demographics statewide. 

Sanger’s Special Education Students outscored the state and districts with similar poverty deciles with students who scored proficient or higher in Mathematics and English Language Arts. Sanger’s 2010 AYP performance in the area of Language Arts was 36.5% proficient for students with disabilities, compared to the state performance of 31.8% proficient for students with disabilities and the poverty decile of 26% proficient. In Mathematics, Sanger had 48% of students with disabilities score proficient, while the state had 34.5% of students with disabilities and 28% of schools with a similar poverty deciles score proficient.

Our model in Sanger has moved us from the traditional “wait to fail” model so often untended under the current response to meeting students’ needs, to a more proactive approach of meeting the needs of students before they fail. Sanger has spent more time, money and emphasis on professional development that teaches our general education staff and special education teams how to implement a well designed RtI model, and how to interpret progress monitoring data to design an intervention that meets students’ unique and diverse learning needs.

Advice for Others

Sanger’s model rests on research-based practices, together with documentation of positive results of RtI implementation and PLCs and EDI strategies. Our model reflects a growing agreement that successful school improvement efforts require multiple reinforcing elements that work in concert to achieve the best student results (Bryk et al., 2010). Sanger’s system approach focused on addressing philosophy and cultural changes resulted in three elements: professional learning communities (PLCs), explicit direct instruction, (EDI) and interventions through RtI. Each works with the other by using student data to guide instructional responses and practices.

The combination of Sanger’s full inclusion philosophy, to fully include as many children as possible in the regular education setting, along with the RtI philosophy, which attempts to meet students’ exceptional needs outside of special education, has changed the way our district functions. An RtI philosophy is only successful if all other interventions are provided prior to students being referred for special education. Exhausting resources available to students in Tier 1 via EDI strategies, addressing collaboration through PLC teams, and strengthening the Tier 2 and Tier 3 interventions through the RtI philosophy have become a recipe for success in Sanger School district.

California Comprehensive Center at WestEd, (2011). Lessons from California Districts Showing Unusually Strong Academic Performance for Students in Special Education, American Institutes of Research, Metter Huberman and Tom Parrish.
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