Missoula's Washington Middle School helps struggling students catch up

2010-12-13T23:15:00Z 2010-12-13T23:19:34Z Missoula's Washington Middle School helps struggling students catch upBy JAMIE KELLY of the Missoulian missoulian.com
December 13, 2010 11:15 pm  • 

In a perfect world, every child would arrive at every school with similar aptitudes and backgrounds that drive them to success.

Imperfection is the reason for Response to Intervention at Washington Middle School - and across Missoula County and the state, for that matter.

It's at Washington where the program has gained most traction in the Missoula County Public Schools district, which has begun to institute it across the district.

"My big pitch on Response to Intervention is that it is what will make Graduation Matters happen," said Sally Ann Chisholm, a longtime speech-language pathologist who is steering the program at Washington.

Graduation Matters, of course, is the initiative launched by MCPS Superintendet Alex Apostle to dramatically reduce the district's dropout numbers.

More than 100 students at Washington - roughly one-fifth of the student body - are in RTI, as it is commonly known.

RTI is an educational philosophy developed over the last 35 years to reach struggling students. It is pushed by states and districts, particularly in the last decade, in response to passage of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The act, pushed for and signed by then-President George W. Bush, holds schools and school districts accountable if their students are not passing increasingly tough standards in reading and math.

With its emphasis on test scores and constant monitoring of progress, Response to Intervention has been adopted by more schools as the No Child standards get tougher to pass every year.

RTI reaches those students who may be having temporary difficulty in a subject, or are struggling for various reasons, but who have the capacity to catch up. It differs, then, from special education.

Before RTI, children struggling academically had to get individualized help or private tutoring, or simply "fall through the cracks," said Monica Roscoe, a counselor at Washington.

"It could (reach) the kid who slipped through the cracks or is just skimming by with low grades but has never been asked why," she said.

Through early and consistent testing, RTI identifies the children who need help, and in which subject areas, and at what level.

Not all students struggling with concepts are learning-disabled. Some come from difficult families; others have not been challenged enough.

A sixth-grader may test low on reading comprehension but score fine in math. Rather than the all-or-nothing approach - special education, or business as usual - RTI will place the student in a sequestered environment with other students struggling in the same way.

The tests show specifically what the problem is. In reading, for example, the problem could be comprehension, or fluency, or decoding (the use of phonics).

"What it does is it tells us where we need to work and what we need to work on," said Washington Principal Paul Johnson.

From there, students get moderate to intensive instruction based on their level of comprehension.

"I like the fact that if children show the need, they're served," said Roscoe. "Before, they would go to special ed, and that can be a detriment to their trajectory academically."

It's working. Test scores of those identified are rising, often by double digits, said Sheryl Brown, resource teacher at Washington.

When those first scores came out last year, "we were doing backflips down the hallway," she said.

This year, five eighth-grade girls who had been in the Response to Intervention program are now back in the "regular" classroom, their scores rising enough to warrant the move up.

One of them has a B average in the communication arts she struggled with.

"She said to me, ‘I love this, because I can read now,' " said Brown.

The school is still tweaking its program, now in its second full year. A committee of 10 teachers, staff and administrators meets regularly.

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