Reading instruction is at the heart of student learning and achievement. If a student cannot read, their life chances are directly impacted. Poor attendance, disproportionate school discipline, limited engagement and connection to the school community, and low graduation rates all correlate with low student reading performance. Additionally, we know that all learners will ultimately have gaps in their skills as a result of school closures, quarantines, and connection limitations in virtual learning as a result of the pandemic. Knowing this, it is imperative that secondary schools pick up the mantle of reading instruction and recognize that we are not just teachers of content but are all teachers of literacy as well.

Our Journey

At Algonquin Middle School in Averill Park, NY, teachers have worked collaboratively over the past several years to develop and implement a Response to Intervention (RtI) system of supports to meet the needs of our diverse learners and improve the reading ability of each student. For many years, we had components of RtI embedded in practices across our building. However, our school lacked both a systematic approach to analyzing the reading needs of our students through a whole-child, data-driven process, as well as interventions to help address these needs.

In working with New York state’s Middle Level RtI Demonstration Project, in conjunction with the State University of New York at Buffalo, our school redesigned many components of the student learning experience and embedded research-based best practices into our program and culture.

What is RtI?

According to the New York state Response to Intervention Demonstration Project, RtI can be defined as “a schoolwide, multitiered prevention framework that provides supplemental, needs-specific intervention to students with learning problems, most notably in the area of reading.”

Three Components of Effective RtI Programming

Our experience followed three phases and offers an outline of how other secondary schools can consider improving their RtI programming. These program phases are critical to successful RtI implementation.

1. Create a vision and a team focused on student achievement.

To develop a solid understanding of a shared RtI goal, leaders should connect teachers and support professionals from throughout the school to draft a vision statement for RtI. This conversation, where a recorder documents key concepts, phrases, and ideas, helps to generate a brief, succinct, and concrete statement that outlines a purpose and focus for your school. Bringing together multiple points of view is essential to the success of creating a mission that is meaningful and viable.

At Algonquin, we created a cross-curricular, cross-grade level group of teachers, interventionists, support service providers, and administrators. This group met regularly to plan and problem-solve as we delved further into the RtI systems and structures. This included participating in program planning, book studies, special projects, assessment scoring, data analysis, and leading staff development activities.

In utilizing an improvement cycle and focusing our school’s work almost exclusively on RtI, this team could use one voice to ensure student learning was the constant driving force in our school. In addition, the reflective nature of an improvement cycle allows for adjustments based on honest and open feedback, leading to increased staff buy-in.

2. Utilize a professional learning community approach.

In providing intentional professional learning to staff, remember that everyone is coming to the discussion with different perspectives and varying engagement levels. Establishing the priority of RtI and reading instruction is critical to the success of this initiative.

All teachers in the school need a common language and understanding of what RtI for reading involves. For us, this meant defining tiers of support, embedding training for differentiated learning for students, and developing practical strategies to provide reading instruction across content areas.

Beyond reading instruction and differentiation, a key component of RtI programming is the effective use of data to drive instruction. At our school, teachers identified the most important measures of student learning, including benchmarks and common assessments. Next, they developed meeting protocols to help guide student intervention placement and tiered supports.

For the highly motivated and engaged staff members, our RtI team developed a series of summer workshop opportunities. On these days, teachers from throughout the building could work together in growing their professional practice by sharing ideas and participating in teacher-led activities. The process developed a dynamic professional learning community in our school. Plus, with the newly expanded capacity to conduct virtual summer learning because of the pandemic, schools now have the opportunity to develop more flexible staff development activities.

3. Create structures and interventions.

Tiered interventions are the backbone of an effective RtI program. The only way to promote student achievement is by identifying the needs of students and creating opportunities for those students to engage in quality instruction to meet their needs.

For those students who do not respond to effective classroom instruction, schools need to provide supports to promote their achievement through additional time with professionals who can help identify reading gaps or deficits. Having clearly defined data-driven entrance and exit criteria for interventions also helps to create a system that is understandable to teachers, students, and parents. 

The most valuable resource a school has is time with students, which is now more critical than ever. At our school, teachers looked carefully at our building’s time utilization and identified several ways to integrate interventions into existing time structures. Teachers also identified modifications for the entire building to promote student learning based on research and piloting different schedule options. These changes have led to increased time for students to receive the support they need.

Collaborating for Student Needs

Inevitably, students will experience gaps in their learning as a result of the pandemic. What is not inevitable are the uneven outcomes. By using effective, research-based RtI, secondary schools can transform their ability to respond to the needs of their students and deepen the commitment of educators to promote student learning. We encourage leaders to look carefully at their school’s reading instruction and reflect on ways to improve student learning experiences for every student, every day.

Joshua Gela is the principal at Poestenkill Elementary School in Poestenkill, NY, and former assistant principal of Algonquin Middle School in Averill Park, NY. Robert Messia is principal at Algonquin Middle School.

Sidebar: Remote Learning Interventions

Is your school currently struggling with identifying ways to support virtual students? Consider these tiered interventions:

  • Wake-Up Calls: Assign a teacher or noninstructional staff member to a morning duty of making wake-up calls to families of students who have a track record of not attending virtual morning meetings or first-period classes. 
  • “Hallway Chat” Breakout Rooms: Breakout rooms provide the opportunity for teaching assistants, classroom aides, or teachers in a station rotation model to provide reteaching, direction clarification, or modified lessons to students. Breakout rooms can also help to connect with students in what would typically be hallway conversations. Counselors, administrators, or support staff can also meet with students through this vehicle.
  • Prerecorded Supplemental Lesson Directions: Providing students with supplemental video content is a powerful way to help reteach material. These videos can be custom-made on specific topics or they could simply be recordings of virtual lessons with time stamps, allowing students to go back and review content.
  • Virtual Executive Functioning Support Groups: With this intervention, a teacher or teaching assistant with an available period provides a structured study hall for students. This intervention can help with goal setting, task management, long-term project planning, and organization, or serve as a personal connection for disconnected students.
  • Course-Load Reduction: Students who are struggling in multiple classes may be overtaxed with balancing the demands of a typical eight- or nine-period course schedule. Decreasing the number of classes can give students more focus and the ability to succeed in core content areas.
  • After-School Virtual Academic Support: Consider creating a structured after-school Google Meet academic group where students can spend time in a structured study hall to receive additional support with class assignments.
  • Period-by-Period Attendance Calls: For those schools operating fully remotely, consider assigning available clerical staff to make period-by-period attendance calls. Simply create a Google Form that teachers can fill out in real time, and ask a support staff member (or two) to monitor the results and then make real-time calls home. This strategy helps parents know when their child is or is not participating and provides greater potential for intervention to support their learning.

Sidebar: Building Ranks™ Connections

Dimension: Result-Orientation

Use data to drive decision making that focuses on results. As a leader, once goals are set, you must build the will and skill for continually investigating data among your staff members and encourage them, through coaching and mentoring, to use the correct data to drive decisions. You can lead your community to regularly monitor data to assess progress toward goals and to make data-based decisions to achieve the intended results most effectively. That monitoring can lead to improvements in student learning as well as improvements in teachers’ instructional practice. You and your leadership team should build structures into meetings and professional learning communities in which progress toward results is examined regularly. Leading staff members in data use can help them uncover patterns of what is—and is not—effective in their own instructional practice and identify early indicators of when students are off track to achieving results. As staff members develop capacity in the use of data, you will be able to ensure that all decisions are rooted in accurate, representative data. You can support staff members in developing that capacity by articulating your own decision-making process and the supporting data, as well as through coaching and mentoring.

Result-Orientation is part of the Leading Learning domain of Building Ranks.