These kindergarten students are receiving daily literacy intervention with Michelle Morrison, Red Cedar Elementary School’s MTSS coordinator and literacy interventionist. They are practicing learning their letters and sounds now, but eventually will become readers. Helena Williams

There is a lot of consternation over recent revelations that school test scores are alarmingly low – particularly post-COVID. It was an issue that the Beaufort County School District was addressing before the pandemic hit, and one that has received vigorous attention since schools reopened.

One of the steps the district is taking is implementing a Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS), a process that focuses on both academics and soft skills – or behavior – with a strong focus on intervention.

“Most educators realize that, when it comes to reading, for example, when somebody is struggling or behind grade levels, we’ve always been really good about meeting them where they are, providing interventions and strategies to kind of build them up,” said Derek Skaggs, director of student success. “But when it comes to behavior, we’ve definitely not used that process. We typically say, well, they should know what they should do, and we’ll punish them and send them home.”

In the past five to 10 years, South Carolina’s Department of Education has made the effort to move the focus of intervention to cover both academics and behavior.

“One of the biggest things that companies tell us is a lot of our students are missing some soft skills,” said Skaggs. “Not students just in Beaufort County, but nationwide. They’re missing soft skills such as time management, communication, and patience.”

Students also were not strong in other skills such as how to respectfully disagree, self-regulation or conflict resolution. 

“These are skills that they’re always going to need in life. Sending them back home every time is not the solution,” he added. 

Because MTSS covers both academic and behavior performance, it allows the schools to provide support for individual student needs that have a long-term impact on them rather than the quick fix of a behavioral consequence, said Karen McKenzie, director of Teaching and Learning, which is part of the instructional services department.

“Those quick fixes are still out there,” McKenzie said, “but we’re building citizens that are involved in their community in a positive way. They’re college and career ready in every aspect.”

Within the umbrella that covers both academics and behavior are three levels of intervention. Every student in every grade begins in tier one. It’s when they begin to show signs of struggling that the added attention of tier two begins.

“When they struggle, we can do a plan with a small group of kids who maybe are missing the same skill, and work very strategically with them,” McKenzie said. “If that kid still continues to struggle, we can move them to a tier three, and be more intensive on what that individual student needs.”

So, what does that look like in action? Kathleen Corley, principal of Red Cedar Elementary School, said, “Our motto is ‘Whatever it takes.’ Specifically, whatever it is that is the best use of a child’s time that we can manage to make happen in that portion of time.”

Using her drum rehearsals for the school band as an analogy, Corley said some of the students were getting a certain part and others were not, so she gathered the few that were having difficulty and told them to watch what she did, then do the same thing. 

“So, I’m just going to keep playing this part, and replay it over and over and over, and you do whatever you need to do to make that work. But we’re stuck. Now they’re doing weird things, because this one step is holding them up,” said Corley. “That’s a lot of what MTSS is about. ‘Oh, you don’t get that? Here. Let’s do that together. I’ll show you how to do it. I do, we do, you do, or we all do together. Now show a partner how to do it.’ So you’re making it ingrained. You’re trying to make that muscle memory.” 

There are three literacy interventionists and three ESL (English as a Second Language) teachers at Red Cedar. When a student begins to have difficulties, they are monitored for about six weeks, then moved to tier two interventions if they do not improve. If they continue to struggle, they go into tier three for more intensive instructional support. There are very few students in that situation at Red Cedar.

If a child is struggling with reading, and needs a tier two plan, the teacher might bring a few other students together who are also struggling and have them work together on reading skills. 

This group might work as a group for 30 to 40 minutes a day, McKenzie said. “They’re getting their regular language arts class, plus they’re getting this additional time. It’s personalizing it for what that individual student needs.”

Learning challenges also may be caused by health issues such as hearing or vision. No further kinds of tests are given until possible health causes are eliminated. 

While the academics are handled with small-group instruction or additional time with an intervention specialist, behavior issues are another condition impacting student success.

“The tiered system of support is just your basic classroom expectations and rules, routines and procedures that are stated in a positive way,” said Skaggs. “Working with every kid to try to model those behaviors, and trying to also help eliminate some of those other distractions within the classroom that could take away from learning.” 

When students attend the additional classes, they’re not missing out on free time or extracurricular activities.

“Typically, every student would be doing something. We try our best never to single kids out,” said Skaggs. “We have designated times, like at the Beaufort Middle School we just have Griffin time, where every kid goes somewhere and does something, whether it’s something that’s going to enrich their skills or something that helps catch them up on some skills.”

Corley said it is very difficult to keep everybody doing what they are supposed to be doing if their intent is not to do it, unless someone is sitting right next to them. The solution, she said, is to make a behavior plan.

“We’ll be watching a child who wants to leave the classroom. He ‘elopes,’ as they say, and we need to figure out why. We need to figure out if there’s any relationship to anything that’s going on environmentally,” she said. “It’s kind of like kids who show up at the nurse’s office when it’s math time. In the old days, (teachers would) just say you’re not going anywhere. You don’t have a cold, you don’t have to go to the nurse. You don’t even need a Band-Aid. Or they have to go to the bathroom and take too long. It’s either Johnny needs a urologist or there’s something else that’s going on.”

Skaggs said the district is making every effort to identify what the students need while not doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome.

“We’re doing everything we can to find new and innovative ways to help meet the needs of these students moving forward so they can be successful in life,” he said. “That’s what this is all about. We’re trying to help these students be successful community members.”

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.