Making huge gains with Specially Designed Instruction
SIOUX CITY – If you could harness the energy being expended in a Perry Creek Elementary conference room lately, you could probably light up the whole school. Heck, you probably could light all the schools in the Sioux City Community School District. This team is energized with a capital “E.”
It’s not their work with Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) that has ignited their passion, per se. Rather, it’s the success they are experiencing from it that has not only raised their hopes, but their expectations.
“I think special education used to be viewed as glorified tutors,” said Mary Duax, a special education teacher since 1990. “Students came to the resource room to get help with what they were doing in the regular classroom. Today it is meant to supplement what they are doing in the core. We are teaming with the general education teachers. The data shows that scores are going up, up, up, and students are exiting special education.”
That’s thanks to the team incorporating SDI, in which its framework is laser-focused on diagnosis, designing instruction, delivery, progress monitoring and engagement for students on Individualized Education Programs. This isn’t a run-of-the-mill initiative in which interventions are one-size-fits-all. Rather, SDI incorporates vast materials that are designed to find a suitable intervention for each student.
Judging from Perry Creek’s data, SDI is working. Over the span of three years, the school has had an increase in the number of students who are not just making progress, but making ambitious progress which is closing the education gap. Consider: Prior to starting SDI, there were no students meeting reading goals. This year, 75 percent were meeting reading goals, and five students are exiting from reading services based on the gains they made.
Like Perry Creek, 89 schools in Iowa are SDI usability sites, and they are working to see what works, why it works and how it can be scaled to size. Over the course of the next three years, the Iowa Department of Education and the Area Education Agencies are planning to collect evidence-based effective practices taken from participating usability sites and making them available to all schools and districts in the state.
In year three of being a usability site, the Perry Creek team is, like SDI itself, laser-focused.
“Before the initiative, we were not confident in assigning instruction,” said Perry Creek Principal Amy Denney. “We were not confident in matching the instruction with their targeted skills. Through these great resources (available via SDI), we are able to meet the needs of all students. It’s been a fundamental change in our instruction to meet the needs of our students.”
“It was trial and error initially,” said Kari Rea, a strategist out of Northwest Area Education Agency. “Initially, it was very hard. I remember the tears. Our early conversations focused on things like what is proper growth, is it adequate growth. We started digging deep into student statistics. If we wanted every child to fly, that meant we had to shake things up.”
And they did. In order to make progress, the team had to go through a transformation that was both difficult and humbling.
“Before, teachers worked solo,” Rea said. “Today, the teachers are reflective. They communicate with each other, honestly and directly. They are not afraid to say, ‘I have this student and I don’t know what to do with him.’
“In my career, I have heard lots of excuses for why children are not making adequate progress. ‘Parents don’t read with them at night.’ ‘Special education is hard enough.’ We don’t make excuses here.”
Most important, they are seeing results. Duax talks of two students – both third graders when they began their work with SDI three years ago.
“One student was working at 28-sight-words per minute,” she said. “Recently he got his personal best – 93 words per minute. It’s still below benchmark, but we are seeing progress.
“Another student came in with a fluency goal – she was reading in the 60s to 70s. She’s currently at 150 to 160 words. Her fluency is skyrocketing. But then we noticed her comprehension was lagging, so we switched focus to work on comprehension.”
“Both of these students had low confidence,” said Tina Brennan, a Teacher Leader consultant. “And now to see them, you wouldn’t even say they are the same kids. They feel good about their success and their confidence is through the roof."
It’s the fluidity of SDI – being able to readily diagnose a shortcoming and being able to recognize others as they pop up – that makes the initiative so strong.
For long-time teacher Cindy Bowers, beginning the SDI initiative was daunting.
“The biggest challenge for me was the scheduling – it was a nightmare,” she said.
That’s because students are grouped based on needs, even if it transcends the grades they are in.
“I am thankful we share the students,” Bowers said. “As per their needs, it doesn’t matter what grade they are in.”
All teachers say the initiative represented a sea change for them.
For Jennifer Garrison, a special education coach who moved from Kansas to Sioux City, the initiative was an eye-opener.
“It’s fascinating to watch the team work,” she said. “They have deep, candid conversations. It’s something you don’t find anywhere.”
Tara Treiber, resource teacher who came from a small district before joining Perry Creek, was used to working solo.
“When we got together at Perry Creek, I was really impressed how we analyzed data,” she said. “And the feedback from one another was great. It’s been a huge help, knowing there are programs that will help each student’s needs.”
It also transformed Rea’s consulting job to an extent.
“We have built capacity,” she said. “Before they would come to me and say, ‘Kari, look at this data. What do you think we should do about it?’ Now they come together on their own and ask important questions among themselves.”
“Sometimes we can get set in our old ways,” said teacher Cassie Larson. “You get comfortable with a certain routine. But if you are really thinking every child, every day, you will go that extra mile. You have to break through those barriers, because every child comes first.”
Perry Creek’s success has sparked interest in other schools and districts in the area.
“Many other schools and districts have come to visit us,” Duax said.
But until they are trained, trying to replicate Perry Creek’s success could be a fool’s errand since the myriad methods and interventions aren’t necessarily readily apparent. And to launch something without understanding the intricacies of true fidelity could frustrate improvement efforts.
Though three years into SDI, Denney says they still have a long ways to go.
“We still find that we have things to learn,” she said. “We know we have a gap between special education and general education. We’re working on helping our general education teachers understand that during their whole group lesson that intervention and SDI are all in alignment.”
SDI does have the general education teachers’ attention, she added, because they see it works.
“The research is very clear – every kid can make progress,” Rea said.
“The sky is the limit – and beyond,” Duax said.
“The passion is contagious – we all want more,” Rea said.
The lights – and minds – are on at Perry Creek.