Early Intervention Program Aims to Keep Kids out of Special Ed

Published October 1, 2005

A Colorado Springs, Colorado school district is implementing a pilot program to address one of the greatest challenges classroom teachers face: meeting struggling students’ needs as soon as they appear.

Since federal rules and regulations for the revamped Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act have not been sent to the state level yet, Colorado Springs School District 11 is launching a pilot project using a new special education model called Responsiveness to Intervention (RTI).

New Model

Under the RTI model, educators begin giving extra help to struggling students as soon as a potential learning problem is identified, long before a child qualifies for special education. While RTI does not exclude entry into special education at a later date, in many cases special education becomes unnecessary because of early intervention, analysts say.

The National Research Council on Learning Disabilities, a project of the U.S. Department of Education, is currently conducting research on alternative methods of identifying learning disabilities. RTI will be an important part of the evaluation, according to the group’s Web site.

Patty Luttrell, special education staffing coordinator at Colorado Springs’ Stratton Elementary School, is excited about the RTI pilot program because, she says, it will allow the school to help needy students while providing classroom teachers with much-needed support. Training in the model will be given to all teachers in the school; special education teachers will be used for early intervention and helping regular education teachers identify students’ needs.

“We used to have to wait until at least third grade to test them to see if they needed academic or behavioral support,” Luttrell said. “RTI will allow us to provide research-based interventions before we look at using all the time and money it takes to assess a student for special education services.”

Early Intervention

In a traditional school setting, when a student has difficulty learning, a teacher may refer him for special education testing. If the results show a “severe discrepancy” between ability (intelligence testing) and academic performance (standardized achievement testing), the student may have a learning disability. A team of teachers, psychologists, and specialists will develop an Individual Education Plan defining services the student will receive.

But the discrepancy model is a “wait to fail” approach, said Michael Hock, a program associate at WestEd, a nonprofit regional education laboratory serving Arizona, California, Nevada, and Utah that has analyzed RTI. A student in first grade may not yet have fallen far enough behind his peers to qualify for special education intervention, but teachers may have already noticed a potential learning problem.

Hock, who directs WestEd’s Northeast Regional Resource Center’s Learning Disabilities Initiative, says RTI offers a more promising alternative because schools don’t wait for formal identification of a learning disability before providing targeted interventions.

“RTI is, first and foremost, about good teaching: Even before students are formally classified as having ‘learning disabilities,’ those who need more assistance receive additional interventions,” he explained. “With this solid system in place in the general education classroom, a teacher is able to quickly identify students who need still more help. And for some students, the early support may make special education eligibility unnecessary. So RTI is as much a prevention model as an identification model.”

Practical Value

Stephanie Shepard, who teaches kindergarten at another Colorado Springs school, said that although most teachers do try to help struggling students, earlier intervention would be “a very good thing.”

“We have so many of those kids that we just know need some extra support,” Shepard said. “We do work in tandem with special education, but often don’t get any help in the classroom.

“I have had little ones in my classroom that have needed extra help and I’ve often thought, ‘I don’t know what I’ll do if I don’t have that [extra help],'” Shepard said. “I think about it even when I’m at home. I go online, I try to come up with ideas to help. A program like RTI makes a lot of sense to me.”

Wendy Cloyd ([email protected]) is a freelance writer in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

For more information …

For more information on the National Research Council on Learning Disabilities and its research on RTI, visit http://www.nrcld.org/research/rti.shtml.