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October 1, 2007
Vol. 65
No. 2

The Early Learning Success Initiative

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      For decades, educators have worked within a public school system that requires us to wait for students to develop severe learning problems before we declare them eligible for special education and finally offer significant learning support. Allowing students to struggle for years as they move toward eligibility is frustrating and wrong.
      In 1996–97, Northville Public Schools in Michigan started a pilot project at Silver Springs Elementary School that challenges the traditional system. The Early Learning Success Initiative was modeled after the instructional support team approach developed in Connecticut and Pennsylvania (Kovaleski, Tucker, & Stevens, 1996). This approach enabled teachers to request help as soon as they observed delays in a student's development of important literacy, numeracy, motor, or behavior skills. After three years, the pilot project was expanded to include all six Northville elementary schools.
      Each school developed an instructional support team, composed of general and special education personnel, which responded to teacher requests for help in determining the learning needs of at-risk students. Members of the instructional support team were trained to work with the classroom teacher to determine the student's instructional needs and to design intervention and monitoring plans. The student received in-class support whenever possible; out-of-class support for literacy, numeracy, and important motor skills was also available. The school developed a system of comprehensive informal assessment. The instructional support team carefully monitored each student for short-term and continuing success.
      As the program took root, the district significantly reduced the number of students who were referred to special education. In 1992–93, before implementing the program, Northville placed 10.2 percent of its students in special education, compared with 10.8 percent in Michigan as a whole. By 2006–07, the percentage had dropped to 5.3 percent in Northville while rising to 14.4 percent statewide. An analysis conducted in 2005 estimated district cost savings as a result of reduced special education placements at $7.26 million (Sornson, Frost, & Burns, 2005). These savings came primarily from reductions in the need for middle school and high school special education staff. Elementary special education staff positions were not reduced to the extent allowed by Michigan regulations as special education placements dropped; instead, special education teachers participated in instructional support teams.
      Other sites in Wayne County and throughout Michigan are now developing programs based on the Early Learning Success model. Essential components of the model include developing a classroom and school culture of empathy and respect, establishing a strong support team with the tools to respond to teacher requests for help, and using a simple system of progress monitoring (formative assessment) to ensure daily awareness of students' learning needs. The Early Learning Foundation has developed an Essential Skills Profile for tracking skills in kindergarten through 2nd grade, which serves as a model for districts to use or adapt to their individual needs.
      Waiting for a child to develop a significant discrepancy between potential and achievement—the failure model—is a discredited idea. The Early Learning Success Initiative offers an alternative approach in which students' skills are carefully monitored and classroom teachers can quickly receive support to help them understand and respond to the needs of at-risk students.

      Kovaleski, J. R., Tucker, J. A., & Stevens, L. J. (1996). Bridging special and regular education: The Pennsylvania initiative. Educational Leadership, 53(5), 44–47.

      Sornson, B., Frost, F., & Burns, M. (2005). Instructional support teams in Michigan. Communiqué, 33(5).

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