Lessons Learned from a Decade of RTI/MTSS Implementation

At Centennial Middle School (CtMS), incoming students arrive typically two to three levels behind on academic standards. Every year, 60 percent of the population in math and 55 percent of the population in English/language arts (ELA) need additional academic support. In a building of 600 students, with a 50 percent free and reduced rate, it’s a clear focus of ours to provide that extra support in math and ELA in an effort to help close that gap without taking away from core instruction.

Response to Interventions (RTI) and Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) are structures available within the education system to address students’ needs that are beyond the reach of standard classroom differentiation. One or both terms might be familiar to you depending on your state; Colorado uses MTSS. The system relies on analysis of student data with a team of experts (core teachers, intervention specialists, administrators, and more) who base interventions on the gaps that data uncovers.

The challenge I have had with MTSS implementation is, “How do you provide interventions at the middle levels?” It seems that most of the books, resources, and intervention curriculum is designed for elementary school students. In addition, since intervention needs to be in addition to core instruction (core plus), the challenge becomes providing students extra instructional time without adding more time to the day or staff to your building. So, how do you get 400 students more math time? Or 350 students more ELA time?

Having worked on these challenges for a decade at both the elementary and middle levels, I’ve learned various lessons about implementing an MTSS system into a school. Here they are:

  • Start with strong core instruction. All students need to get the best core instruction that your staff can deliver. Teachers need to see that MTSS starts with them. At CtMS, our staff works collaboratively to research and implement best practices to improve core instruction. Our leadership team supports our teachers by providing regular time to meet together to analyze data, create and evaluate common assessments, and form strategies to improve core instruction. In addition, we encourage our teachers to take risks in the classroom and learn from those experiences.
  • Get your best teachers working with the students who are struggling the most. Utilize your best math teachers to work with your students with the greatest math needs, and the same should be done with ELA. Traditionally, schools have paired struggling students with the newest teachers or paraprofessionals. Struggling students must be working with our best teachers!
  • Use progress-monitoring to assess student progress or performance on the areas that are identified as at-risk. Progress-monitoring is a systematic approach that monitors student progress at frequent intervals, depending on the skill and tier level. At a minimum, progress-monitoring occurs at least monthly, but ideally every two to three weeks. Teachers use this data to drive their instruction and respond better to the individual needs of each student.
  • Build a flexible master schedule that accommodates core plus programs within the school day.Time and staffing can be a HUGE roadblock in having a successful middle level MTSS structure. To build our schedule, we had to change the way we look at time and use our staff. Our schedule had to allow our best teachers to instruct our struggling students. We added more class sections to provide time for students to get core plus without pulling them out of core instruction. Adjustments to the master schedule allowed us to create an additional class period (from 6 periods to 7) and a 7-day rotation that drops one class period per day in order to provide more sections for interventions.
  • Support students who don’t need MTSS interventions. With the majority of our school’s students needing core plus, we created a What I Need (WIN) block. WIN supports students who require more instruction time but may not need the intensive instructional level of an MTSS intervention. Additionally, WIN enrichment classes provide students who have meet or exceeded standards in their core subjects the chance to explore other opportunities, like problem-based learning, engineering, robotics, and advanced math.

Centennial’s MTSS system was not created overnight. We began with a single focus on reading, then added math, then writing, and now this year we’ve folded behavior intervention into the system. Overall, it has been a five-year process at CtMS that started with 40 students and is now supporting 170 learners. This ever-expanding reach of support to more students each year is a highlight of our successful MTSS program here at Centennial Middle School.

What are your experiences with RTI/MTSS? What strategies have helped the implementation of your school’s core plus initiatives?

Joe Simo is the principal of Centennial Middle School in Montrose, CO. He is the 2018 Colorado Principal of the Year.

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