Newly expanded learning intervention programs in area school districts could be a game changer for how educators can provide much-needed individual attention for young learners.

In 2006 and 2007, the South Dakota Department of Education began implementing its Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support (PBIS) and the Response to Intervention (RTI) initiative as part of the Multi-tiered System of Supports (MTSS).

The DOE said in an emailed statement that RTI focuses on academic intervention, while PBIS addresses behavioral intervention — both combine into MTSS’ mission to support students in all senses.

From MTSS, school districts began creating programs and hiring interventionists to increase success of struggling students. Using COVID-19 relief monies under the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund, local school districts were able to funnel more money toward students who needed extra attention.

The Platte-Geddes School District hired a reading interventionist in April, and uses the position to prevent students from falling behind in reading by lowering the staff to student ratio in classrooms.

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The board hired Kristi Allen, who works with students in kindergarten through third grade. She works in core reading groups in the mornings, and specializes with groups of five or six in the afternoons.

“Every kid learns at a different level regardless of grade. Being able to meet every learner exactly where they’re at instead of waiting until they are struggling helps us find the problems early and prevent the issues,” Allen said.

The RTI, in accordance with annual testing, helps place children into different categories based on their learning abilities. By creating an interventionist position, Platte-Geddes has an extra staff member to focus more attention on the children who are showing signs that they might fall behind.

“Me coming into here means that all of our groups are now smaller. The smaller the group, the more one on one individual help (students) can get,” Allen said. “That’s the ultimate goal. They need that individual attention.”

Just because a child works with an interventionist doesn’t necessarily mean they’re behind, Knecht noted.

"We know (all students) are going to benefit from that small class size, it’s not specific to our struggling learners,” Knecht said, adding that the program is more a prevention matter.

Josh Oltmanns, principal of Hanson Elementary School, said the Hanson School District uses their interventionist primarily to address ongoing issues with students falling behind in math and English and language arts.

A sign in the Hanson School District. (Republic file photo)
A sign in the Hanson School District. (Republic file photo)

The district has had an intervention program during summer school since before the pandemic, Oltmanns said, but after looking at last school year’s SmarterBalanced and STARS test scores, the school board approved a full-time hire for intervention during the school year.

“We found that the quarter we missed in the spring of 2020 had a huge effect on our students,” Oltmanns said.

The impact in Hanson was seen mostly among elementary students who had a much harder time adapting to the technology used under online learning — but Oltmanns said falling behind happens, and it won’t leave a mark on a student’s record.

“There’s always kids who are going to need some extra help, whether that’s for skills they're lacking or if they're not understanding their math concept for this week,” Oltmanns said. “Kids go in and out of it, it's designed to move kids in and out. We’re just hoping to help a wide range of learners.”

Teachers are always working on intervention, but by hiring a specialized interventionist, it takes a small load off of their shoulders, allowing them to avoid spending too much time on one student.

“To have a really good intervention program you need four or five adults in a classroom at a time,” Oltmanns said, “and that isn’t always realistic.”

Oltmanns, Knecht and Allen all agree that the value of an interventionist is great, but are left wondering about the long-term future of the program.

“It was an easy sell to the school board,” Oltmanns said, but noted that employing an interventionist down the road is “the $50,000 question.”

Knecht said she plans to fight hard to keep Allen after funding runs out, calling the intervention program a game changer.

“I hope that parents who are listening to their kids read realize how much they’re excelling in their reading, and that that comes from the individual attention they get,” Allen concluded. “I hope for the parents and the other teachers and principals to see how powerful the interventionist program is.”

ESSER monies that fund these programs are required by law to be spent by Sept. 30, 2024.