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Students benefitting from early-intervention program

BEMIDJI – The school district here is in the third year of implementing a program designed to quickly identify kids who need extra help.

“It helps us pinpoint student needs. It helps us to intervene in a timeless fashion,” said Kim Kusler, the district’s Response to Intervention specialist.

Response to Intervention, or RTI, is a program that evaluates and identifies students who need early-intervention services.

The program benefits all students, said Kathy Palm, the district’s director of curriculum and administrative services, explaining that it also identifies high-performing students.

“Basically, with RTI, teachers are learning to differentiate, so it’s teaching differently,” she said. “They can give the kids who are really high-performing different things to do.”

Through RTI, students identified as needing interventions benefit from specialized services, perhaps working in small groups or one-on-one with their teachers to improve their skills, Kusler said.

“We try to diagnose their needs and design an intervention situation that meets their needs,” she said.

The program is proving successful, according to school staff members.

“It’s been a very positive implementation for us,” said Kusler, a 30-year teacher in her second year as the district’s RTI specialist.

In a presentation Monday to the Bemidji school board, staff highlighted RTI success stories, including select fifth-graders who work individually with their teacher in 10- to 15-minute sessions throughout the week, building their reading and vocabulary skills. All of them are on track to meet their goals by the end of the year.

“We saw the intervention kick in and saw students’ reading scores starting to rise,” Kusler said.

Erica Miller, a special education teacher at Northern Elementary, talked about a student with whom she works 30 minutes a day, five times a week on phonics, fluency and vocabulary. He now is on track to meet his goal by the end of the year.

“I’m very proud of how he’s done,” Miller said.

Mishel Carlson, a teacher at Horace May Elementary, highlighted a first-grader who, initially, was so shy she wouldn’t speak to her classmates or participate in class.

Then, the student began working with a Reading Corps tutor. The Reading Corps, an AmeriCorps program that provides tutors to schools, follows an RTI model. Tutors meet with their students 20 minutes a day, building phonics, phonemic awareness and fluency skills.

That student blossomed, Carlson said. She now reads with confidence and expression. She is outgoing and seeks out other students who might need help, offering to be a reading buddy.

“It was just a phenomenal experience to watch this little girl … explode into reading this fall,” Carlson said.

RTI has been implemented throughout the district, though it looks different at the middle- and high-school levels.

Palm said a course titled Read 180 has been developed at both levels, offering 90-minute daily classes for students who need additional reading help. After a lesson, students go through three 20-minute rotations, working on a computer, individual reading skills, and then with their teacher.

“It’s very concentrated,” Palm said.

RTI, Kusler said, is considered a “best practice” for school districts by the Minnesota Department of Education.

Teachers meet a half-hour twice a month before or after school to review evaluations and data and examine how students are progressing through RTI, she said, noting that teachers have embraced the program.

“We try to work together as a team to find the best solution for the students,” she said.

But teachers are asking for more time to meet collaboratively with their peers. Kusler said she’s hearing from teachers that an hour a month isn’t enough time.

“We’re a little bit less than what we’d like to be in that area,” she said. “Our teachers would really appreciate more time to work together and collaborate.”

If the Bemidji school board adopts a school calendar for 2013-2014 that includes four early-release dates for students – the board voted to approve the first step in that process Monday – teachers could spend that non-student time working on RTI and in professional learning communities.

“I hear a lot from teachers that we have the direction, we have the data, we just need more time to develop (the plans),” Kusler said.