Four District 97 schools will pilot a new program this fall to identify students with learning disabilities early and before they begin struggling in school. Lincoln, Irving, Whittier and Holmes elementary schools will pilot the district’s “Response to Intervention” learning program.

Response to Intervention (RTI) has actually been used by educators for years and was part of the 2004 reauthorization of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). It was added to IDEA so school districts could improve early identification of students with learning disabilities, said Steve Castle, Dist. 97’s director of special services.

With “response to intervention,” students experiencing varying degrees of academic delays early in their learning are giving one or more interventions. Students’ progress is monitored frequently to see if those interventions work.

The program will be given to students in grades one through five at the four Dist. 97 schools. The district expects to expand it to every school in the 2008-2009 school year.

Castle said the program accomplishes several goals. For one, it allows schools to use its own curriculum to identify students. The pilot will start with the district’s reading curriculum, said Castle.

For instance, a student might read a section of a story out loud, which would be part of his or her regular classroom assignment or activity. The teacher or teacher’s aide would monitor what words the student struggles with, or how fluent the student is in reciting them. The student might be timed on how long it takes to recite. The teachers would take that information and develop an intervention specific to that child. That, Castle noted, accomplishes another goal: meeting the specific needs of a particular child.

Castle said math and world languages curricula would be added when the program expands district-wide.

“We started with reading because it is the most important skill for a kid to have,” he said.

For math-based intervention, for example, a student might be given mathematical facts on a sheet of paper and timed while they answer questions.

Castle said students would be monitored three times a year in the fall, winter and spring.

Every Dist. 97 school volunteered to pilot the program, Castle said. The choice was narrowed to the four schools because of staff’s prior experience with the Response to Intervention program.

The district will not incur any cost for the program. The only changes will involve a shift in responsibilities for existing staff.

There may be less testing and more focus on intervention, Castle said. Schools might also move away from pull-out sessions, where students with severe learning disabilities are taken out of their regular education class to receive services in another classroom.

When congress re-authorized IDEA in 2004, Response to Intervention was added to replace the “IQ method” of identifying students. School districts, including those in Texas, Arizona and New York, have implemented Response to Intervention in their curriculum.

Jim Wright, a special education administrator in a suburban school district in central New York, and a trainer in intervention methods for schools across the country, said districts are still learning how to adopt RTI into their programs.

Though the intervention methods used in RTI have been around for more than 30 years, the model used under recent federal guidelines is something new for school districts.

Wright, though, said Dist. 97 was doing the right thing in rolling it out slowly.

RTI is also a step before students are classified as special ed and given an IEP (Individualized Education Program), Wright noted. Under the RTI model, some students may not even require an IEP or other special education services if early interventions prove successful, said Wright, who also founded interventioncentral.org, which provides educational resources to schools.

“Why would we ever want to classify a student in a special education category when they don’t need it?” he asked.

CONTACT: tdean@wjinc.com

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