Speech Language Literacy Lab is pleased to welcome Stephen Charlton, M.A. CCC-SLP, as a guest blogger for the RTI and School Based Innovation Blog Hop. Stephen is currently a clinic director and full-time lecturer in the Speech-Language Pathology department at California State University.
Response to Intervention In High School by Stephen Charlton, M.A. CCC-SLP
To be honest, I had never heard of RTI until four years ago. I know I should have, but I live and work in California. We do a lot of things first in California, such as legislation to protect laypersons from being liable when helping an injured person, banning smoking in restaurants, and recently banning one-time-use plastic bags at grocery stores. However we lag behind the rest of the country when it comes to supporting struggling students. In our defense, we are probably too busy surfing and enjoying our never ending sunshine and warm weather.
Working in a high school district as an SLP for four years, I was involved with supporting students in grades 9 through 12 and then young adults from 18 to 22 years of age, all who received my services through special education. My only intervention with regular education students included a few who stuttered and were on 504 plans under a motor speech disorder designation and one young lady who needed voice therapy after frequenting too many music concerts. A friend who is a SLP and lives in Arkansas complained on Facebook that RTI had increased her workload considerably. Looking it up on Google, I became intrigued and asked my then director of special education about it. He said RTI was in the pipeline, but not to worry about it because SLPs were not involved and the Student Support Team would work on it. I informed him that I consulted with the Student Support Team and could share strategies with them for intervention. “You are paid to work in special education," he informed me and that was the end of it for about a year.
The school psychologist (Student Support Specialist) who worked with the Student Support Team invited me to a meeting of the district team who were implementing RTI. They had been meeting for 5 months, so I was excited to hear about the strategies they would be using. I was horrified to learn that they were still figuring out what the referral paperwork should look like. I had been tricked by the school psychologist who had struggling students that needed intervention and couldn’t wait any longer for help. The next day with a large smirk on her face, she asked me about the state of RTI in our district. My tirade lasted about 3 minutes and involved opinions on how regular education teachers in the district had no idea what intervention should look like, that administrators were all bloody idiots, etc. etc. (That of course is an over generalization, and not true in a lot of instances). When I was done, she calmly asked how I would do it. I had been baited and caught hook, line and sinker.
I have always believed that research solves all problems, so I dug out my textbooks from graduate school, printed out articles from ASHA, speech & language journal articles, special education journals, psychology journals (an extensive reference list is provided at the end of the blog).
It was Robert Owens, Jr. who compared language deficits across disabilities showing key similarities that needed scaffolding in order for students to access the curriculum. Coupled with research from Hugh Catts and Alan Kamhi showing the discrepancy in comprehension between good and bad readers and the associated strategies (or lack there of) by both groups, I had a good place to start.
Taking this information I then sat with teachers first then students in the general education classroom during instruction, watched them take exams and afterwards asked them to explain why they answered the way they did. As I suspected language comprehension was the main reason for poor test scores. The etiologies underlying the poor comprehension only matter when looking at eligibility for special education. The students struggled with history texts and had a terrible time understanding the assigned literature books. If RTI could be implemented successfully, those students would not require special education services. (A rather sad fact is that in California 97% of students who exit high school on an IEP and later attend a city college fail to earn an associate degree, trade or tech certificate, or complete the general undergraduate requirements to transition to a four year university).
Teaming up with the Student Support Specialist on campus, Cynthia Olaya, we set about developing an RTI program. Cynthia, it must be said is an outstanding individual and practitioner and like myself believes research is the key to unlocking most of the problems we run into in our respective fields. Cynthia had been using her recourses on study strategies, such as utilizing flash cards, navigating textbooks amongst others to help struggling student.
With that background we set out to develop a pre-test for admittance to an RTI intervention group focusing on study habits and language comprehension. By the next morning (and not sleeping much) our pre-test was completed, as was a post-test with exit criteria based on compliance with learned strategies and comprehension of both grade level expository text and literary text.
A grade level passage on the break up of the Mongolian Empire was used to illicit the responses for the pre-test.
See our pretest and exit test here
After giving the pre-test we had 8 students from general education and 4 students from special education who were not receiving speech and language services for our first RTI intervention group. At this point, our assistant principal learned of our caper and asked what we had planned. We told her our plan and stated that I had some spare time as I had a very capable intern. The principal heard about it and was very excited, until he found out that we didn't have a curriculum and that intervention was based on the needs of the students that made up the group. Using books from the curriculum in History and Language Arts did not count as a curriculum in his mind. We didn't care and plowed on.
We pulled grade level passages of expository on The Battle of Waterloo and selected literature passages from All Quiet on the Western Front. This was done as teachers had identified this book in particular as being difficult for a lot of students to understand. The Battle of Waterloo I picked because I knew it would be challenging. I have also visited the battle site. We planned a six week intervention period of one 50 minute session per week with me leading language intervention and a study skills class with parents conducted one evening for 3 hours by a general education teacher on the Student Support Team who received coaching from Cynthia. In a meeting with the parents and students, we made it clear that this would not be a tutoring session and that we would not be helping them with material currently being presented in class. Instead, we were teaching them strategies for independently gaining a thorough understanding of all materials presented in the future.
