If you’ve ever heard your child talking about their own personal academic progress, a regular check-in with a teacher, or perhaps “following the group plan,” it’s likely just one of the many byproducts of Lakota’s increased focus on something called MTSS - otherwise known as Multi-Tiered Systems of Support.
“MTSS is the driver behind personalized learning,” said Lori Brown, Lakota’s director of student services. “It’s the work we do all day long to identify the social, behavioral and academic needs of our students and then respond accordingly. But without a system to organize that work and all the data informing it across all 23 of our schools, it’s inefficient and inequitable.”
From academic assessments and disciplinary trends to social emotional surveys and attendance data - just to name a few - Lakota collects a wide range of data points to help assess the individual needs of students and also identify trends. MTSS is basically what the district or a school does with that data - proactively or reactively - to respond to those needs.
“Basically, if a program or initiative supports the academic, social or behavioral needs of students, it’s part of our MTSS make-up,” Brown said.
Those programs are broken down into three tiers, based on whether they are designed to support all students (tier one), some students (tier two) or even fewer students (tier three). So, while Lakota’s implementation of the “PAX Good Behavior Game” in grades K-2 is considered a tier one behavioral support because it helps all students learn important self-management skills, a small group who meets regularly with the counselor to practice these strategies or therapy sessions through the school’s MindPeace partner would be considered second and third tier supports, respectively, through MTSS.
“With so many different systems and tools that we use to help do what’s best for our students, someone has to be controlling the pace and ramping programs up and down based on the moving target of what students need in a particular building at a particular time,” said Lakota’s Director of MTSS Deana Moss.
And so, in concert with the district’s strategic plan to intensify its K-12 MTSS efforts in support of a more personalized learning model for all students, Lakota took a big step forward this school year. In addition to Moss’s new position, an MTSS supervisor for each grade band is now dedicated to coordinating data-driven decision making across their schools. And while part of their job is to help create a shared system defined by common data points and best practices that have proven successful, part of their work is acknowledging that MTSS is never a one size fits all approach.
“The data will tell you about student needs, but it also informs priorities against the resources available,” Moss said. “And whatever the data points to, the priority and response is going to look different from one building to the next.”
Lakota West Freshman: A Case Study in Academic Support
At Lakota West Freshman, the team’s dive into its own MTSS work started with simply identifying a big problem and then tackling it head on last January.
A residual effect of the pandemic, one of the most concerning academic data points that West Freshman identified at the close of first semester last school year year was its failure rate. The team counted 341 total class failures, significantly more than the year prior. But one year later, their academic data tells a much different story - one of resilience, creativity and pure hard work.
“It was a big lift, boots on the ground type of work,” said West Freshman Associate Principal Scott Laman, sharing that the school’s failure rate dropped by 57 percent (or 195 less failed classes) exactly one year later - a figure even lower than the school’s pre-pandemic failure rate, in spite of increased enrollment. “It’s not easy or fun work, but your students reap the benefits in the end and it’s worth it,” Laman continued.
West Freshman Assistant Principal Taryn Barker equates their team’s approach to MTSS to a system of “checks and balances”. On one side of the scale, they are keeping a close watch on specific student data points, while making adjustments to the interventions they have in place to balance everything out.
When tackling the high failure rate, the West Freshman team first went into reactive mode, coming up with a plan to help affected students recover their credits. They also leveraged their daily advisory time and their teaching staff to coordinate individualized weekly grade check-ins with students who were struggling.
Proactively, they started preparing a new study skills course for the following school year as a targeted intervention that could have a positive impact across multiple classes. They analyzed academic data to help identify incoming freshman students who seemed to be struggling with executive functioning skills and might benefit from such a course. In the end, the failure rate of core classes for students enrolled in the new study skills course dropped from nearly 72 percent last year to 24 percent this year after first semester.
“A lot of our success comes down to more adults watching out for kids and more conversations with parents as partners in the process,” said Barker, reiterating that open and frequent parent communication at any sign of struggle has been critical to their success. “It comes down to giving them the support they need before they fail.”
“Data allows us to keep a closer eye on individual kids, identify interventions earlier and really allow more adults to be intentional about helping them,” Laman said.
The building leaders acknowledge that they have been hyper-focused on the academic pillar of MTSS so far, but have high hopes of using the same process to tackle their highest behavioral and social/emotional needs moving forward. This includes combatting discipline problems just as much as it does building out incentive-based programs that reward good behavior, for example.
“With the systems you put in place through MTSS, you can easily identify student needs and that’s what’s cool about what’s happening at West Freshman,” said MTSS 9-12 Supervisor Kate Joseph, who has been working alongside the West Freshman team every step of the way. “They started with a single academic issue, but they can expand it out to identify different needs and impact even more students.”
“We all talk about individual needs of students,” Joseph continued. “MTSS is what’s truly allowing us to meet Lakota’s vision for personalized learning.”