Pes Will Operate Pilot Early Intervention Program

Universal screenings will help school district find students who need early help

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Payson Unified School District’s new program meant to identify early struggling elementary school students is taking shape. Specialists hope to compile a basic operating sketch during the coming school year.

Called Response to Intervention, the federal stimulus money funded program’s goal is for most students to exit elementary school at grade level.

To run the program, the district will create four new positions — one district-level intervention coordinator and one intervention specialist for each of the three elementary schools — as well as implement a database to track student achievement, among other things, at Payson Elementary School.

The district chose PES as a pilot, but the other schools will receive the database after the new program’s inevitable kinks unravel.

By the end of this coming school year, Director of Special Services Barbara Fitzgerald said the district should have developed a protocol for specific interventions.

“I don’t know that a lot will change in the first year,” Fitzgerald said. But by the following year, the district expects to have set performance thresholds below which educators would intervene with extra help.

And in three to five years, a “good structure” for the program should be in place, she said.

Other tools involve standardized curriculum and data collection across schools, along with professional learning communities at schools where teachers meet and strategize.

“We’re learning to read data so we can find out what it’s telling us,” said Gail Gorry, the district’s intervention coordinator.

Schools already collect loads of information from the numerous tests students take. However, Superintendent Casey O’Brien said a dearth exists from kindergarten through second-grade — the grades most critical for developing phonics and reading skills.

The intervention program will feature so-called “universal screenings” which O’Brien said were short assessments.

“It’s nothing like an AIMS (Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards) test,” he said.

A teacher could likely assess an entire class in 20 minutes.

Quarterly assessments will check a student’s grade-level progress. Teachers will assess the slower students needing intervention more often to track their improvement.

Traditionally, schools don’t intervene in a child’s education until they fail, some educators say. By then, it’s too late.

The intervention, which focuses on reading, pivots on the idea that students who succeed early in school will also achieve academically in later grades.

Through the program, educators can determine early on if a child doesn’t understand a lesson, and then figure out what’s wrong. Is it a learning disability or family problems? Does the child not learn well by hearing? Does he learn better by doing?

Educators will first question how they teach the lesson instead of examining possible disabilities, although identifying disabilities will remain a critical element.

A leveled system of intervention incorporates need-based small group instruction or individualized instruction.

The piloted database, System to Enhance Educational Performance, will allow teachers to use test scores and track student performance. The database actually helps both identify students who need extra help and then define what sort of help they need.

At the beginning of the year, students will undergo evaluations and take a literacy test called DIBELS, or Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills. “And then we’ll start digging into the data,” said Gorry.

To pay for the program, the district will use part of the $746,000 in stimulus money it expects to receive over two years. O’Brien couldn’t offer a definitive figure on cost, but expenses include salaries and benefits for four specialists and the database.

Although the database can help suggest methods of intervention, responsibility ultimately rests with humans.

“Student and teacher together,” O’Brien said. “That’s where schools often fall short,” in early intervention. The school specialists will pull students from class and work with them, which ideally solves the problem of teachers trying to offer individualized attention to 26 different students.

As the program develops, the district will also work on adopting thresholds that say when a student needs help. Federal law requires remedial education for students testing at the 25th percentile.

One challenge is discerning low-performing students who are trying their best as opposed to those who are not trying.

Fitzgerald said she believes the standard should examine a child’s capacity for performance, and not simply the percentile of achievement.

“It’s what they’re actually doing in the classroom that matters,” she said.

Another challenge involves creating buy-in among teachers already loaded with responsibility. Fitzgerald said she and Gorry will work to help teachers understand the potential benefit from engaging in the program.

“Each little success will help more successes,” Fitzgerald said.

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