BRIDGEWATER, NJ - The final academic program evaluation for the 2019-2020 school year in the Bridgewater-Raritan Regional School District is in the books, and it has revealed a lack of consistency with the program among the different district schools.
Longtime district administrator David Matonis gave an overview of the Intervention kindergarten through 12 program at the May 28 board of education meeting.
The goal now is to unify intervention efforts for struggling learners across the district, across all of the 11 school buildings, Matonis said.
“Thank you for all the effort poured into your work, and your much-needed administrative experience,” said superintendent Russell Lazovick.
Lazovick added that Matonis, currently the supervisor of special programs for grades kindergarten through 12, is the district’s longest-tenured administrator. Lazovick also thanked assistant superintendent Karen Jones for her assistance.
“It was a year-long process to do the evaluation,” said Matonis, who in turn thanked Lazovick for the opportunity. “For me, it was the goal of nearly 30 years in education.”
Matonis explained that he became a teacher to help children, which led to him becoming a chairperson and then an administrator, and to now working with special student populations, which he called “a dream job.” He also said that his motivation to assist students has never wavered, and that his presentation that evening represented change.
Matonis said the current intervention program is school-based as opposed to district-based, which has resulted in a lack of consistency from building to building. The disparity also includes a lack of equitable service, and different action plans from school to school.
Matonis added that the desired intervention model, Intervention and Referral Services (I&RS), is divided into three separate tiers. The Tier I intervention is for general core classroom instruction, which encompasses about 80 percent of the students involved who function at or near their grade levels.
Tier II includes small group instruction, for about 15 percent of students who are somewhat behind their grade level, which results in two or three special sessions per week in addition to general core classroom instruction. Tier III includes 5 percent of the students, high-risk pupils who are significantly behind their grade levels, and, in addition to the aspects of the first two tiers, involves more intensive individualized instruction to one to three students, provided on a daily basis.
The Response to Intervention (RTI) is also school-based, with no equitable services at present, and also has a lack of structure and consistency. Matonis added that the RTI is designed to identify gaps in student skills in mathematics or language arts.
He added that intervention specialists are responsible for such tasks as collecting data, and also collaborating with classroom teachers.
Matonis said that current interventions not only vary by school, but can also differ within the same school. Current students in grades kindergarten through eight who have an IEP (individualized education plan) do not necessarily receive RTI, with few exceptions.
RTI services for English Language Learners (ELL) are also varied, and nearly all aspects of each program differ at each of the district’s 11 schools.
Surveys were developed to provide insight to intervention specialists, and to both current I&RS and RTI programs. The survey groups included students in grades three through four, and grades five through 12, plus parents and teachers in grades kindergarten through four and grades five through 12.
Matonis said there is usually one committee per school for both the I&RS and RTI programs.
Included in the presentation was a case study of a fictional elementary school student named “Stan,” and the problems he faced in his academic career. Those troubles ranged from not being able to comprehend what he reads, or an inability to remember math facts, all the way up to what would happen to “Stan” if he moved to another neighborhood in the district.
Matonis also explained that there are variations in the numbers of intervention students, plus the ratios of intervention specialists to students. During the 2018-2019 school year, for example, there were 33 students involved in Tier III intervention services in language arts at Adamsville Primary, but none at Milltown Primary.
“The case loads are very different, depending on the school,” Matonis said. “It impacts instruction.”
He said the data also reflects the fact that each school identifies students differently, and, as a result, even at the grade level bands or sections, the caseloads of intervention specialists are not equal. A tier chart was also created by the district, based upon one standardized criteria that is being used by the schools.
“We see both positive and negative numbers,” said Matonis.
He reiterated that there is significant inconsistency, between students who were identified, and students who could be identified by using more standard procedures. He also brought up an assessment called a universal screener, and said the district does not currently screen all of its students.
That absence resulted in a large population of students not being flagged or identified, especially at the elementary school level.
Matonis also said that, including those with IEPs, all students are eligible for intervention. The numbers of students identified would be higher with a universal screener in place, including various student demographics.
“We want to make sure we’re not profiling students,” cautioned Matonis. “A universal screener helps.”
Mathematics at the high school level is explained as a course-dependent exercise, with course placement defining the level of intervention required. There are also problems present, regarding both over-identification and under-identification of students, with the latter group sometimes “completely missing students.”
Matonis said that RTI, by its design, is built upon a theory of general release. A chart displayed that the number of students exiting intervention in the district had actually decreased from 2012-2013 through 2018-2019.
He also spoke of a multi-tiered system of support that utilizes an evidence-based framework, for all students.
That system combines I&RS and RTI, and also implements academic and behavioral supports and interventions. Its components include a positive school culture and climate; district and school leadership; and family and community engagement, which Matonis said is “so important, and frequently missed.”
The MTSS, or Multi-Tier System of Supports, is based on nine essential components, ranging from high-quality learning environments and universal screening, to progress monitoring and the aforementioned family/community engagement. The state’s Department of Education also recommends a multi-tiered system of support.
“It’s a fairly new initiative in the state,” said Matonis, who added that it had been previously viewed on site visits.
Goals for the future include implementing the MTSS as a district-based program that merges both I&RS and RTI; restructuring of the current staff model; restructuring and reallocating current kindergarten through 12 personnel as MTSS “coaches,” with intervention specialists assigned to Tier III students only; access to behaviorists and school psychologists; and implementation of universal screening and progress monitoring in grades kindergarten through 11.
The presentation ended with a look back at “Stan” and his inclusion within an MTSS program in the district, after being identified through a universal screener that ultimately designated him as eligible for Tier III MTSS services. It includes bi-weekly meetings with a counselor, a system for positive reinforcement, the use of parental input and homework assistance.
School board member Ann Marie Mead said she was “very, very concerned” by what she had seen, while member Barry Walker asked to see more detail regarding the intervention specialists and staffing model. Matonis replied that there are only intervention specialists now, without dedicated professionals for emotional and related assistance.
“We have 11 (different) systems going on,” said Jones, without consistent identification of Tier II and Tier III students, and choosing teachers to perform different roles.
Matonis added, in response to a question from member A.J. Joshi, that there is no universal screening process at present, and that different school districts in the state utilize different screenings.
“We definitely want to be sure we’re screening students as they enter the district,” he said.