In December 2007, Walled Lake Consolidated Schools in Michigan faced a dilemma: how to revise the 30-year-old pre-referral process that identified students for special education services. The old process—Student Staff Support Team (S3)—had become inconsistent with the district's commitment to use the depth of teacher knowledge and collaboration to identify ways to support student learning.
It seemed as though S3 had been built on two faulty assumptions:
- Students had to fail before teachers intervened.
- Special education teachers could whisk students away, fix them up, and send them back to regular classrooms.
S3 focused on identifying students after they had failed rather than emphasizing early intervention with students who needed more support.
Teachers wanted a front-loaded process that would allow them to intervene to improve every student's achievement and to do so in a way that was effective, meaningful, and manageable.
Walled Lake developed a new process that supports early discovery of struggling learners, consistent differentiated instruction, collegial planning of support strategies, and well-documented student progress. The Student Instructional Planning Process (SIPP) is more than good in theory; it is also good in practice.
One School's Journey
Carol-Lyn McKelvey, Clifford Smart Middle School assistant principal, discusses SIPP with visiting educators from a neighboring district.
During the 2008–2009 school year, educators at Clifford Smart Middle School, a middle class suburban school in Michigan with about 1,000 students, joined a district wide field trial of the new SIPP. Like many schools facing fundamental questions about reform, Smart's story is one of persistence and collegiality and is built on a vision of commitment to every student's success.
Teachers and staff at Smart Middle School follow these steps in the SIPP process:
- Identify a struggling student based on achievement data and/or classroom observation.
- Collect data, make phone contacts home, make instructional/environmental changes, and document everything.
- Fill out SIPP paperwork and submit to coordinator to be placed on next month's schedule if the student continues to struggle.
- Discuss student at SIPP meeting; create intervention plan and assign responsibilities.
- Implement the plan.
- Review student progress at next meeting; adapt plan as needed.
- Consider special education referral if a student has been in SIPP for at least three months and no progress has been noted.
The Smart staff is scheduled in grade-alike interdisciplinary teams, so teachers meet once a month during planning time to review potential, new, and previously referred students who were struggling with academics and in danger of falling further behind. The teacher consultant, the grade-level counselor, all the teachers on the team, the grade-level administrator, and the support teacher for reading or math participate in the meetings.
The group discusses relevant data, the student's schedule, possible interventions, and parent feedback. Responsibilities for follow-up are assigned and documented for each student. If a student is deemed in need of help, the whole teaching team completes the user-friendly and comprehensive referral form.
SIPP has proven to be effective at helping staff identify struggling students and target interventions that lead to positive results. Once identified, students remain in SIPP throughout their years at Smart Middle School.
The case of Jacob (not his real name) illustrates Smart's commitment to every student's success. Jacob was one of the first SIPP students. He moved into Smart Middle School as a seventh grader, attended school sporadically, and had failing grades in science, mathematics, English, and social studies.
The SIPP team reviewed Jacob's records and documentation from classroom teachers, including strategies already implemented, and determined that lack of homework completion and poor study skills were his main roadblocks to success.
The SIPP team created a set of interventions to address each identified problem area and assigned team members to implement and follow up. For example, Jacob was required to complete an assignment notebook detailing his homework. He shared the notebook with the counselor at the end of each day. In addition, Jacob's schedule was changed to include a study skills class and a teacher called Jacob's parent to secure permission for him to attend twice-weekly peer tutoring after school.
These interventions and specific ongoing guidance by a team of adults in the school proved to be a key in eliminating Jacob's pattern of failure.
Jacob has continued to receive regular attention from his eighth grade teachers and his case is reviewed regularly at SIPP meetings. His needs have required fewer detailed instructional planning discussions. Jacob is on his way to being well-prepared to succeed in high school next fall.
The amazing improvement in his English grade indicates Jacob has the ability to achieve at high levels; however, his class performance needs close monitoring to ensure he maintains his gains. Smart Middle School will share Jacob's SIPP information with his high school counselor so his transition to high school will be a smooth one.
SIPP for Success
Since SIPP has been in place at Smart, the results have been remarkable and very encouraging. Information about SIPP students passes transparently from one grade to the next. Teachers receive immediate collegial support to help them implement effective classroom instruction. Instructional interventions are created on demand and student-centered communication among staff members is flourishing.
SIPP helps general education teachers address difficult learning issues in the classroom. Students with true handicapping conditions are more likely to be referred and found eligible for special education support. Consequently, the special education referral process is more effective.
Kim, a SIPP group member, says, "[SIPP] requires us to document strategies, interventions, and perceptions that can be used for future reference. It makes us take a deeper look at students and brings the student to the attention of a wider audience than just the [grade level] team: specialists, consultants, counselors, administrators."
Students also report SIPP has made a difference for them. When asked if he ever thought he'd be able to say he was all caught up on his work, Billy, a former straight-E student, replied, "I never thought I'd want to." Billy is passing all of his classes, and has A's in English and social studies.
While Smart has made many gains in the first three years, more work remains to be done. The Smart staff must create a meaningful process for parent involvement. In addition, teachers will be involved in ongoing professional development to continue to build their skills and expand their repertoire of strategies to meet the needs of all learners in their classrooms.
Creating some practical structures and processes within a deepening understanding of theoretical models such as professional learning communities and Response to Intervention has enabled the Smart Middle School staff to better support struggling students. It's been a long journey. At times, it's been a difficult journey, but Smart Middle School now knows that what sounded good in theory is possible in practice.
Previously published in Middle Ground magazine, April 2010
Lora E. Stout is director of secondary instruction in Walled Lake, Michigan. E-mail: LoraStout@wlcsd.org
Carol-Lyn McKelvey is assistant principal at Clifford Smart Middle School in Walled Lake, Michigan, and chairs the SIPP team.
Susan Matz is director of elementary instruction in Walled Lake, Michigan.