Michigan Districts Team Up to Keep Kids from Falling Through Cracks

Mason Public Schools teacher provides math instruction. (Photo courtesy of Ingham Intermediate School District)

Mason Public Schools teacher provides math instruction. (Photo courtesy of Ingham Intermediate School District)

Educator Narda Murphy has taught an array of students over 30-plus years, from preschoolers to youth who were incarcerated.

Some of the latter “were very bright individuals who just learned differently,” said Murphy, superintendent and curriculum director of Williamston Community Schools in central Michigan. “There hadn’t been meaningful processes in place to reach these students, so they became disconnected. They became ‘throw-aways’ of the traditional school system. It made me want to go back to K-12 to find better ways to reach non-traditional learners as early as possible.”

On a Saturday six years ago, Murphy joined fellow superintendents from twelve districts throughout the Ingham Intermediate School District service area to make a crucial decision for all students:   They agreed to pool $11.7 million of federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds to build a system that would help teachers meet students’ individual needs. With an initial goal of addressing barriers to early literacy, Ingham’s Multi-Tiered System of Supports, is based on statewide systems in Massachusetts and Florida.

“Each district could have gotten its share of the funding to use for its own purposes, but we instead saw this as an opportunity to all move forward together. We took the approach that we’re all accountable for all students’ success,” said former Ingham ISD Superintendent Stan Kogut, who recently retired after ten years. Ingham ISD’s new superintendent, Scott Koenigsknecht supports MTSS and continues to work with local districts on its implementation.

Serving a diverse student population in urban, suburban and rural settings – some affluent and some poor – the system has shown across-the-board progress. Since establishing MTSS, the participating districts’ overall percentage of 3rd graders proficient in reading has increased 10 percent, and low-income, minority and special education students have all shown significant gains. Students’ early boosts have continued as they’ve progressed toward middle school: The percentages of 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th graders proficient in reading all posted increases from 2009-2013, ranging from three to 15 percent.

“If students are not performing at grade level or if they’re slipping behind, this system lets us see specifically what they need to improve,” said Murphy. Through collaborative training opportunities, educators serving 44,000 students throughout the twelve districts are now “speaking the same language.”

“Just think of the power of all of those educators, working together, helping each other and building on the same structure from year to year,” she said.

Kogut agreed that building consensus and infrastructures, and implementing aligned training throughout the county’s districts have been key to the system’s success. Previously, professional development had often been akin to a “flavor of the month,” with narrow focuses that only helped small groups of educators in single districts for a time before dying out, he said.

Today, “teachers can walk into other teachers’ classrooms throughout our service area and see them doing some of the same practices,” and work together to “build everyone’s capacity for using different ways to teach,” said Kogut. “This is a long-term journey. When a student doesn’t succeed, we can’t just toss up our hands and say that it’s a teacher’s fault or a principal’s fault. Everyone is responsible.”

Students’ individual needs met early

Melissa Usiak saw a need for a system like MTSS when she was first hired by Holt Public Schools seven years ago. She’s currently the principal at Holt’s Sycamore Elementary, where about 60 percent of the school’s students are eligible for free or reduced rate lunches.

“We were desperate for a more effective core literacy curriculum as well as systems to collect data and intervene early. More and more of our students were coming from impoverished homes. Some children were entering kindergarten already a year or two behind classmates.” said Usiak, citing research that connects common by-products of poverty like poor nutrition and decreased exposures to text and vocabulary to low brain development.

A 13-year educator at Sycamore, Kathleen Kish provides extra academic support in reading and math to struggling Sycamore students as an academic interventionist, a position created through as part of the MTSS. Kish has seen striking changes since 2009.

“We were teaching everything in isolation, before. The big thing that happened with MTSS is that we started to look at how we teach. We looked at the data, started to use it to guide instruction, and we found that kids were way more capable than we thought,” said Kish.

“For example, I’m helping a student with a cognitive impairment this year. His IQ suggests that he shouldn’t be reading at high levels, but he’s on par with his age group. He’s getting a full hour of extra instruction, four days a week and that’s making the difference,” she said.

Waverly Public Schools teacher provided one-on-one literacy support. (Photo courtesy of Ingham Intermediate School District.)

Waverly Public Schools teacher provided one-on-one literacy support. (Photo courtesy of Ingham Intermediate School District)

Federal investment ‘kick-started’ the system

As early as 2007, leaders of school districts throughout Ingham County had agreed that a tiered system of support was needed to provide differentiated learning for students at all levels, but the federal ARRA investment really “kick started” the county-wide system in 2009, said Kogut. This investment allowed local districts to hire coaches and implement a “train the trainer” model to get all teachers on board without interrupting student learning.

Signed into law by President Obama in February that year, ARRA included a one-time investment of nearly $100 billion to save education jobs, support states and school districts, and advance reforms and improvements aimed at long-lasting progress for students. While states and school districts were required to advance the ARRA’s short-term economic goals by investing quickly, they also needed to support the law’s long-term goals by investing wisely in foundational activities and resources aimed at strengthening education.

“We would not be where we are today without the ARRA funding. The additional boost in funding and our previous work building partnerships with local districts helped us achieve significant results,” said Kogut.

At the same time, the ARRA investment in MTSS has given naysayers in other parts of the state a reason to discount Ingham’s enviable success as being “all about the money,” said Kimberly St. Martin, assistant director of programming for Michigan’s Integrated Behavior Learning Support Initiative, which is partially funded by a federal State Personnel Development Grant.

“What they may not understand is that those (ARRA) funds have been gone for a couple of years, but the system it helped create continues to support teachers to do what they’re doing and maintain momentum across the county,” she said.

Smart financial planning key to county-wide success

“Knowing that ARRA funds were going away, Ingham’s finance director, Helen McNamara, used data to create an individualized portfolio for each district that illustrated the money recouped through the federal investment. This helped to convince school districts that MTSS needed to be sustained, and to invest local funding as needed,” said St. Martin.

That wasn’t too difficult a sell for the Williamston School Board, according to 13-year board member Marci Scott. Williamston allocated existing dollars to redefine roles and fit the MTSS framework. They used consolidated grant and categorical funding totaling approximately $320,000, and general fund dollars of around $90,000 to train middle and high school MTSS coaches.

“Funding is always a challenge, but this one (investment) will stick, I think, because it’s clear that the return on investment is huge,” she said, pointing to decreased discipline issues as an early outcome of the system. “Every parent hopes his or her child will be treated as an individual. MTSS allows educators to meet children where they are.”

While it’s too early to gage the long-term impact this approach will have on students, Williamston superintendent Narda Murphy is hopeful that MTSS is helping at-risk students and non-traditional learners who used to routinely “fall through the cracks” stay engaged in school.

“Some kids need a little help and some kids need a lot. MTSS gives us opportunity to work within a framework to provide all students what they need. It allows us to be very tight on our focus, but loose in how it gets done,” she said.

Julie Ewart handles communications and outreach in ED’s Chicago Regional Office.