Writer: Donyelle Kesler, 575-646-6233, firstname.lastname@example.org
Distinguishing language differences from disabilities is a problem educators in southwest New Mexico often face. However, a program created through the collaboration of a New Mexico State University professor and the principal and staff at Hatch Middle School in Hatch, N.M., is helping to solve the problem.
Deborah Rhein, an assistant professor in the Special Education and Communication Disorders Department at NMSU, recognized the need for a change in the school system for those students facing problems in reading and comprehension who may also struggle with a language difference.
"When working with a struggling student whose first language is not English, it is always difficult to determine whether the student is struggling because of an innate language-learning disability or whether the struggle is due to the language difference," Rhein said.
These language differences touch a large population of students in New Mexico whose first language and one most spoken in their home is Spanish. Students are tested every year on their reading and comprehension levels. When students still learning English do not test at the levels expected for their grade rank they may be placed into special education programs instead of getting the help they really need.
Rhein and Hatch Middle School principal Pauline Staski came up with and implemented a Response to Intervention (RTI) program for students who aren't succeeding in the regular classroom to receive a more structured intervention program to meet their needs.
The program consists of three tiers. The first tier is the general classroom in which students who are meeting the levels expected of them are included. The second tier is where students who are struggling with the general classroom curriculum are placed for short intensive instruction. The third tier is the special education curriculum for students whose performance in tier one and two is not sufficient.
The program was created for grades six through eight and outlines the core principles of reading, including phonological awareness, decoding and encoding, fluency/automaticity, vocabulary and comprehension.
Hatch Middle School teachers meet on a daily basis as grade level teams and once a week as departments to discuss instruction and curriculum with teachers in the language arts program and a Title I teacher, who works as part of a federal program to improve education. Staski said that without the efforts and commitments of her staff, the program would not have been successful.
"We have really good teachers in the school who try to focus on what's best for the kids and came to an agreement on what would work best. We knew that we had kids who were posing challenges. We lucked out with the fact that all of the staff was very professional," Staski said.
Flexibility and commitment to the program are required of all teachers as they must coordinate and adjust schedules to meet the needs of the students. The type of intervention a student receives is based on what teachers observe the student needs supplementary help with and teachers work to specialize the program for the individual student.
Based on the annual test scores, students who score two or more grade levels below the average reading levels follow a normal class schedule, but instead of having an elective, they go to a specialist for vocabulary, reading comprehension and fluency. Kids who show improvement get a chance to take an elective and then later go back to the reading program so that even students who require supplementary curriculum get a chance to participate in enrichment.
In an area where one third of the student population's first or primary language is Spanish, the results of the program after the first year of implementation at Hatch Middle School have been positive.
"We have seen the schoolwide average reading scores go up one level and English language learners increased more within six months of using the program," Staski said, "When we look at a bell curve of the data, we see fewer students lost ground and more students gained ground under this program."
With the success of the first year of the program, Rhein hopes to replicate the results of this RTI model into other schools around the state.
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