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Changing Their Trajectory: A Small Caribbean Territory’s Big Lessons on Early Intervention

By Brad Wilson
 | Jul 04, 2017

Cayman IslandsCatching young readers before they stumble is one of the most important actions literacy educators can take. As world-renowned educational expert Avis Glaze often says, “The children cannot wait!”

When it comes to learning to read, they certainly can’t.

Solid foundational reading skills are key to future success and prosperity, yet too many teachers around the world feel helpless as they watch small reading gaps among their students widen into long-term reading challenges. This is an unfortunate reality given what contemporary research says about the vital importance of early literacy interventions via frameworks such as Response to Intervention (RTI).

The good news is, no matter the position you hold in your current system, there are six professional attributes you can adopt that will allow you to begin the change process and move your school toward an effective implementation of a reading intervention framework.

With these attributes, the gears of change will begin to turn. As educators, we cannot wait for senior administrators to set the vision, nor can we sit by as readers struggle to gain access to the supports they require.

After two years of applying a new intervention program here in the Cayman Islands, the verdict is in: RTI frameworks and reading interventions are essential aspects of any high-performing school.

1. Vision

In 2012, the need for early reading intervention in the Cayman Islands was obvious, as too many capable students were missing small, basic early literacy skills. At the time, I was working with a few schools as a literacy coach for the Ministry of Education, which wasn’t a particularly influential role. I watched as the majority of teachers worked diligently to meet the varying needs of students in their classrooms, but it wasn’t enough to close the gaps. The system had diagnostic reading assessments and even some intervention resources, but they weren’t being used effectively, if at all.

We needed a vision if we were to see future success.

2. Research

Around the same time, educational psychologist Monty Larrew was advocating for the introduction of an RTI framework as a research-informed method of addressing the kinds of inefficiencies I’d been noticing. Through well-researched presentations and dialogue, Larrew began to advocate for an RTI approach, and after a few conversations, we decided to work together to implement an RTI pilot project that would use the research-based assessments and interventions we already had in place.

No new money, staff, or assessments; we were just looking to work smarter with what we already had.

3. Planning

A research-based vision was in place, and we knew we needed to get buy-in from teachers and administrators. We developed a sellable plan that required minimal new workloads with the opportunity for maximum results. We required the gathering of Developmental Reading Assessment data, the use of resources that were already in the system (namely Jolly Phonics and Leveled Literacy Intervention), regular progress monitoring using the formative assessment methods internal to the programs, a commitment to six- to eight-week data review meetings, and a minor restructuring of one assistant teacher’s timetable to allow the interventions to take place regularly.

We pitched the research-based plan and received permission to run a pilot in two kindergarten classrooms in two of our smallest schools. It was a major step forward.

4. Patience

There were challenges during the early days of the program, such as obtaining and maintaining participants’ fidelity to the intervention and its schedule and facilitating training around basic early literacy skills, but for the first time we had a dataset that showed increases in student achievement. We knew we needed to be resilient in the face of frustration and patient enough to let our plan take root.

5. Community

With positive results in hand, improving the breadth and depth of the interventions was vital, and we knew that expanding the framework across the system required a community effort. We needed administrators, literacy coaches, and special education teachers to take on key roles that would allow the expansion of programming and the implementation of a formal screening assessment like DIBELS. From two small schools, we grew the RTI framework to include all Cayman Islands Government schools across two-year grade spans and eventually involved dozens of staff members.

Developing a community beyond the system was also essential to RTI’s success. Private partners, including Rotary and local nonprofit Literacy Is For Everyone, donated thousands of dollars to purchase reading interventions based on the identified needs arising from system data. In addition to monetary support, our private partners also provided encouragement and accountability.

6. Resilience

What started as two professionals with an idea has grown into the successful implementation of five researched-informed reading interventions across two-year groups, teams working together to identify problems of practice, the inclusion of our special education experts in testing and support, and best of all, an upward trajectory in student achievement.

For example, after developing consistency of methods across the school system, incorporating 90 minutes of literacy teaching a day for Year 1 students and regular screening along with small-group and one-on-one intervention as necessary, 86% of Year 1 students in our public school system met the expected literacy level for their age group last school year, which was the first full year of our program. At one school, Edna Moyle Primary School, students achieved 100% proficiency.

The road is still being traveled and we still have challenges, but because of our team’s resilience, we have overcome major obstacles and are eager to tackle what’s to come.

The Cayman Islands is small, but it has big lessons to share. The six attributes discussed have been essential to the successful development of our RTI framework. No matter your role in education, the adoption of these attributes can start the change process within your system.

As Dr. Glaze says, “The children cannot wait!”

Brad Wilson is currently the literacy specialist with the Ministry of Education in the Cayman Islands. He also worked as a literacy coach in the Cayman Islands and started his educational career as a teacher in Canada.

This article first appeared in the March/April issue of Literacy Today, ILA’s member magazine.

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