CARRBORO - Four years ago, McDougle Elementary School was not meeting Adequate Yearly Progress measurements as defined by federal guidelines.
Last year, it met AYP for the first time in three years, raised reading and math scores for the entire school, made progress in closing its achievement gap, reduced discipline referrals, and reduced the number of students being referred for Exceptional Children (EC) services.
Administrators credit the progress to the implementation of Response to Intervention (RTI) plans, which were introduced at pilot schools last year, including McDougle, Ephesus, Morris Grove, Rashkis and Scroggs elementary schools.
"Response in instruction is about providing immediate help for all students," said Amanda Hartness, the principal at McDougle. "It's about providing intervention services and high-quality instruction."
Using RTI strategies is about identifying the need for early intervention, Hartness said.
For example, if teachers notice that a student is struggling with math or reading skills, they can find specific ways to help that student.
RTI emphasizes an individualized response to student needs.
Some strategies could include offering extra guided reading sessions in a smaller group setting, providing counseling on behavioral issues, or offering the student one-on-one assistance.
Work is meant to take place during the school day, rather than through programs outside of school hours.
"It's really about providing high-quality instruction and differential instruction to meet the needs of that individual child," Hartness said. "We start small and gradually move to make more serious interventions."Narrowing the gap
As a result of these strategies, Hartness says that the school has been able to narrow its achievement gap.
In the last three years, math scores have increased 10 points for all students, for an overall proficiency level of 91 percent, Hartness said.
Black students saw a 35-point increase, Latino students increased 21 points, EC students increased 10 points, and students who qualified for free and reduced lunch increased 29 points.
Reading scores for all students also increased 8 points in the same time, for an overall proficiency level of 82 percent.
Black students saw a 20 point increase, Latino students increased 27 points, EC students increased 3 points, and students who qualified for free and reduced lunch increased 27 points.
Caryn Sabourin Ward, the district's RTI coordinator, said the program is starting to be used in all elementary schools and will be slowly introduced to secondary schools this year and next year.
"We are seeing gains across all schools," she said. "Our focus this year for all 10 elementary schools and their RTI work is to ensure that we all have high-quality instruction."Fewer EC referrals
In addition to helping reduce the achievement gap at schools such as McDougle, the strategies have also been effective in reducing the number of student referrals for EC services, which are designed to help students with developmental or learning disabilities.
"In the past, we referred many students, but only about 50 percent of them were actually qualifying for services," Hartness said. "That means that we thought there was something wrong with the student when in fact there was not."
Now about 88 percent of students who are recommended for EC services actually qualify, Hartness said.
"This is a good thing because it means that we are meeting the needs of our students in the classrooms first, which is the least restrictive environment," she said.
"RTI is not a program that takes away services for students who are already identified in special education," she continued.
"It is a program that helps create a systematic process that we follow so we can help students be successful in the classroom. We only refer up for specialized services if the child is truly in need and we have exhausted other interventions and resources."
Amy Rickard, the principal of Morris Grove Elementary, said her school has also seen a decline in referrals for EC services, thanks to RTI work that was begun this year.
"We may have children who have attention concerns or behavioral concerns and the teacher may feel like special support is needed ... when in fact a lot of those academic needs and behavioral needs could be addressed in the classroom," she said. "We try to ask, 'What is the bigger issue?' It's not just that they can't read, but why."
Rickard noted that a decline in unnecessary referrals has helped to free up resources and specialists for students who need more intensive interventions and support.
The drop in referrals has been seen district wide.
Sabourin Ward said 279 students were referred for EC services in 2009-10, but only 211 were referred in 2010-11. At McDougle, those numbers dropped from 21 to 17 students in the same time frame.
She said that, from 2000 to 2008, only 50 percent of students referred for special education services across the district actually qualified for them.
In 20101-11, 86 percent of students referred for these services qualified.
"We are getting as a district and in all the schools much better at identifying who needs special-education services," she said.Discipline improving
Discipline referrals have also declined with the introduction of RTI strategies.
Ward said that is because Positive Behavior Intervention Support is included in RTI, and that both follow the same intervention support model, which focuses on early, individualized response.
Hartness said discipline referrals have dropped 45 percent in the last year at McDougle.
"Instead of automatically assuming that something was wrong with child, we encourage asking, 'What was it that I was doing in my class that was unclear? What could I do differently?'" she said, adding that students might simply be confused or feeling frustrated.
"When students act out we now have them complete reflections and discuss how they will change their behaviors," she said.
"In the past, we simply referred to the office for many things. Now the office is used for more serious problematic behaviors. We also have school-wide systems for rewards. ... We want to try and teach responsibility and good habits of behavior so students will take them into real life situations."
At McDougle and elsewhere, administrators say the key to their academic and behavioral success has been early focus on students and a more tailored response to individual needs.
"I think the school has gotten very focused on helping children before assuming there's a problem," Hartness said.