A Systems-Thinking Approach to RTI: Improving Elementary Reading Supports Yields Significant Gains Newport News Public Schools (VA)

In the Fall of 2013, Superintendent Dr. Ashby Kilgore and her leadership team engaged DMGroup to take a close look at Newport News Public Schools’ (NNPS) practices, with a particular focus on elementary reading instruction. While the district was well known across Virginia as an excellent urban school district, new, more rigorous state assessments disappointingly showed that only 60% of elementary students were proficient in reading. Additionally, the impact of the new standards had been much greater for the students in NNPS than for students in other districts across the state. Dr. Kilgore and district leaders felt a real sense of urgency to improve results. 

As a first step, DMGroup examined in fine detail how the district met the needs of struggling learners with and without IEPs, comparing current NNPS practices to best practice benchmarks. The DMGroup team conducted focus groups and interviews to gather qualitative data and also collected and analyzed quantitative data about weekly schedules from 600 staff members. Summary findings were eye-opening for district leaders.

District leaders developed opportunities based on the findings to improve support for struggling students, specifically with regard to reading. DMGroup recommendations focused on matching teacher skills to student needs, creating meaningful extra time for struggling students to learn, and utilizing resources to better serve students who struggle academically.

Dr. Kilgore and her team, with DMGroup support, developed a plan to align their resources and create a strong RTI structure to support struggling learners. While the initial study had focused primarily on reading, many of the changes to scheduling and to the approaches to intervention would have positive effects on math as well. By fall 2014, the new intervention model was fully in place.

The results from the first year were significant: all 24 elementary schools improved in reading, and in some cases 21% more students were reading at grade level. On average, the reading test scores in grades 3-5 increased nine points, surpassing the state growth of six points.

The detailed analysis of how staff spent their time was essential information that helped us become committed to moving forward. It allowed us to dissect and understand our strengths and weaknesses. It made our path forward clear.

Dr. Ashby Kilgore, Former Superintendent,
Newport News Public Schools (VA)

Part I: Review of Current Practices

Qualitative and quantitative analysis uncovers opportunities

The DMGroup study took a deep and comprehensive look at district practices through both qualitative and quantitative analysis. To gather qualitative data, the DMGroup team conducted focus groups and interviews with key central office leaders, special education paraprofessionals, and other key stakeholders. Using DMGroup’s proprietary dmPlanning software, the team also gathered data from staff who entered their activities and responsibilities in 30-minute increments for one full school week. Through this software, 600 staff—close to 95% of all support staff—shared their schedules. The dmPlanning technology was then able to quickly analyze all these weekly schedules and provide a clear view of how service was being delivered in the district. Reports were generated to show how staff spent their time, the number of students each practitioner supported, the average group size, and the percentage of time spent on academic and non-academic topics.

With findings in hand, DMGroup was able to analyze and share how the district’s practices compared to best practices and provided a benchmarking analysis comparing Newport News Public Schools’ practices to those of other districts. 

One surprising finding for district leaders was that many paraprofessionals were spending the majority of their time, fully 83% of their week, supporting students academically. The district was surprised to realize how much of the academic support for struggling students was coming from nonteachers (38% of their time was spent supporting students in reading, and 23% of their time was spent supporting students in math). In keeping with best practices, students who struggle with reading need to be supported by highly skilled and effective teachers of reading. Paraprofessional support should be focused on students’ health, safety, and behavior needs as opposed to academics. Making thoughtful assignments of skilled teachers to match student needs would be essential for success.

How Direct Service Time is Spent by Inclusion Paraprofessionals

Perhaps the biggest surprise was finding out when “extra help” was being provided to struggling learners. Interviews with staff indicated that students struggling in reading, for example, were often pulled out of the literacy block to receive intervention. Data from dmPlanning confirmed this finding: staff reported that students were pulled from core-class instruction over 60% of the time to receive extra help; therefore, this support was not in fact extra help but was instead replacing essential core instruction. To effectively support struggling learners, the district needed to carve out true extra time on a daily basis, in addition to core instruction, for these students to receive dedicated support for reading and math skills.

