SAN ANTONIO — The third-grade teachers at San Antonio Elementary School identified the problem almost immediately.
More than 80 percent of their students struggled with identifying letter sounds and decoding words. The stacks of graphs, charts and reports lying before them made that perfectly clear.
Before the team would leave the school cafeteria on Wednesday morning, they were intent on finding a workable solution.
"I love to plan," said Kathie Coker, a 23-year veteran of the school. "It helps us to direct our instruction and be more unified."
There's a quiet transformation taking place in schools around the country. It's called Response to Intervention, and it comes from federal education laws.
But more than being an acronym or a mandate, RTI is a process that changes the way public school educators approach academic problems. One clear goal is to meet student learning needs before they become so great that they require special education assistance.
More broadly, RTI aims to get teachers and administrators to use data to see where their lessons are succeeding and where the curriculum, or teaching methods, or focus, needs some help.
It's not something you can really see if you walk into a school and watch a class. It's more a method, woven into daily education, that if used properly can effectively guide teachers to the best practices for instructing their students. Children aren't shuttled into separate areas for separate needs, and teachers end up collaborating more than in the past.
Best case, the effort is seamless and transparent, with the results to prove success or failure.
"It's just a framework for our work," San Antonio Elementary principal Vanessa Hilton said. "It's a process of finding what works for our students."
Under Hilton's guidance, San Antonio Elementary has become a leader in Florida when it comes to Response to Intervention. Hilton presents her school's successful implementation lessons at seminars and conferences around the state. The school has been doing it longer than most, and it's seeing positive results in its testing data.
A team of Hillsborough educators visited Wednesday morning to observe the school in action. Many Hillsborough schools began adopting RTI later than Pasco did, although they had several of the pieces in place already.
On this recent morning, the entire San Antonio classroom teaching staff gathered in the cafeteria to review results from the Florida Assessments for Instruction in Reading. The new online test caused some problems across the state as schools struggled to deal with limited access from the state servers, but once completed, it generated detailed performance information that teachers deemed highly valuable.
Across the grade levels, San Antonio educators found their students needed assistance with phonetics.
Sitting in grade-level groups, they worked to answer the question, "What are we going to do about it?"
The third-grade teachers noted that spelling tests had fallen by the wayside, and one suggested perhaps they might help.
But is learning words without context really meaningful, asked another, who proposed adding the pronunciations to the words on classroom word walls.
Perhaps, another said, phonetics could be added as a center during the students' daily 90-minute reading block.
The conversation remained tightly focused on student needs, and how teachers could meet them. Because the problems existed with so many students, the teachers didn't really look at whether individual children needed special attention.
This was an issue of instruction that the educators must address.
Each team member participated, sharing ideas, lessons learned from seminars and conferences, practices already in place in their own classrooms. Some thoughts didn't make the final plan; others did. And in the end, they agreed to incorporate phonics into several aspects of their daily curriculum to ensure that student performance improves.
"We love brainstorming," said Amy Harris, a fifth-year teacher. "We took the FAIR data and broke it down. The lowest category was their phonics. Somewhere in our day and our time, we need to be working on our phonics skills."
"We'll start it today," added Sheri Davis, another fifth-year teacher.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.