Bob Sonju, principal •
Fossil Ridge Intermediate School • St. George, Utah
It's Not Whether We Will Or Won't...We Must!
His name was Dylan, and he was definitely not a world-renowned educational expert. Dylan was not an educational author, researcher—not even a great student for that matter. But Dylan had a profound impact on our school and provided the impetus for change at Fossil Ridge Intermediate.
Dylan can be characterized as an unassuming, academically sub-par student with less than average support from home. He was a student who didn’t excel in classes and had exhausted the “study hall” option which did not seem to help him “catch up.” Experiencing similar frustration at home, Dylan’s young mother requested a meeting with all of his teachers and school counselor. Through teary eyes, this downtrodden parent pleaded with each professional in the meeting, “Please…help my son.” It was truly heart-wrenching and reminded us of the critical nature of our jobs.
Fast-forward six months from that emotional meeting. We had read the research and made the commitment. We weren’t going to stick our toe in the shallow end; we were diving headfirst into the deep end of the educational pool. Our school had undergone tremendous changes in our philosophies about teaching, learning, and intervention. It was now July and we were preparing to enter the new school year, armed with a modified bell structure, a pyramid of interventions, extended learning time for students who struggle in math, and a variety of reading interventions. We had utilized every extra minute of our school day for additional learning opportunities. We were ready.
But that night, it happened. At exactly 2:46 am, I felt like I was hit with a bolt of lightning. I sat straight up in bed in a cold sweat. “What are we doing?” I thought. We were taking everything that we were comfortable with, everything that made us a “good school” and we were about to change it…drastically! In my mind, I could hear the sound of revolt. This was going to be a monumental disaster!
After tossing and turning for the remainder of that restless night, I stumbled into the school and shared this bleary-eyed panic attack with one of the teachers who had been in the meeting with Dylan and his mother. After listening to me ranting about my insecurities about our proposed changes, this teacher looked me in the eye and said one of the most inspiring things I had heard in a school. “Bob,” she said, “If I could have had just a little more time with Dylan, he would have made it.” Measuring her words carefully, she continued, “It is not a matter of IF we will or won’t do this. We HAVE to. I simply can’t look at another student, another parent, and feel as helpless as I did during that meeting.”
Our resolve became stronger than ever and we never looked back. With renewed confidence and added resolve, we started the school year armed with an intervention structure that was both immediate and specific. Multiple sources of learning data (CRT’s, STAR Reading results, FRI Writing results, Math Level Indicator, teacher recommendations, common formative and summative assessments) were used to identify students’ needs. (If it shows some facet of a student’s learning, we are looking at it.) Through multiple indicators, students were identified for extended math time. Students who struggled with reading were assigned tiered interventions based on need and deficiency. Lunchtime learning opportunities were put in to place to provide additional learning time. These interventions weren’t optional; they were directed. Every two weeks, we monitor the progress of each student who has fallen below proficiency, evaluating his or her current intervention and recommend additional interventions as needed.
Believe me when I say that you are not going to slip through the cracks at Fossil Ridge! With over 25 proven interventions in our pyramid, we now have effective responses in place to ensure student learning. “Inspired” doesn’t begin to describe how we felt. At the heart of our interventions is a school-wide intervention, tri-weekly intervention for all students modeled after the work of Mike Mattos and Pioneer Middle School. Embedded in the school day, this school-wide intervention provides extra time for students to learn and teachers to re-teach. Students are grouped according to need in a given concept and not simply by failing a class. Students are not invited, but directed to attend a specific intervention with other students who are deficient in the same concept.
In harmony with our belief that all students can use extra learning time, students who do not require specific help get their choice of any open intervention they would like to attend. Adolescent students CHOOSING where they want to go to get extra learning is a wonderfully thrilling spectacle. Every student is academically engaged during this time…becoming better.
The changes in culture followed by the structural changes that have occurred at Fossil Ridge are nothing short of amazing. We are committed, passionate, and focused. This is reflected in the increase in CRT scores in ALL subject areas over the past three years. Increases of 7-15% in proficiency scores as well as significant increases in ALL subgroup proficiency scores tells us that we are making a difference.
The fundamentals of PLC are at the core of our improvement efforts. During the quiet months of the summer, I like to sit and reflect with some of our teachers on the positive changes that have occurred at Fossil Ridge over the past four years. During these reflective times, we often wonder what Dylan is doing now. Someday I would like to sit him down and thank him for what he has done for me, for our teachers, and for Fossil Ridge. And I’ll just bet that every student who has come after him would like to thank him too.