The intervention strategies included the following:
Our first RTI group was slightly uneasy about the whole “doing extra work stuff,” but became a little enthused when they learned they would be pulled from classes and that it would not be held after school. They were already attending “homework club” after school 3 days a week at the insistence of their parents and Student Support Team.
To get the group’s buy in, we labelled the strategies as “cheats.” The sessions were intense with the students often having to stay into lunch until they mastered the strategy. It cost me some money as their sacrifice warranted just reward and with Taco Bell across the street, yours truly became the supplier of illicit food smuggled onto campus by a willing accomplice who doubled as a special education aide.
One student dropped out of the group. Another one of the Special Education students lagged behind the rest considerably, so I pulled her out of class an additional time a week by calling an IEP to change her services for the duration of the intervention. Her case carrier became one of my staunchest supporters when teachers objected to the students being pulled from class. As the six weeks wound down, I saw a newfound confidence as the students tackled each new assignment. A teacher of a Collaborative History class called me to ask what was going on with a student who was in my RTI class and summoned me to come and observe.
The student was leading a group assignment and showing the general education students in his group one of the strategies he had learned. Because of instances like that and students and staff talking we had been put under a microscope.
The Student Support Team continued to monitor the students attendance at homework club, and offered some additional tutoring also. Most parents followed the advice of creating a good place to study and a quiet environment for the students to study.
I have put my head on the chopping block before and survived and was hoping to survive this event also. To exit the program, w made the exit test quite difficult with general education teachers providing the test questions on the day of the test to rule out any teaching to the test. The students were given sections of To Kill a Mockingbird the weekend before and told to read it and use their strategies for comprehension. The expository text piece was from a 10th U.S. History textbook on the Battle of Gettysburg and was not given to them prior to the test. It was a difficult piece, lexically dense and written with the assumption you already knew the Generals, the topography and were familiar with military jargon of the time.
The students had to get 80% or above on each part of the exam. There was no time limit and it took most longer than 54 minutes (length of a school period) to complete each exam. Out of the 11 students 10 passed with one student who had not taken their prescribed medication for ADHD was dismissed from the exam before it started, took it a day later and he too passed. I was actually quite surprised. While feeling the intervention had been successful, I was aware that passing the test was not actually part of the data to define success as that was being kept by Cynthia.
Special education teachers wanted students who were not receiving Speech and Language services to be part of this intervention as did some of the regular education teachers who had come up with more struggling students. Those students were referred to the Student Support Team who had another group of students ready for intervention. This time there were 16 students with 5 being students in Special Education, so two groups were formed. It seemed like I was now on a run away train in which I had lost control of the break lever. At this point a lot of credit should go to my Intern at the time Hailey Romero who proved herself to be such an outstanding clinician that she helped with the RTI intervention along with the 66 students on our caseload. Hailey took over my position when I left and continues to do truly great work with the students at Fountain Valley High School.
D Day had arrived and Cynthia had the data on how the first group had fared in their classes. The average jump in Grade Point Average (GPA) was .49 with all students recording an increase in their GPA. The students were happy, the parents were happy, the teachers were happy, Hailey, Cynthia and I were very happy as was the Assistant Principal who managed special education. The new Director of Special Education was impressed not only with the results but the link up between general education personnel and special education personnel. The teachers from the collaborative classes were now using some of the strategies that had been used with the RTI groups. Our Principal was not impressed however. He told us because we were not using a recognized curriculum that he would not endorse the RTI model and that was waiting to see what the district committee would come up with. My response was that they would be stuck on the paperwork for a considerable time so not to hold his breath.
The true high light of this can be summarized with the events that unfolded at an IEP a little while later. The young lady who I had pulled out for additional intervention had moved with her mother from a very bad neighborhood in Los Angeles to a safer one in Orange County. This student had been abused by a series of adults and would barely talk to any adult at all. One of the special education teachers, who herself had escaped a similar situation after the murder of her husband bonded with the young lady and that helped with her being receptive to the intervention that was offered. The student had never passed an academic class before in her life and had a GPA of .07. The IEP was turned upside down from it’s usual monotonous series of teacher reports and recommended goals, with her latest grades.
The student for the first time passed, not only one academic class but two. Extra Kleenex had to be provided as mother and daughter hugged and cried, followed closely by almost everyone else at the IEP.
In this profession we often feel like our job has become a swim against the tide of never ending paperwork and acronyms; IEP, RTI, ADHD, EL, SLI, ED, CELF 5 and the list goes on. We don't want to take on anything more but when you sit back with a cocktail in hand and reflect on the students and the difference you have made in their lives, you realize that it truly is a wonderful profession. If you are like me you mutter a silent toast to fellow SLPs and order another cocktail because you know you have earned it.
Cheers to all my fellow SLPs.