Elementary schools in Willmar, Minn., try new system to heighten instruction

WILLMAR -- First-graders work in small groups to match words with pictures and recognize similarities and differences between words. Fifth-graders in different groups read aloud or write about accomplishments.

New system
Interventionist Melissa Mangen, center, uses words, small pictures and flash cards to work with Shelby Reed, left, and Bella Gutierrez in Carol Gustafson's first-grade class at Kennedy Elementary School. Tribune photo by Linda Vanderwerf

WILLMAR -- First-graders work in small groups to match words with pictures and recognize similarities and differences between words. Fifth-graders in different groups read aloud or write about accomplishments.

Even in places where three groups work in the same classroom, the noise level is tightly controlled, and students follow along intently.

When it's RTI time in Willmar's elementary schools, everybody goes to work. Response to Intervention is a method of tailoring instruction by splitting classes into small groups for short periods of intense daily instruction.

So far, Willmar School District leaders feel the interventions are helping kids. Test scores later this year will tell the full story.

Students often ask when it's time for RTI, said Cheryl Nash, Director of Teaching and Learning for the district.


Carrie Thomas, continuous improvement specialist for Kennedy, said the teachers appreciate the RTI sessions as well.

"They feel their students' needs are being met," she said, and for some of them, it's their favorite part of the day.

The Minnesota Department of Education website lists Response to Intervention as a "best practice" for school districts.

It can be used with all students, whether they are working at, below or above their grade level. The department believes the program can lead to improved student performance.

Willmar's two elementary schools are looking for ways to improve.

State measures of school performance released last spring identified problems with achievement gaps and other issues. The schools had been making progress toward state goals in the old system, but the new system looks at standardized test scores in a different way.

Both schools developed school improvement plans over the summer, a state requirement. The plans went into effect when school started in September.

Kennedy, the lower-ranked of the two schools, received a $500,000 federal School Improvement Grant for this school year to implement its plan. The district used local funding to develop similar programs at Roosevelt.


Response to Intervention is a focal point of the program, using Title I teachers and paraprofessionals called interventionists to work with small groups of students. For now, most of the work is in reading, but other subjects may be included as the school year goes on, said Nash.

Other signature efforts have been hiring cultural liaisons to help the school district communicate with minority communities and having administrators observe classrooms more frequently.

Seven interventionists work at each school. They work three-hour days, moving from one grade level to another every 25 minutes.

"These interventionists are outstanding," Nash said.

"We told them they needed to be very efficient, and they are," Thomas said. When one session is over, classroom doors open and the interventionists are on the move. Carrying their materials in tote bags or carts, they head off to the next grade and classroom.

Most of the interventionists are people from the Willmar community who were hired last summer. "The people from the community that came forward, they were doing it because they want to make a difference," Nash said.

In the first month of the school year, every student in the two schools, nearly 1,900 kids in grades K-5, was screened in reading and math and placed in an original group.

Nash described the groups as "fluid and flexible." Teachers assess progress each Friday. Groups can be shuffled periodically as children progress or as teachers find new areas that need to be addressed.


The Middle School and Senior High School are interested in the concept and how it might work in their buildings, too, she said.

Kennedy Principal Todd Goggleye, in his first year at Kennedy, said he believes the turnaround efforts are off to a good start. He has worked with RTI and with school improvement plans in the past.

"For me, it will be exciting to see the growth at the end of the year," he said.

"I have to give credit to the teachers," he added. "We've really set the tone that this is going to be a climate for learning."

The groups make it possible to identify students who are struggling and address issues immediately, he said.

The staff has frequent meetings to share ideas for what works and doesn't work so well in their classrooms. Administrators also meet frequently to compare notes.

Goggleye thinks the new focus on RTI has improved behavior, too. "We just don't have kids acting out."

In 42 years in the newspaper industry, Linda Vanderwerf has worked at several daily newspapers in Minnesota, including the Mesabi Daily News, now called the Mesabi Tribune in Virginia. Previously, she worked for the Las Cruces Sun-News in New Mexico and the Rapid City Journal in the Black Hills of South Dakota. She has been a reporter at the West Central Tribune for nearly 27 years.

Vanderwerf can be reached at email: or phone 320-214-4340
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