ST. PETERSBURG — Every day, when the synchronized clocks at Woodlawn Elementary hit 10:15 a.m., 80 first-graders fan out from their classrooms to 17 spots around the school.
For the next 30 minutes, some will work with other classroom teachers, some with part-time teachers, some with reading specialists. Some will be in groups of two or three, stringing letter sounds into words. Some will be in larger groups, putting together PowerPoints.
It all depends on what they need.
The usual school scene? Not yet. But it will be soon.
Woodlawn, one of the poorest schools in Pinellas, is on the leading edge of a national movement to change how schools help struggling students.
The new approach is more philosophy than program. It's tied to how schools diagnose learning disabilities, but affects all students. It doesn't get much attention because it gets into the technical nitty-gritty of teaching.
Yet it's also, potentially, a really big deal. If you believe its supporters — and at Woodlawn it has many — the new approach is more likely than hot issues like vouchers or class sizes to put once-overlooked students on the path to success.
"The mind-set for solving problems with kids has always been, 'What's broken inside the student?' " said Clark Dorman, who leads a statewide pilot project into the effort. But the new way requires educators to look at themselves.
Translation: It's not the kid. It's the teaching.
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One teacher. Two students. White letters on red blocks.
In a kitchen-sized back room, Joan Schottler, a reading intervention teacher at Woodlawn, asked the first-graders sitting with her to spell bad, then best, then pest, then past. When one of them hit a brain snag with pet, Schottler sounded out the word letter by letter: "Puh … Eh … Tuh."
Ding. The boy quickly rearranged his blocks.
Not long ago, students like these ended up on a different track in life. They're way behind. They need a ton of help. In a regular classroom, a single teacher balancing the needs of all her students might not be able to give them the individual attention they need.
At Woodlawn, that's less of an issue now.
The elementary and 33 other Florida schools are part of a three-year pilot project for "response to intervention," or RTI for short. The pilot is backed by the Florida Department of Education and the University of South Florida.
The heart of Woodlawn's plan is "Walk to Read."
Every day, students in Grades 1-3 get an additional 30 minutes of reading help.
The staff uses a battery of tests to determine where each child is coming up short. Staffers use proven strategies to catch them up. Then they check every two weeks to see if the "intervention" is working, or if they need to try something else, or if the student can move to another group to get help with another need.
Many students are put in small groups for help with things like reading fluency. Some get one-on-one time.
Students who are not struggling get special attention, too. Their groups are larger, but they use the extra time for enrichment activities like putting together book reports.
"Our job is to keep going until we find where they're successful," said Woodlawn principal Karen Russell.
Isn't that what schools already do?
Unfortunately, no, RTI supporters say. Too often, struggling students don't get enough help and end up tagged as learning disabled. Statistics show minority students are especially likely.
"In schools historically, we've taught kids one way. And they either sink or swim," said Nikolai Vitti, deputy chancellor of school improvement and student achievement at the Florida Department of Education.
The costs are huge, and not just for the kids. On average, Florida spends $2,200 more on each special education student. And academically, those students don't perform as well.
Statewide, about 350,000 students are labeled learning disabled — 14 percent of the total. But the rate is dropping in RTI pilot schools.
Promising results like that is why the state is pushing all districts to phase in RTI, now.
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Russell fine-tuned Walk to Read at Clearview Avenue Elementary, which was closed year due to budget cuts.
Like Woodlawn, Clearview is high-poverty (78 percent are eligible for free and reduced lunch). But under Russell's leadership, the percentage of students reading at grade level rose from 59 percent in 2007 to 77 percent in 2009. That's nearly as high as Perkins Elementary (84 percent), the popular arts magnet in St. Petersburg with half the poverty.
Woodlawn is even more of a challenge. Last year, 86 percent of its students were eligible for free or reduced lunch. And because of high mobility rates, 60 percent of its students are new to the school this year.
Those are not odds for the squeamish. But Woodlawn's teachers say RTI is giving them a shot. They like the change of pace and the collaboration. They especially like the results.
"When they first started it, I was not really on board. I felt like it was more on my plate," said second-grade teacher Dolores Applegarth. "But as the ball rolled, my kids did fantastic."
Believe it or not, teachers and parents say the kids even like it.
"He says it's awesome," said Daisy Reguero, mother of third-grader Jadon Reguero. "He says the teachers are helping him out with words he doesn't understand."
Belleair Elementary in Clearwater, another pilot school, is seeing progress, too. The school met federal standards last year — a rare feat for a high-poverty school — and internal assessments show big gains for students in K-2, said principal Rob Ovalle.
According to data compiled at USF, 65 percent of the pilot schools showed a growing percentage of students reading and doing math at grade level between 2007 and 2009. Meanwhile, 48 percent of comparison schools did.
"There are some people who say RTI is another fad," Ovalle said. "But the data is there."
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The worries are there, too.
Some say while RTI may be showing promise for young students in reading, there is less evidence to show its benefits for older students and for other subjects. Others fear the same obstacles that keep some schools from successfully intervening now — in some cases, lame teachers; in others, lame principals — will get in the way of RTI, too.
At a recent workshop, some Pinellas school board members raised another issue: complaints that RTI is hamstringing schools from quickly labelling students who are clearly disabled. Those students aren't getting the help they need, they said, and they're disrupting other students.
At some schools, it's a single student, said board member Linda Lerner. But "the process is going on and on."
Ramping up from the pilot project is a bigger worry.
As one of seven pilot districts (Pasco is another), Pinellas is further ahead than most in Florida. But even here, schools are in many stages of the RTI roll out. At some, there is confusion.
Princess Fleming, a Pinellas teachers union official who is monitoring RTI, said the district has not given other schools the same level of support as the pilots. In particular, she said, the district needs to beef up teacher training.
"If we have the resources and everyone knows all the steps … then it could be a great thing," Fleming said. "But we have to have all the pieces in place."
Superintendent Julie Janssen said the district is intensifying training efforts, including setting aside more training days this summer. "It has to be done now," she said.
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The verdict on RTI is still out.
In a few years, students now coming up through the new system will begin taking the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, which starts in third grade. In recent years, the percentage of elementary students doing well on the reading test has begun to plateau. The hope is that RTI will get the trend lines rising again.
At Woodlawn, at least, they're sure it will.
Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8873.