When two Oklahoma districts became the first in the state to adopt a response-to-intervention (RTI) model, two of us took a leadership role as speech-language pathologists—one in each district—redefining our roles, caseloads, and service delivery models in a way that benefited all students.
Two weeks before the 2005–2006 school year, the Bethany Public School District special education director returned from a conference on RTI and wanted to begin a program immediately. Bethany School District became one of the first districts in the state to implement RTI, and Yukon Public Schools followed two years later. It was uncharted territory for everyone.
An RTI specialist who is an associate professor of school psychology at Oklahoma State University helped the district's educators, specialists, and administrators understand the core concepts of RTI. He walked us through each tier in the model. Professional journals offered SLPs information related to their field. The more we learned about RTI the more excited—and terrified—we became. We were excited at the thought of early intervention without the need for formal testing or Individualized Education Programs but terrified of changes in the role of SLPs. Where or how our area of expertise would fit into this new and alternate model was unclear.
Key district faculty met to discuss the RTI components to be implemented. Universal screenings, progress monitoring, research-based interventions, and data-based decision-making were the new buzz words. The schools also would need a coordinator to bridge the regular and special education worlds. That person would identify research-based literacy screenings, collect and analyze data, and collaborate with teachers to provide literacy interventions. It was striking how the responsibilities of the RTI coordinator matched the roles of the SLP discussed in new ASHA documents. Several professionals could lead RTI, but our knowledge of language and emerging literacy and our ability to assess, collect, and interpret data made SLPs uniquely qualified. At the time few SLPs in Oklahoma were involved in RTI to the same extent, so we needed to define our roles.
Leading RTI and managing a speech-language caseload wasn't easy. How could we do both effectively? RTI forced us to review what was and wasn't working well as we examined eligibility, educational impact, and service provision. We began questioning whether the students on our caseload had differences or disorders, and in reviewing our current caseload, we determined which students could be better served through an RTI model.
New Service Models
In RTI workshops we had been educating teachers about the key role of short-term, intense, and frequent intervention. If this role is true for teachers, why couldn't it be true for SLPs? Several service models emerged in speech-language research that blended well with the RTI model. Instead of serving students twice per week throughout the year, we developed intense and frequent sessions for students in shorter time periods (Ukrainetz, 2006; Ukrainetz& Justice, 2006).
For example, in a 40-student caseload, 10 students would be served daily for nine weeks. Between direct service periods, SLPs provided progress monitoring and met with teachers. This model has reduced the number of speech/language students receiving direct services at a given time, provided continuity for students, and increased the amount of time available for SLPs to provide interventions for struggling students in the general population.
During our new "consultation and collaboration" time we teamed with school staff to work on literacy. We began "Students Are Responding to Intervention" (START-IN; Montgomery & Moore-Brown, 2006) groups with special education teachers. This RTI program addresses literacy and language for struggling readers. We researched interventions and provided flyers about evidence-based reading strategies. There was time to problem-solve with teachers to pinpoint underlying language difficulties for struggling readers. Quick reference sheets for spelling instruction and phonological awareness error correction strategies were developed. We collected data and informed the administration of our efforts to support reading within the school. We wanted administrators to know that although caseloads were lower due to effective early intervention and cycle scheduling, more students were benefiting from the expertise of SLPs.
Teachers and SLPs had questions about job boundaries and worries of encroachment. Adapting to change took time, but within a year teachers and specialists found a niche and were happy with the changes. One Bethany special educator said, "Regular ed will do a little special ed and vice versa as we work together to do what's best for kids."
"Collaboration is key with RTI," a principal said. "All teachers come together to get interventions that are scientifically based. It's about being able to work smarter, not harder!"
In addition to providing expertise and leadership, SLPs can gain knowledge from other professionals on the team. The role of SLPs in RTI may seem like an overnight change but was actually an extension of our role in phonological awareness groups, "language time" within classrooms, kindergarten screenings for literacy readiness, and research summaries for administration.
Bethany School District began a state-wide language/literacy conference for school-based SLPs featuring nationally known presenters, and then implemented the new information. Over time the trajectory toward a larger literacy role for SLPs and RTI has been a natural progression that allows SLPs to work effectively with all students.
RTI is an opportunity to showcase the value of our profession in the educational community—and for the Bethany and Yukon public school districts it was an opportunity to improve outcomes for students and expand our effectiveness in our schools.