Student Instruction Time - Push-In Vs. Pull-Out from Core

The student isn’t simply in ‘reading’ intervention anymore; the student will be in a targeted intervention, such as comprehension strategies for nonfiction reading. We’ve changed intervention from ongoing to finite. The goal is to address their need and keep filling gaps to keep students progressing.

Brian Nichols, Chief Academic Officer,
Newport News Public Schools (VA)

Part II: Aligning Time and Talent 

Reallocation of resources yields big gains in student achievement

Led by Dr. Kilgore, NNPS district leaders invested weeks discussing and understanding the DMGroup findings and recommendations. They were shocked to see the numbers on pull-out support and the amount of academic support provided by generalists. The team grappled with how their approach differed from best practices. 

After a few weeks of in-depth conversations, the NNPS team was in full agreement and was determined to improve their interventions. With the support of DMGroup, the team developed a plan to align their resources and create a strong RTI structure to support struggling learners. In the spring of 2014, under the leadership of Chief Academic Officer Brian Nichols, the district introduced the new intervention model and gained the enthusiastic support of all 24 elementary school principals. Implementation began over the summer with the creation of new elementary master schedules for all schools, careful planning of daily schedules for interventionists, and realignment of resources. Each school faced a different series of obstacles, but as a result of strong collaboration and much hard work, each school had a 30-minute intervention and enrichment block in place for the very first day of school.

The second key component was to overhaul the hiring and staffing process for interventionists. The job description for interventionists changed significantly and shifted away from a focus on “generalists.” To smooth the transition, no staff were let go; with re-alignment and attrition, many of the generalist positions were replaced by staff with the specific skills needed to best serve students. 

Another new priority for all school-based leadership teams was to focus on data to assess student learning in intervention groups. The teams developed a process to identify specific skill deficits and place students into intervention groups with peers who had similar challenges. “In this intervention model kids are seeing themselves as successful; they are seeing themselves become smarter,” says Dr. Kilgore. “There is a commitment across the district to keep moving forward with this plan.“ 

To the surprise of many in the district, with DMGroup support, NNPS was able to achieve dramatic improvements in outcomes by reallocating existing resources. Taking a systems-thinking approach ensured that the district’s precious resources of people, time, and money were being used most effectively and that the district’s efforts were best aligned to support students.

Key Results

  • Deep insights into current teaching practices, with a focus on reading

    Qualitative and quantitative analysis gave district leaders the information they needed to understand how service was currently being provided to struggling readers and how these practices compared to best practices and benchmarks from other districts.
  • New elementary master schedules and staff schedules aligned to instructional priorities

    Coordinated master schedules for all 24 elementary schools and careful planning of daily schedules for interventionists were designed to ensure equitable instruction for all students and to minimize pull-out during core instruction.
  • Daily 30-minute intervention and enrichment block

    All elementary schedules were revised to include a dedicated 30-minute block for intervention and enrichment, ensuring that “extra help” really was extra and not instead of core instruction.
  • RTI model designed to better match teacher skills to student needs

    The district shifted its staffing model away from “generalist” intervention to ensure staff had the specific skills needed to best meet student needs. Additionally, a new process was introduced to identify student skills deficits for more meaningful grouping with peers who had similar challenges, maximizing both teaching resources and peer support.
  • Dramatic improvement in percentage of elementary students reading at grade level

    The results from the first year were significant, with all 24 elementary schools showing reading improvement and some showing as many as 21% more students reading at grade level.
  • Improved math outcomes derived from improved intervention model

    While NNPS’s and DMGroup’s work was focused primarily on reading, many of the changes to scheduling and to the approaches to intervention had positive effects on math, as well. Elementary students exhibited sustained achievement gains compared to grades 6, 7, and 8, where the intervention model was not changed.

Newport News Public Schools (VA)